“Forever chemicals” in make-up showing up in lakes and drinking water

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A hot, humid Canadian summer afternoon at the cottage plus make-up can create a disastrous scenario: the dreaded raccoon eyes. Raccoons may have earned a place in Canadian hearts as lovable trash pandas, but that love doesn’t extend to wanting to look like one. 

Avoiding raccoon eyes, a look characterized by black circles of smudged and sweaty mascara and eyeliner, means turning to products labelled ‘water-proof’ and ‘long-lasting.’ But Canadians should rethink reaching for a tube of wear-resistant mascara. 

A  team of scientists from Canada and the United States analyzed 231 North American cosmetic products and found that more than half were high in fluorine, indicating the presence of a group of chemical compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS

PFAS are not limited to make-up and cosmetics. They are a large group of over 4,700 manufactured chemical compounds, widely used in a variety of industries; PFAS have been found in fire extinguisher foams, non-stick cookware, and fast food packaging. 

The long-lasting nature of PFAS that makes the compounds such a boon for industry purposes means once the compounds in our bodies and the environment, they’re here to stay. 

“PFAS are ‘forever chemicals’,” says Miriam Diamond, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor with the Department of Earth Sciences and School of the Environment at the University of Toronto. “We put a PFAS-containing cosmetic on our face, wash it down the drain, it’s in the lake. It affects the drinking water. It’s going to be in the water for generations.”

“There’s definitely enough known to be concerned,” says Diamond; one growing body of evidence points to a negative effect on immune function from PFAS, she says. 

Removing PFAS from drinking water is expensive, difficult, and in itself creates pollution, says Diamond. “That’s not the way we need to do this,” she says. “We have to keep our water clean at the get-go.”

The research found that the cosmetic culprits most likely to have high fluorine were waterproof mascaras, eye products such as shadows and liners, foundations, and liquid lipsticks. Most of the examined products did not list a PFAS on their ingredient label. The chemicals pose a health risk to humans just from using it (since it can be absorbed into the body) and also can wash off into ecosystems.

Canada regulates the use of three types of PFAS with well documented risks to human health and the environment (PFOS, PFOA, and LC-PCFA) under the Environmental Protection Act. But that leaves a huge list of PFAS that regulations do not cover, especially as new types are manufactured. 

“Knowing that the use of them in cosmetics isn’t essential, I believe that we need to eliminate PFAS from cosmetics,” says Dr. Diamond.  “I’m not willing to contaminate cottage country water for generations to come because I wanted long-lasting mascara.”

“Now is the time to pull the plug on using PFAS in cosmetics and other products, so that you don’t have to freak out about your drinking water,” she adds.

The Government of Canada is currently considering grouping PFAS together as a class. This would prevent a newly-manufactured PFAS from swooping in to replace one that becomes regulated.

Consumers can contribute to a solution by holding make-up companies to the fire and demanding better labelling systems and the removal of PFAS from products. In the meantime, make-up addicts should eliminate using any cosmetics advertised as ‘long-lasting’ or ‘waterproof’. Also, make sure any cookware you buy is labelled PFAS or PFOA free.

And hey, maybe a fashion goddess like Rihanna will bring racoon eyes back this summer. In the meantime, just skip the make-up. The lake will thank you.

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