Forever Chemicals: Is Make-Up Doing More Harm Than Good?

A pile of make-up
Alice Leng

For those of us who choose to wear makeup, most often it’s to enhance the appearance of our skin; whether it be for that effortless glow or simply to convey the impression that we get a full eight hours sleep. But with the recent news that major cosmetic brands are still selling makeup with ‘forever chemicals’ in the UK, are we actually doing ourselves more harm than good? Alice Leng discusses.

These ‘forever chemicals’ are toxic pollutants – known as PFAS – which are damaging to the environment and also pose serious potential risks to our health. PFAS (which stands for poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances) are still used in some cosmetic products, most often mascaras, foundations, eyeshadows and lipsticks, and are in fact legal in the UK.

PFAS have been nicknamed the ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not naturally break down. These substances are also found in products such an non-stick frying pans, food packaging, water resistant clothing and cleaning products. The reasons PFAS are used in these products is because of their resistance to oil and water; this makes them highly valuable to the cosmetics industry for their long-lasting wear properties.

Products by several major global brands being sold in the UK contain these toxic chemicals

A recent BBC News investigation into the UK’s cosmetics market revealed that products by several major global brands being sold in the UK contain these toxic chemicals. The BBC’s ‘Freedom of Information’ request identified these brands as Revolution, Inglot, and Urban Decay (a company owned by L’Oréal). Some of the products include: Urban Decay NAKED Palettes 2 and 3, Inglot Evening Kiss Eyeshadow Palette, and Relove High Key Shadow Palette.

But what is the concern around PFAS? Should we be worried about what’s in our makeup?

According to an Environmental Science and Technology report, “The manufacture, use, and disposal of cosmetics containing PFAS are all potential opportunities for health and ecosystem harm.” PFAS are toxic pollutants that can be absorbed through the skin, tear ducts, or ingested. They can also begin to accumulate in rivers and soil as makeup is washed off into water supplies.

PFAS in rivers have been linked to health impacts in marine animals, and another BBC investigation in 2022 even discovered that despite measuring within the current safety levels for England and Wales, PFAS in water samples in England did exceed the European safety levels.

PFAS within cosmetics are not illegal in the UK

High levels of exposure to these forever chemicals has also been linked to serious health issues such as cancer, birth defects, and thyroid issues. However, PFAS within cosmetics are not illegal in the UK. This is because they are present at very low levels.

Speaking to The Cosmetic Regulator and toxicologist Rani Ghosh, Refinery29 reported that because of their low-level presence there is no data to suggest that PFAS in makeup causes health concerns. We are, more and more, being convinced that anything not ‘clean’, ‘natural’, or ‘organic’ must be bad for us, but this is not necessarily strictly true. In the cosmetics industry, these terms are not regulated, and so essentially they don’t always mean much. The cosmetics industry is highly researched and tested, and therefore it is important to remember that these products would not be on the market if they were not safe or legal.

Despite this, due to the growing evidence of forever chemicals’ environmental and health impacts, many brands are now PFAS free. As PFAS are hard to break down, and therefore over time will lead to environmental deterioration especially if levels begin to rise in water and soils, cosmetics brands should be seeking out substances that break down more easily, especially as we try to live more sustainably.

So, what can we do to avoid these potentially damaging substances? It can often be hard to understand what is being used in our makeup and whether or not it is good for our skin and our environment. Forever chemicals, in particular fluorine, has been found most commonly in products such as waterproof mascaras and long-lasting foundations. It is encouraged that, in order to try and avoid PFAS, you avoid buzzwords such as ‘long-lasting’ and ‘wear-resistant’, as this is often what PFAS are used for. There has also recently been a rise in online apps, downloadable to your phone for free, which can scan the barcodes of your beauty products and check their ingredients; apps such as Think Dirty, Good Face App and INCI Beauty are just a few that come highly reviewed.

In terms of forever chemical restrictions, on 7th February 2023 the ECHA shared the details of the proposed restrictionof around 10,000 PFAS, submitted by five countries within the EU. If the final research is approved a ban of these PFAS could potentially enter into force in 2026 or 2027. This means that in the next few years it’s likely that we will see the makeup industry evolve to be completely ‘forever chemical’ free.

Alice Leng

Featured image courtesy of Edz Norton via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article image courtesy of @thinkdirty via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.

For more content including uni news, reviews, entertainment, lifestyle, features and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved. 

If you just can’t get enough of Lifestyle, like our Facebook as a reader or contributor.


Leave a Reply