Cosmetics Companies Might Sweat Over This Study

Synthetic substances called PFAS are known to be dangerous to humans and the planet. So why are they still showing up in personal care products?


Have you ever wondered what makes your deodorant, foundation or sunscreen “sweat-proof”?

It is most likely due to ingredients such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Previous research has shown that these substances can be harmful to our health; however, a new study found that PFAS are still commonly used in Canadian everyday-use products.

What are PFAS?

PFAS are synthetic contaminants that can be found in various products from clothing to food packaging. To date, over 9,000 PFAS have been identified — and because they are used in so many products, PFAS are now being found in our environment as well.

Specific long-chain PFAS are a concern to our environment and us. They do not break down in our environment, therefore they can easily move through our soils and contaminate our drinking water. In humans, long-chain PFAS are toxic, and can cause debilitating problems when we’re exposed to large amounts.

Yet according to the Canadian Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist, PFAS are acceptable ingredients in our cosmetic and personal care products. This puts consumers at high risk of PFAS exposure.

PFAS in Canadian products

Recently, scientists from the Department of Chemistry and the Institute of Biochemistry at Carleton University and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Montreal set out to determine the amount of PFAS found in cosmetic and personal care products available in Canada. Their study, which also highlights where the use of these ingredients may be avoidable, was published in the Environmental Science and Technology Journal.

In their study, the team screened 38 products on the Canadian market for PFAS. Every product in the study was demonstrated to contain PFAS, including those that did not list PFAS in their ingredient list. Eighty-two percent of the products contained four PFAS while 18% of the products contained below the product labelling threshold of PFAS.

The Canadian Guide to Cosmetic Ingredient Labelling does not always require companies to list PFAS as ingredients in their products — this is a loophole in the system. For example, if PFAS were added then removed from the product during production, retailers do not have to list them as ingredients. However, exposure to the PFAS in this case is still possible.

Interestingly, the cosmetics that were marketed as “all-day waterproof, sweat-proof” and “water-resistant wears all day” had up to four times more PFAS in them compared to products purchased in Sweden and other parts of North America where regulations around PFAS are stricter (see the United States No PFAS In Cosmetics Act 2021).

What does this mean?

This research from Carleton University and the University of Montreal demonstrates that there are high concentrations of PFAS in many Canadian everyday-use products. Although PFAS are necessary for some things, such as medical equipment, the researchers suggest that the use of PFAS in cosmetic and personal care products is not essential for the health, safety, or functioning of society.

Reducing human and environmental exposure to PFAS is critical, but regulations need to be implemented at the Canadian federal level to make this shift legal. But there is reason for optimism that even without the government’s help, the cosmetic and personal care industry can make this shift happen.

For example, similar research conducted in Europe motivated a large retailer to remove unnecessary PFAS from their products (see The Body Shop). Furthermore, five products that were assessed in this study have since been discontinued due to their PFAS content.

Until alternative, healthier PFAS ingredients are engineered, future cosmetic and personal care products may not be “sweat-proof” — but at least they will be less toxic!

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Alexandria (Alex) Samson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She completed her BSc in Neuroscience from Dalhousie University. Alex is a strong believer in open science and is passionate about making scientific research accessible to all audiences.