Experts 'disturbed' over toxic discovery in popular make-up products

It’s common to see a long list of ingredients on your new lipstick, but some of those chemicals may be a lot more dangerous than you’d expect.

The findings of an international study into toxic chemicals used in make-up products have raised concerns over whether enough is being done to protect Australian consumers.

Researchers tested cosmetics produced by major brands in the US and Canada for harmful chemicals. The peer-reviewed study resulted in high levels of organic fluorine being found in over half of the 231 make-up and personal care samples. That includes lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, foundation, concealer, lip balm, blush, nail polish and more.

Organic fluorine indicates the probable presence of what’s known as PFAS – per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.

Read more: Deadly bugs in your make-up kit

PFAS are a class of around 9000 compounds used to make products such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant products, food packaging, pesticides and more. They are often dubbed “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down and have been found to accumulate in humans.

The chemicals have been used in Australia and around the world in many common household products and specialty applications for decades. As a result, most people living in developed nations have some PFAS in their bodies.

If someone is repeatedly exposed to PFAS, the level in their bodies may increase to the point where they suffer from adverse health effects.

Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumours in animal studies.

Many of the chemicals found in the cosmetics were not included on the product labels, making it difficult for consumers to consciously avoid them; in fact, the label did not disclose PFAS to the consumer in 88 per cent of all tested products.

“I think what was most surprising was the number of products that had no PFAS on the label,” said one of the study’s authors, Professor Miriam Diamond of the University of Toronto.

Prof. Diamond said she supported legislative moves in the US to ban PFAS in cosmetics.

“Ultimately to protect my grandchildren – that’s why I’m doing this,” she said.

Read more: Scientists sound alarm over microplastics in common food

The study
The study – and media reporting of its results – has been criticised by the Australian cosmetics industry, which argued its conclusions were “highly speculative”.

However, Australian experts in the field were shocked and alarmed by the study’s findings.

Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, from the National Toxics Network, said: “These very disturbing results demonstrate why urgent action is needed to phase out the group of PFAS chemicals as a priority,” she said.

“While this is a US-based study, as similar results have been found in studies of cosmetics in Europe, Japan and Korea, it suggests the situation would be no different for Australians.

“The combined exposure is quite frightening,” she said. “People are putting PFAS-contaminated foundation on their skin every day. These are really serious exposure routes.”

Prof. Diamond said PFAS chemicals were flooding the marketplace before the scientific community had the chance to investigate their safety.

She said the research team were “dismayed” at the industry’s criticisms.

“Their comments provided no evidence of our wrongdoing or our misinterpretation,” she said.

The brands
Many of the brands included in the study are ubiquitous in the Australian market, including Revlon, Maybelline, L’Oreal, MAC, Rimmel, Covergirl, Clinique, Estee Lauder, Nars, Smashbox, Urban Decay and Sephora.

The brands found to contain PFAS were not named but the study noted that many were marketed as ‘wear-resistant’ or ‘long-lasting’.

The eyes, skin, and lips are vulnerable to the absorption of toxic chemicals. PFAS are absorbed through thin mucus membranes close to the mouth and tear ducts. Lipstick is more likely to be accidentally ingested, with wearers possibly consuming up to 2kg of the cosmetic throughout their lives. In mascara, the chemicals can be absorbed through the tear ducts.

Read more: Fragrances in cleaning products and air fresheners making us sick

Product safety is the responsibility of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

“The ACCC is aware of the reports of PFAS in cosmetics overseas and we are currently reviewing this information,” a spokesperson said, adding that products must be labelled with an ingredients list under the Cosmetics Information Standard (2020).

However, Dr Lloyd-Smith said the industry was able to make confidentiality claims or use generic terms to mask the use of PFAS.

“The consumer standard for labelling is so broad you could drive 20 buses through it,” she said.

How often do you wear make-up? Do you ever check the ingredients before you buy new cosmetics? Why not share your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below?

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Written by Ellie Baxter