11 February 2024
Since the start of February 2024, New Zealand has taken the first step towards banning the use of “forever chemicals” in cosmetics products by 2028. While New Zealand may be the first country to ban these chemicals (PFAS) in cosmetics, some states in the USA have already banned PFAS in cosmetics. California was the first state to ban all PFAS in cosmetics in 2022. Other countries, like Denmark, have followed suit by banning the use of PFAS in other product categories.
Here’s a review of the chemistry of “forever chemicals” and what it means for you.
Commonly referred to as “forever chemicals”, PFAS (short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a class of over 8000 compounds that are resistant and long lasting1. The name “forever chemicals” was first coined in 2018 by Joseph Allen, a public health expert, in an op-ed in the Washington Times2. Besides the longevity of these compounds as implied by its name; “forever chemicals’ is a word play on the molecular bond in the chemistry of these compounds. PFA molecules have bonds between fluorine and carbon atoms; and these fluorine-carbon bonds are very resilient. This bond between the fluorine and carbon atoms is commonly called a carbon-fluoride bond. Allen reversed the name to “fluorine-carbon bond” in his famous op-ed; with the abbreviation of F-C a reference to its Forever Chemical property.
PFAS are a diverse group of synthetic chemicals that have been around since the 1930’s2. The strong carbon–fluoride bonds confer high thermal and chemical stability to PFAs, making them resistant to environmental and metabolic degradation1. The longevity of PFAS makes them one of the most environmentally persistent substances among chemicals, i.e. forever chemicals1. One concern surrounding PFAS is their accumulation in the environment and in our bodies over time.
PFAS are widely used in thousands of household products because of their stain- and water-resistant properties4. They can be found in fabrics and carpeting, cleaning products, paints, and fire-fighting foams4. Some types of PFAS are also used in cooking equipment, food packaging, and food processing equipment4.
In cosmetics, certain PFAS are intentionally added to beauty products to enhance their application and resistance5. PFAs in skincare give a smoother finish and spreadable and improve water resistance6. Examples of beauty products that may contain PFAS include lipsticks, eyeshadows, moisturisers, rouges, nail polish and enamel, blushers, and cleansers5,6. PFAS can also be found in cosmetics unintentionally due to contamination from raw material impurities5.
Some common examples of PFAs are in cosmetics include perfluorohexylethyl triethoxysilane, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), tetradecyl aminobutyroylvalylaminobutyric urea trifluoroacetate, trifluoropropyl cyclotetrasiloxane, and trifluoropropyl cyclopentasiloxane5.
One of the key issues in this movement to ban PFAS is whether PFAS (in cosmetics or in general) are harmful to humans. According to New Zealand’s EPA, the agency that is rolling out the FPA ban in cosmetics, “While many PFAS may not be known to have health impacts, the fact they are persistent and can accumulate in our bodies means more information is needed”6.
Recent studies suggest that exposure to PFAS is associated with adverse health impacts7,8. These side effects include infertility, endocrine dysfunction, impaired liver and kidney functions, atherosclerosis and possible breast cancer. However, the exact cause-and-effect relationships for many of these outcomes were undetermined7,8. Another limitation with these studies is that the findings were based on animal models and humans. Extrapolating data from animal to human studies is complicated due to differences in pharmacokinetics and exposure7,8.
Studies on PFAS in humans as well as human tissues are rare; as it would be unethical to perform toxicological studies on humans (other than tests on blood, breast milk and urine). Secondly, there are thousands of PFAS compounds; and this makes it hard to test for every single PFA. Our understanding of the science and pharmacology of PFAS is still developing.
New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) announced its ban of PFAs in cosmetics on January 30, 2024. Potential health and environmental risks are the the two reasons cited by EPA for the ban of PFAs in New Zealand6.
As PFAS are resilient against destruction, they can accumulate in air, water and soil and eventually in our bodies. New Zealand’s EPA has rolled out this precautionary ban of PFAS in cosmetics as part of a wider plan to protect its citizens and environment from potential risks of PFAS. Some other measures that are being employed by New Zealand’s EPA include testing of environmental levels of PFAS, and phasing out PFAS in firefighting foams6.
