What Are “Forever Chemicals” (PFAS)? Plus 4 Tips To Reduce Your Exposure
“Forever Chemicals” have made recent news in the context of cosmetics due to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology, in which various products were tested for the presence of PFAS. Significant levels were found in many cosmetics, some which were not even listed on the product label. Bipartisan legislation was introduced last month hoping to stop the use of these chemicals, requiring the FDA to ban their intentional use.
WHAT ARE THEY? AND WHY ARE THEY IN COSMETICS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “Forever Chemicals”, are a class of thousands of compounds that are widely used in many industries due to their water repelling properties. They are called forever chemicals since, once released into the environment, they do not easily break down and essentially last forever. They are now, unfortunately, part of our daily lives and according to the CDC, “most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood”. In cosmetics, these compounds are intentionally added to help achieve specific qualities or textures. The highest concentrations tend to be in long-lasting and waterproof products, such as mascara, lipsticks, lip liners, etc.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Long-term exposure to PFAS chemicals is potentially linked to numerous health issues. Per the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry / Centers for Disease Control, “A large number of studies have examined possible relationships between levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in blood and harmful health effects in people…Research involving humans suggests that high levels of certain PFAS may lead to the following: increased cholesterol, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure, decreased birth weight, and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.”
HOW TO REDUCE EXPOSURE?
Start by reading your labels! Cosmetic products that intentionally use PFAS compounds should have the words “perfluoro - ”, “polyfluor - ” or “PTFE” (polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as Teflon) listed on the product label. Sometimes the compounds may not be listed if they occur as a byproduct of the ingredients, but reading labels is a great place to start.
However, in order to significantly reduce your exposure, you’ll have to step back and look beyond the use of cosmetics. The issues surrounding “Forever Chemicals” are widespread -- be on the lookout for consumer products that have oil or water repelling properties (non-stick cookware, food packaging, coated fabrics, etc.) and find suitable alternatives whenever possible.
It's now obvious that these chemicals are used in many industries, which leads to environmental contamination as a result of product manufacturing, use, and disposal. Drinking water near certain military sites and manufacturing facilities tends to be heavily contaminated. PFAS contamination is usually not part of the regular monitoring for water quality, at least it wasn’t in our area back when I inquired about it in 2018, but I was able to obtain values after emailing the local water department directly. I was told they were not on the water report because they are currently unregulated but being assessed as “contaminants of concern”. If levels are not listed on your water report, contact your local water department for information. If your water tested positive, or if you are near a potential source of PFAS contamination, look into a good reverse osmosis filter (tap, whole house, or countertop). Keep in mind that PFAS levels are measured in parts per trillion (ppt), not parts per billion (ppb), or parts per million (ppm) so make sure you convert accordingly. While a standard is currently not in place for safe levels, according to the EPA, drinking water should be < 70 ppt. According to the EWG, < 1 ppt. See links below.
For cosmetics and other personal care products, stay away from the ones that mention “perfluoro - ”, “polyfluor - ” or “PTFE” on the label. You should be able to easily find comparable products without these compounds.
Replace your non-stick pans with stainless steel or cast iron. They do require slightly different temperatures and cooking times, but you’ll come to love them! Plus, they pretty much last forever! Same for bakeware – consider glass or ceramic instead of Teflon coated.
Choose non-coated fabrics over coated ones whenever possible, even if it means having to wash them more frequently. 100% cotton is our go-to for linens and pjs, especially for the kids. Small steps will make a difference over time, especially when it comes to products you use on a daily basis.
Check your water!! If positive for PFAS contaminants, compare water filter options. You’ll have to read the Product Specifications sheet to see that it actually has “PFAS” listed as part of the contaminants it filters out. Not all do. Most refrigerator water filters don’t. My personal preference is a countertop reverse osmosis filter, but there are many options out there.
Here’s a quick list of common household products that contain PFAS:
- Contaminated water
- Non-stick cookware
- Grease resistant food wrappers or containers
- Stain resistant coatings on carpets, fabrics, and furniture
- Water repellant fabrics or clothing
- Microwave popcorn bags
- Personal care products
- Cleaning products
- Paints, varnishes, and sealants
Resource links to help guide water filter selection:
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About the Author: Yazeth is the owner/founder of The Y & W Laboratory. Her background is in clinical microbiology and teaches allied health and wellness courses at a local college. She has additional training in natural skin care, aromatherapy, and herbal studies. Connect on Instagram and LinkedIn.
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