Many cosmetics come with promises to make us look “forever young.” But there are some suggestions that many contain “forever” chemicals that may actually interfere with our efforts to prevent aging. In this case, “forever” refers to the environmental persistence of the polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) found in a number of cosmetics that come with some toxicological baggage.
At issue is a recent study published in “Environmental Science and Technology Letters” that found many cosmetic products contained PFAS without any declaration on the label. The study was certainly well done and we can assume that the data are reliable. What it all means is hard to say. As I like to note, the presence of a chemical cannot be equated to the presence of risk. And risk is not the same as hazard.
Hazard is the innate ability of a substance to cause harm at some dose in some living species. “Risk” is a measure of possible harm to people at a certain level of exposure. It is a function of hazard, but also takes into account extent and type of exposure as well as species and individual susceptibility. Acrylamide, for example, is certainly a hazard since it can be shown to cause cancer in test animals. However, its presence in coffee is not a problem because the dose is way too small to cause harm.
There is no question that some of the close to 5000 PFAS that are listed in Chemical Abstracts are hazardous. Furthermore, many of these can be found in most everyone’s bloodstream because their use is ubiquitous. Although found in cosmetics, they are used in far greater amounts in food packaging, water-resistant clothing, stain-free carpeting, wire insulation, furniture fabrics, computer chips, wind turbines, medical equipment and fire-fighting foams. What isn’t known, is the threshold level in the bloodstream at which point theoretical hazard becomes practical to risk. In people, any risk that has been documented has been either through occupational exposure or environmental exposure in the surroundings of manufacturing plants where these chemicals are produced.
It is easy to see why these fluorinated compounds are used in cosmetics. They make products “wear resistant” and “long-lasting” since they form thin films readily and repel water. These properties are especially useful in lipsticks, mascara and foundation creams. As the current study indicates, roughly half the products tested had some PFAS, with very few declaring this on the label. Whether their presence in the product translates to presence in the bloodstream is not known. That would be key information. Do heavy users of cosmetics have higher levels of PFAS in their blood? And even more critically, are consumers with higher levels more likely to suffer ill health? In the absence of such data it is impossible to say if the presence of PFAS in cosmetics, mostly found at very low levels, is a problem. And the levels are very low! The median is about 1 millionth of a gram per gram of product. It is hard to imagine that this would result in a meaningful level in the blood.
To further add to the confusion, there is great diversity in molecular structure when it comes to PFAS. They certainly do not all pose the same hazard. The number of carbons in the basic skeleton matters, as does the functional group at the end of the carbon chain. Longer chains are more environmentally persistent, and a carboxylic acid group in the molecule is associated with greater toxicity than an alcohol grouping.
Although to what extent public health is compromised by exposure to PFAS in the environment is unclear, we can certainly assume that there is no harm in reducing exposure. Some uses, like in implantable medical devices, are essential, but inclusion in cosmetics is not. Obviously, cosmetics can be produced without PFAS since they were not found in all products. Many companies have already pledged to eliminate their use. This will also mean fewer of these compounds ending up in landfills and water systems and therefore less exposure for everyone. At the very least, any PFAS that is added to cosmetics on purpose should be listed on the label, something that is not the case now. Consumers have a right to know what is in the products they purchase.
There is no blazing inferno when it comes to these environmentally persistent “forever” chemicals, but given what we know about their hazards in terms of carcinogenicity, thyroid effects, reproduction problems and endocrine disruption, there likely are some smouldering logs that may burst into flame if they are not extinguished.