Although New Zealand has banned PFAS in cosmetics, it has stopped short of calling PFAS dangerous or toxic. The ban is a precautionary move by the EPA in view of the possible side effects caused by PFAS. There is no explicit data or research to show that PFAS in makeup products causes diseases in humans at this point.
A study in Ireland that looked at selected types of PFAS found the main exposure route to be diet9. Another study on Norwegian women and children also found that the main source of exposure was diet10.
The contribution of exposure to PFAS through cosmetics is less clear. PFAS may be intentionally added to cosmetics to enhance their finish on skin and hair; or they may be present as contaminants. Studies on PFAS in cosmetics are harder to locate; and studies on dermal absorption of PFAS in cosmetics are even rarer. One risk assessment on PFAS in cosmetics by Denmark’s EPA focusing on 5 types of PFAS determined that the PFAS levels in individual products were unlikely to pose a health risk for consumers8. However, this study is limited in many ways. There are thousands of types of PFAS in a wide variety of cosmetics; and exposure risks can vary for different groups of people and this makes it hard to extrapolate based on data from limited studies.
• From December 31, 2026: cosmetic products containing PFAS will be banned in New Zealand; regardless of whether these products are manufactured in or imported into the country.
• By December 31, 2027: cosmetic products that contain PFAS can no longer be sold or distributed in New Zealand
• From June 30, 2028: all cosmetic products containing PFAS must be disposed of.
New Zealand’s ban of PFAS in cosmetics may start a precedent for the elimination of PFAS in cosmetics. Although research into the effects of PFAS on health is still in an early stage and the findings do suggest a categorical link between PFAS in cosmetics and adverse health events yet, more information is required for a complete understanding. However, research into PFAS is challenging in many aspects- there are thousands of PFAS for one.
Does this mean that PFAS in cosmetics are dangerous? Should you discard your beauty products that contain PFAS? The significance of PFAS exposure through cosmetics is also unclear currently. Combing through the ingredient lists of your beauty products to sift out PFAS will be a challenging task- there are thousands of PFAS available; and some PFAS may be unintentionally present in the product as a result of contamination. Avoiding PFAS categorically is not going to be easy.
1. The high persistence of PFAS is sufficient for their management as a chemical class. Cousins et al. Environ. Sci.-Process. Impacts. 2020;22:2307–2312.
2. Opinion These toxic chemicals are everywhere — even in your body. And they won’t ever go away. Joseph G. Allen January 2, 2018 at 3:18 p.m. EST
3. SEPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) EPA PFAS Action Plan: Program Update. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2020-01/documents/pfas_action_plan_feb2020.pdf
4. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). US FDA. https://www.fda.gov/food/environmental-contaminants-food/and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas
5. Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Cosmetics. US FDA. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas-cosmetics
6. EPA bans ‘forever chemicals’ in cosmetic products. NZ EPA. https://www.epa.govt.nz/news-and-alerts/latest-news/epa-bans-forever-chemicals-in-cosmetic-products/#:~:text=PFAS%20are%20sometimes%20used%20in,durable%2C%20spreadable%20and%20water%20resistant.
7. Health-related toxicity of emerging per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances: Comparison to legacy PFOS and PFOA. Espartero et al. Environ Res. 2022 Sep;212(Pt C):113431.
8. Risk assessment of fluorinated substances in cosmetic products. Survey of chemical substances in consumer products No. 169. Ministry of Environment and Food Denmark. 2018.
9. Concentrations of perfluoroalkyl substances in human milk from Ireland: Implications for adult and nursing infant exposure. Abdallah et al. Chemosphere. 2020 May:246:125724.
10. Characterisation of human exposure pathways to perfluorinated compounds–comparing exposure estimates with biomarkers of exposure. Haug et al. Environ Int. 2011 May;37(4):687-93.