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The dark secret of the beauty industry: toxic substances in cosmetics and personal care products

Studies conducted in Canada found that some of these products contain per- and polyfluoroalkyls (PFAS), some of which are prohibited for marketing, in concentrations significantly higher than the threshold proposed in the standards. Frequent use of these products corresponds to high concentrations of these substances in the body and in breast milk

By: Amy Rand, Professor of Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology at Carleton University    

[Translation by Dr. Moshe Nachmani]

Beauty care products. Illustration: depositphotos.com
Beauty care products. Illustration: depositphotos.com

The family of super- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are common in cosmetics and personal care products and are a primary source of environmental pollution due to their resistance to decomposition. Studies conducted in Canada found that some of these products contain per- and polyfluoroalkyls, some of which are prohibited for marketing, in concentrations significantly higher than the threshold proposed in the standards. Frequent use of these products corresponds to high concentrations of these substances in the body and in breast milk, a fact that poses a health concern due to the persistence of these substances in the body and in the environment

Data from Europe indicate that there are about one hundred and seventy ingredients from this family of substances in cosmetics and personal care products. Every year, the experts in the field estimate, about eighty thousand kg of these materials are released into the environment after their use in the groundwater and solid waste streams, a significant source that eventually ends up in the environment.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyls are persistent environmental pollutants. The properties that make them commercially useful, especially their long-term stability, mean that there is no environmental mechanism in nature for their discharge, and therefore, they accumulate there. These materials have been found all over the world, including in remote areas such as the Arctic Ocean. These substances also accumulate in the body. A health institution in Canada (The Canadian Health Measures Survey) sampled the blood of thousands of people and found several substances from this family in all the subjects. Significant sources of these substances for humans are nutrition, through drinking contaminated water or digesting contaminated food items, such as fish or meat. Agricultural fields may contain such substances that originate in sludge from sewage treatment facilities (Biosolids) of fertilizers, since sewage treatment facilities are unable to remove them. Therefore, these substances pass through the sludge to crops and animals that feed on them. Similarly, these substances are added to personal care products and end up being washed out and end up in sewage treatment facilities, a mechanism that contributes to the global environmental problem. 

A Canadian study tested the presence of such substances in various care products such as tanning powder (bronzers), concealers, foundations, shaving foams, sunscreen and moisturizer. The substances were extracted from each of the products and their concentration was measured using mass spectroscopy devices. These devices detect each of these substances present in the products, in amounts of many milligrams, or in the trillionth of a gram. The tests found that the most common components are: perfluoroethyl phosphates with 16-6 carbons, perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane as well as perfluorobutyl ethers. The Canadian government has banned the introduction of some per- and polyfluoroalkyls into personal care products, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and any other chemical that breaks down to form this banned substance.

New Canadian regulations on per- and polyfluoroalkyls will set threshold levels of one microgram per gram of product. That is, the marketing of substances with this concentration, or lower than it, will not be prohibited. At the same time, a study found that some of the products containing these substances - including those prohibited for marketing - are at levels that exceed a thousand times the established threshold levels, which indicates a lack of supervision regarding the regulation of per- and polyfluoroalkyls in the care products industry.

Epidemiological studies show that per- and polyfluoroalkyl concentrations in the body correspond to frequent use of cosmetics and personal care products. An American study found higher levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyls in the blood in women who use basic colors frequently. A Korean study found a link between use of cosmetics and personal care products and higher levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyls in breast milk. Other studies have shown a similar relationship in people who use sunscreen. Unlike other chemicals, some of the per- and polyfluoroalkyls are substances resistant to discharge, meaning that exposure to even small amounts of them can cause them to accumulate in the body over time. The half-life of perfluorooctanoic acid is about two years. That is, even after two years, half of the original amount remains in the body, and it takes several more years to remove all the material.

In Canada, the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are frequently measured in the environment and are known to have negative health effects, is prohibited. These substances include the substances PFOA, PFOS and PFCAs, and any other compound that breaks down into these substances. Other countries take a stricter approach: the European Union proposes to ban the marketing of thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyls; The state of California plans to ban virtually all per- and polyfluoroalkyls used in cosmetics by 2025.

The current situation has a simple solution: a complete ban on the use of polyfluoroalkyls in cosmetics and personal care products. Certain cosmetic companies, for example Sephora, do not include per- and polyfluoroalkyls at all in their list of "clean" products, so customers can avoid them in advance.

Environmental organizations, managers in the field and industry should cooperate in order to prevent the use of bi- and polyfluoroalkyls in cosmetics and personal care products, and to use other non-toxic alternative ingredients.

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