Get Forever Chemicals off Women’s Faces

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readJul 25, 2022

Deepthi Chandra (PPS ’24)

Deepthi Chandra (PPS ’24)

We need to pass a federal ban on PFAS in cosmetics. Last summer, a bombshell study revealed the widespread presence of PFAS, dangerous carcinogens, in cosmetics. The publication led to news coverage in the Washington Post and class-action lawsuits from consumers and nonprofits. Over 30 senators have already sent a letter to President Biden for PFAS action, including for cosmetics.

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are carcinogens that increase your risk of cancer. They are also known as “forever chemicals” for their persistence in the environment and the human body. The health impacts of PFAS are alarming. According to the CDC, exposure can lead to developmental, reproductive, and immunological issues, as well as kidney and liver damage. PFAS in cosmetics are especially problematic since makeup products are often applied close to the mouth and eyes. As a result, your skin absorbs PFAS from cosmetics more readily than from other products. The consequences can also extend beyond the cosmetics user: PFAS can lead to birth defects for fetuses and infants.

Despite these dangers, PFAS are still widespread in cosmetics. Companies often use them to make mascara, foundation, and lipstick water-resistant and long-lasting. A recent journal article revealed that 63% of foundations and 55% of lip products included PFAS, though few indicated that on the label. Researchers have even found PFAS in products from well-known brands, including CoverGirl, bareMinerals, and L’Oréal, and “natural” product lines like Burt’s Bees. So, if you’re someone who uses cosmetics, chances are that you’ve encountered a product with PFAS.

When scientists started to discover PFAS in cosmetics, they were startled that the substances disproportionately impacted women of color. Studies show that women of color have greater amounts of cosmetics-related PFAS in their bodies, even when accounting for differences in income. Ami Zota, a professor at George Washington University, explained that Black women use a larger number of cosmetics, and the products targeted to them often contain more toxins like PFAS.

We need a federal solution to protect women and historically marginalized communities from PFAS in cosmetics. While a few states have taken the initiative, over 40 states lack regulations — resulting in inequities between states. For example, consumers in Washington state are unlikely to encounter PFAS in makeup products since the governor signed a law to phase out the substances in cosmetics. In contrast, consumers in states ranging from New York to Minnesota can buy cosmetics with PFAS at their local beauty store or retailer without even knowing. The lack of awareness arises because 88% of cosmetics containing PFAS don’t indicate that on the label.

Implementing a federal policy is challenging because PFAS in cosmetics is a relatively new topic of discussion; awareness is lacking about the issue. It has only been about a year and a half since the first state banned PFAS in cosmetics. Before the bombshell study last summer, there was very little research specifically on PFAS in cosmetics. As a result, it has been harder to prohibit them in cosmetics than in products like firefighting foam and food packaging, which Washington state banned over four years ago.

Many cosmetics companies are against PFAS regulation. Cosmetics don’t need FDA approval, so businesses in this industry have become used to minimal regulation. Over 600 cosmetics companies have not expressed support for a PFAS phaseout. Part of the reluctance comes from the fact that it can be difficult to stop unintentional PFAS contamination. For example, L’Oréal products had traces of PFAS even though it officially phased out the substances in 2018. However, numerous firms, especially those in the Pacific Northwest and Europe, have effectively eliminated PFAS from cosmetics. These successes suggest that U.S.-based cosmetics companies could also accommodate a PFAS ban, especially if they are already adapting to regulations in European countries.

No 24-hour lipstick, made possible with forever chemicals, is worth a woman’s or child’s health, and this should hold true no matter which state you call home. We urgently need Congress to pass federal regulations and set a standard for PFAS-free cosmetics across every state.

Deepthi Chandra (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.