PFAS are found in everyday products from makeup to food packaging and may increase cancer risk, but the U.S. has fallen short when it comes to protecting consumers from these “forever chemicals.”
Did you know the same chemicals that keep pizza boxes from getting soggy while toting your dinner from the restaurant to your front door may be the very same chemicals that allow your favorite face foundation to glide so smoothly across your skin? Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively referred to as PFAS, are these synthetic chemicals, used in manufacturing a wide array of consumer and industrial products, like fire-fighting foams, non-stick cookware, personal care products (including makeup) and more. These chemicals were made popular by their efficiency in repelling water, heat and grease, but exposure to PFAS has been linked to a multitude of serious illnesses, including cancer.
These man-made substances are often referred to as “forever chemicals”—a colloquialism signaling that these chemicals do not break down, but accumulate in the body and the environment. The same qualities that help makeup glide more smoothly on the skin and stay put on the face from morning until evening are what make PFAS chemicals resistant to degradation, leading to the accumulation.
“The human body metabolizes most chemicals into different particles so they can be more easily eliminated in the urine or stool, or even be eliminated through the sweat glands,” says Dr. Beverly Goode-Kanawati, a board-certified family practitioner.
But PFAS chemicals are not metabolized at all. “In other words, the body is unable to break them down into parts,” she says. “It can take anywhere, depending on the type of PFAS chemical, from several days up to over 15 years for the body to eliminate them.”
PFAS chemicals have been in use since the 1940s, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that reports were first published indicating PFAS exposure can cause a host of negative health effects. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) published a timeline chronicling the history of PFAS in the U.S., indicating that the first scientific study related to PFAS occurred in 1950. This initial study revealed that PFAS accumulates in blood, but at the time, not much was explained beyond that.
A decade later, in 1962, the first human study found that volunteers who smoked PFAS-laced cigarettes came down with “polymer fume fever,” which causes flu-like symptoms and acute lung injury. Various studies in the decades following revealed that PFAS negatively affect internal organs, including the liver, lungs and kidneys, and a 1981 animal study found that PFAS will damage a developing fetus. Cancer was first linked to PFAS exposure a few years after that, in 1989, with a 3M study that found elevated cancer rates among PFAS workers.
In 2021, it is well-known that PFAS chemicals are the culprit of a wide range of life-altering diseases and other health effects such as liver damage, thyroid disease, cancer and infertility.
According to Goode-Kanawati, at least 12 PFAS chemicals have been studied. “Since these chemicals create oxidative stress, which is a contributor to cancer formation and are known immunosuppressive agents, the risk for cancer overall is increased,” she says. The immune system is responsible for eliminating cancer cells in the early stages of disease, and if the immune system is compromised, the body may not be able to recognize and go after cancer cells, Goode-Kanawati adds.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), an offshoot of the Center for Disease Control, there is evidence that PFAS exposure may reduce infectious disease resistance, though more research is needed to better understand this link. The PFAS page on the ATSDR’s website was last updated in June 2020, and says: “At this time, scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposure to mixtures of different PFAS.”
Goode-Kanawati also says PFAS exposure leads to an increased risk of testicular and kidney cancers, with newer studies showing increases in non-Hodgkin lymphoma as well as ovarian and pancreatic cancers. “Some studies also show an increased risk of breast cancer, and if there is a family history of prostate cancer, there is an increased risk of prostate cancer,” Goode-Kanawati says.
Due to these myriad health effects, eight chemical manufacturers agreed to stop making two of the more ubiquitous PFAS chemicals in 2015, according to a New York Times article. Their replacement has a different chemical structure, but they also accumulate in people’s blood, and “may prove just as toxic,” the article states.
One of these replacement chemicals is called GenX, which was marketed as easier to break down in the environment as it has six carbon molecules instead of eight, according to Goode-Kanawati. “These chemicals have now also been found extensively in air, food and water in different areas of the world and the U.S.A.,” she says. Unfortunately, there has been very little research on the health effects of these new chemicals.
Despite the public becoming increasingly aware, “forever chemicals” are still being used today around the world. Though many countries—including Australia and New Zealand—have restricted the use of PFAS chemicals in recent years, they are far from being banned outright.
In late 2019, Denmark banned the use of PFAS chemicals in food packaging, becoming the first country to do so. Many other European nations are following suit. In October 2020, the European Union (EU) published a strategic outline with an aim to “boost innovation for safe and sustainable chemicals” while protecting its citizens and the environment. It’s a significant step in eliminating PFAS from European society and their environment entirely.
It’s no surprise that the U.S. has fallen short of cosmetics-related safety standards—a subject that frequently shows up in the pages of Cancer Wellness. The EU has banned or restricted the use of more than 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics and personal-care products, versus the approximately 11 banned by the U.S. under the same parameters.
Fortunately, things may soon be changing. This past June, U.S. Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced to Congress the “No PFAS in Cosmetics Act.” The revolutionary act would ban cosmetics products from including PFAS chemicals as an ingredient (whether or not the old formula listed a PFAS as an ingredient on the packaging), affecting products such as makeup, moisturizer and perfume.
The Act’s announcement followed the release of an alarming new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters (ES&T Letters). The study surveyed 231 makeup products from well-known brands in the U.S. and Canada, of which 52 percent were found to have high levels of a marker for PFAS substances. In an email exchange with her press team, Collins spoke about the imperative to mitigate PFAS exposure through daily use of personal care products: “Americans should be able to trust that the products they are applying to their hair or skin are safe. To help protect people from further exposure to PFAS, our bill would require the FDA to ban the addition of PFAS to cosmetics products.”
In the ES&T Letters study, the most offending makeup products were foundations, waterproof mascara and lipsticks marketed as “long lasting.” Similar to how PFOA, the chemical once used in Teflon cookware, allows the smooth transfer of a fried egg from pan to plate, PFAS chemicals are used in makeup products to make their application smooth and long lasting.
What’s worse—according to CNN Health, “The study found some 88 percent of the tested products failed to disclose on their labels any ingredients that would explain those chemical markers, even though that is a requirement of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”
It’s difficult to avoid PFAS exposure without proper legislation and governmental oversight, but Goode-Kanawati describes simple methods for the average consumer to limit their contact with these dangerous chemicals. “It is important to obtain a water filter that can remove these chemicals, especially for drinking water, though they can be absorbed through the skin even with showering.” She also recommends an air filter, especially in bedrooms or other rooms that see a lot of activity, as PFAS chemicals are also airborne. And until the U.S. follows in the steps of Denmark, where PFAS chemicals are outlawed in food packaging, it’s best to stay away from preheated packaged foods, like microwave popcorn.
The “No PFAS in Cosmetics Act” is a step in the right direction to reduce the negative health effects of PFAS exposure for the American people, but until we can guarantee consumer products are free of these particular types of carcinogens, our advice might sound familiar: do your research, read your labels, be wary of misleading marketing and keep a cool head by recognizing that in following these steps, you’re doing your best to keep you and your family safe.