Written by JoAnn Fowler, Founder
Disclaimer: This blog post is my understanding, as a beauty brand founder who is not a scientist, of the subject of organic fluorine and PFAS as it relates to our cosmetic business, to this day.
I live in Vancouver BC, Canada.* The first person I think of when environmental issues are raised is David Suzuki. In the early days of green/clean beauty, circa 2007-8, I spent considerable time consulting with the ‘Queen of Green’ at the Suzuki Foundation regarding environmental and ingredient concerns.
In 2009, using Suzuki’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ as a guide, Sappho Cosmetics also published a list of 12 toxic ingredients that should not be put in Mother Earth or on our bodies.
This was the starting list for me for looking at ingredients in a wholistic way – not just for the safety of our bodies but also the preservation of our planet.
In 2008, this dirty dozen was the beginning of my research, and at the time it included dimethicone.
At 53 years old, as a working makeup artist in film, at the top of my game, I created my first makeup line as an adjunct to my kit. I did not want to be responsible for someone sitting in my chair getting cancer – I wanted and needed to offer them an alternative. The company took off and I was literally pitched into the world of manufacturing, wholesale, retail and online sales... I took it all on.
I lost this first company at 59, due to my naïveté and a would-be investor whom I trusted. I eventually won a court case in BC’s Small Claims Court, and an attempt at appeal in Supreme Court. I could not afford legal assistance (he started with a team of 4 lawyers) and I knew that I would not be able to save my home as he has stolen my URLs, but I was determined not to let this man railroad the very ethics the company was founded on. Without going into much detail, the disagreement between us concerned ingredients and sustainability, if you catch my drift.
This company’s only raison d’être was to produce high performing, safe and sustainable products. As a film makeup artist, I created this line to offer clients an honest, transparent, clean alternative to what was available.
My new paradigm
In 2016, I risked all I had left and launched Sappho New Paradigm – my makeup line with new even cleaner formulas, more control over ingredient sourcing, more sustainable packaging, more certified organic materials and most importantly – vegan. I stayed away from controversial ingredients with ultimately unsatisfying research behind them, like dimethicone coated minerals, feeling uneasy with the line the studies on these ingredients walked. The line's complexion range is EU certified, having gone through the most rigorous tests for cosmetic safety in the world.
I thought I had it all covered.
Just over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, after suffering through color cosmetics sales dropping, store lockdowns and pivoting online, I just thought – that’s it: the only reason we exist is because we are a clean line. If there are PFAS in our foundations especially, our bestseller, I had no reason to continue. I wrote one of the scientists named in the study and I had our foundations tested in Canada immediately. This test was very costly (much higher than quoted in the article x 6) at a time when we could not afford it: the foundations came back with common PFAS undetected <10 ppm (parts per million). At this time, there are no labs that are able to test makeup for less than 10 ppm.
What are PFAS and why should I be concerned?
PFAS are a group of more than 9000 synthetic chemicals that contain fluorine bonded to carbon aka Organic Fluorine.
This forms a chemical bond that makes products long wearing but unfortunately also chemicals that are lasting in the body and the environment and can accumulate over decades. They are dubbed ‘forever chemicals.’
According to the CBC News article, “Very few PFAS have been studied in detail, but those that have been are linked to a variety of health effects in humans and animals, including increased risk of cancers, reduced immune response and fertility, and altered metabolism and increased risk of obesity”.
There is a lot to understand and learn about PFAS testing, which can be quite confusing.
If lab results show there is fluoride in a product, then you test for fluorine. If there is fluorine, you then test for organic fluorine.
The presence of organic fluorine is what the most recent Mamavation article based their findings on.
It seems, as we are figuring out through this process, organic fluorine does not mean 100% that there is PFAS present. Organic fluorine is a likely marker, but to find if and what PFAS are present requires a series of tests, including packaging components. If that does not work, then each individual ingredient must be tested, as well as all the manufacturing processes where contamination may occur. It is also uncertain what the toxicity of each PFAS is; at present, labs can only do a deep dive on between 90-150 known PFAS and so there is much more work to be done on that front.
PFAS are ubiquitous, meaning they can be found in everything including our water, the coating of your biodegradable takeout container, plastic packaging, textiles like those for outdoor jackets, anything Teflon and sometimes, but less often, even glass. They are quite impossible to avoid nowadays, however it is our intention to do just that: avoid them to the very best of our ability.
Back to our story
In 2022, Mamavation’s second article came out regarding PFAS; this time naming green beauty brands they had tested for Organic Fluorine counts. (Please scroll to the end of their post for the actual numbers.) I was elated because unbeknownst to us, the author, Leah Segedie, had tested our mascara and we came out in the BEST category with no potential PFAS detected (<10ppm).
I got in touch with Leah and found out the original test for our foundations, although very in-depth, had only covered the most common 100-150 PFAS. We would need a fluorine test that would cover up to a potential 9000 PFAS. It is important to stress that at this time only 90-150 PFAS can be isolated. Research is very new.
Our foundations went out for testing and came back, once again, with undetected levels of organic fluorine as well as free of testable PFAS.
We will be working our way through all of our products and will publish our findings on each product’s page, in the ingredients tab, as we go. We are facing considerable costs going through this process, and we ask for your patience as we work down the list, through each of our products.
Currently, we have tested CC Cream, Concealer and Brow Pomade, which came back with results of, respectively, 35 ppm, 18 ppm and 17 ppm organic fluorine. We are doing further testing on packaging in an attempt to isolate the potential issue.
Mamavation tested a lot of companies' products and some that tested badly were given the information as well as access to affordable testing over a year ago. I am not aware of how they chose to deal with selling the products or even if any of them started testing more products in their line, I only know that we promise transparency and so we are delivering it.
- Test each category of product we offer, i.e. blush, CC cream, etc.
- Test each product for both formula and primary packaging if any organic fluorine is discovered.
- Publish results on the individual product ingredient tabs.
- Proactively, we have asked our manufacturers to write their raw material suppliers for information on what and how they test their ingredients.
- We have asked our manufacturer to do an assessment of their equipment and use of cleaning products etc. for potential contamination sources.
What can I do about PFAS in cosmetics? How can we as a community solve this problem, together ?
These past 3 weeks, I have been preparing a workshop for my film union local IATSE 891. The subject is the toxicity of ingredients in the beauty business and the importance for makeup artists to know more than their clients.
The conclusion I have reached after looking at both clean and mainstream formulations is this: even with the challenges of organic fluorine, Sappho is still cleaner than most, if not all, mainstream offerings and often cleaner than competitors in our space. I know for certain we are more transparent. I know for certain we offer performance.
There are a lot of challenges and changes in the clean beauty space as science gets more exacting. As companies learn more about PFAS, plastics and how to create safer alternatives, our world will get better.
Thanks for your ongoing support. We will keep you posted.
* The city known as Vancouver, BC, is on the ancestral, unceded and occupied territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Watuth) nations of the Coast Salish peoples, whose relationship with the land is ancient, primary, and enduring. We acknowledge our deep privilege to be here, living and operating as uninvited guests on their land.
We realize that this acknowledgement is a very small part of cultivating strong relationships with the First Peoples of Canada. It is a necessary step, and we as settlers continue the life-long process of learning.