PFAS... What are they and WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL!

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.

SAPPHO is dedicated to the research and reporting of any and all information regarding PFAS because clean beauty was imagined to save lives. 

What are PFAS? Created towards the end of World War II, PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a group of human-made chemicals used in various industrial and consumer products, were created for their water and stain-resistant properties.

All PFAS (also known as forever chemicals but can last up to 10 years) have a basic structure: molecules of carbon fused with molecules of organic fluorine (organic meaning synthetic in this case).

There are thousands of PFAS compounds, but the most commonly studied are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). These two compounds are the most widely produced and studied because they were used extensively in the production of non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and other consumer goods such as cosmetics. 

PFAS have been linked to numerous health effects, including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, and  sexual reproductive and developmental issues, especially with baby boys as fetuses.

They can accumulate in the environment, including in drinking water and can persist in human bodies for up to  years. They can be deadly for fish and wildlife. 

Why are PFAS in cosmetics?

In makeup, they are used to make products last longer, for waterproofing, offering slip and helping to extend fragrance. PFAS may be present as impurities in cosmetic ingredients, such as pigments, coated pigments, additives, or as a result of contamination during the manufacturing process. Even small amounts of PFAS can have harmful effects and our body can absorb up to 60% of what we are putting on it. Clean beauty exists, in our opinion, to shine a light on the issues that regulators have turned a blind eye to for years: protecting commerce before people.

Plastic packaging can leach PFAS, contaminating formulas, and so it seems prudent to also test packaging for organic fluorine. For example, our refillable mascara tubes tested Non Detect <10 ppm organic fluorine, however it took making four plastic wands to find one that tested Non Detect<10ppm. That is how our wand came to be white instead of black like the rest of the cartridge.

The plastic tubes we use for our CC creams and foundation samples have also tested the safest you can test, Non Detect <10 ppm. 

Progress, Not Perfection

Testing for formulas and packaging can, for the most part, at this juncture, only be tested to 10 ppm (parts per million). However it is notable that water is tested at 10 ppt (parts per trillion). Saying that, experts are now weighing in and telling us that anything under 50 ppm is probably incidental and certainly anything under 20 is definitely incidental - meaning it could even be down to someone using a certain cleaner that day on machinery! 

How are PFAS regulated?

Studying all PFAS compounds is a daunting task due to the sheer number of them, but it is not an impossible endeavour. They are ubiquitous at this point, but identifying their presence and mitigating their use is possible with organic fluorine testing and industry cooperation. 

PFOA and PFOS have also been found to contaminate drinking water supplies and soil, potentially leading to widespread exposure in populations living near contaminated sites. This has led to increased concern and scrutiny of these chemicals, with many countries and organizations taking steps to restrict or phase out their use in consumer products.

One issue however is that only 120-220  or so have been studied, and so testing for PFAS only will tell you if any of those PFAS are present. Testing for organic fluorine, however, tells us if there are any of the 14000 untested PFAS present. 

Many professional bodies, including the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the Endocrine Society, have expressed support for banning PFAS as a class. These organizations have cited the growing body of scientific evidence linking PFAS exposure to adverse health effects, and have called for stronger regulation of these chemicals.

However, there are some industry groups and professional organizations that are opposed to banning PFAS as a class. These groups argue, that there is insufficient evidence to support a complete ban and that such a ban would be overly broad and could have unintended consequences.  It is not unimaginable to speculate that their first concern is their financial status today and not our future. Some of these groups include the American Chemistry Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates.

Update  June 2023 -

Secret industry documents reveal that makers of PFAS 'forever chemicals' covered up their health dangers


Read the blog series: Our Journey to PFAS Free