Study Details "Widespread" Use of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in North American Cosmetic Products

A study assessing levels of flourine in cosmetic products available in the US and Canada suggests many of these products could contain levels of chemicals that, over time, could cause harm.

A recent study from the University of Notre Dame found a high percentage of cosmetic products available in the United States and Canada could contain high levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

An analysis of more than 200 cosmetic products, including foundations, eye and eyebrow products, and various lip products, results indicate nearly 50% or more of these products likely contained a high level of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) based on the presence of high levels of fluorine within the products.

“These results are particularly concerning when you consider the risk of exposure to the consumer combined with the size and scale of a multibillion-dollar industry that provides these products to millions of consumers daily,” said study lead investigator Graham Peaslee, PhD, a Professor of Physics at Notre Dame, in a statement. “There’s the individual risk—these are products that are applied around the eyes and mouth with the potential for absorption through the skin or at the tear duct, as well as possible inhalation or ingestion. PFAS is a persistent chemical—when it gets into the bloodstream, it stays there and accumulates. There’s also the additional risk of environmental contamination associated with the manufacture and disposal of these products, which could affect many more people.”

With an increased emphasis on the impact of environmental factors on health, presence and use of PFAS in products has been thrust into the spotlight in recent years. Linked to increased risk of nephrotic conditions, thyroid disorders, low birth weight in children, and other conditions, identifying avenues of exposure to PFAS could help improve care for multiple patient populations.

With this in mind, Peaslee and a team of colleagues designed the current study to assess total fluorine levels in 231 cosmetic products purchased in the US and Canada using particle-induced gamma-ray emission spectroscopy (PIGE). Products used in the study from the US were purchased from retailers in Indiana and Michigan including Ulta Beauty, Sephora, Target, and Bed Bath and Beyond from 2016-2020. Products used in the study from Canada were purchased online from Sephora and Shoppers Drug Mart in Toronto in 2020.

For the purpose of analysis, investigators divided the products purchased into 8 categories: lip products, eye products, foundations, face products, mascaras, concealers, eyebrow products, and miscellaneous products. All samples were applied to the surface of a fluorine-free filter rapper or standard fluorine-free copier paper for PIGE analyses.

Upon analysis, results indicated foundations, mascaras, and lip products had the greatest proportion of products with high total fluorine, which was defined as 0.384 μg F/cm2 or more. Investigators pointed out high fluorine levels were observed in products commonly advertised as “wear-resistant” or “long-lasting”.

Additionally, investigators noted the high concentrations of fluorine suggested a possible link to use of fluorinated ingredients in the manufacturing process for foundations, mascaras, and lip products. Spurred by this, a total of 29 products, including 20 with high total fluorine concentrations, were assessed in targeted analyses using liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) and gas chromatographic mass spectrometry (GC-MS).

In these analyses, PFAS concentrations ranged from 22-10,500 ng/g product weight, with a mean and median of 264 and 1050 ng/g product weights, respectively. Investigators also noted 6:2 and 8:2 fluorotelomer compounds were most commonly detected.

Investigators went on to highlight an analysis of ingredient lists suggested most products tested did not disclose the presence of fluorinated compounds, which they point out underscores the need for reform and regulation of these products in an effort to prevent harm.

“This is a red flag,” Peaslee said. “Our measurements indicate widespread use of PFAS in these products — but it’s important to note that the full extent of use of fluorinated chemicals in cosmetics is hard to estimate due to lack of strict labeling requirements in both countries.”

This study, “Fluorinated Compounds in North American Cosmetics,” was published in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology Letters.