Is There Teflon in Your Cosmetic Products?

teflon in cosmetic products

Story at-a-glance -

  • An Environmental Working Group (EWG) report sought to identify how many personal care products contain Teflon or other PFASs
  • Overall, 13 PFAS chemicals were found in close to 200 products spanning 28 brands, including makeup, sunscreen, shampoo and shaving cream
  • Teflon was the most common chemical found among its class, showing up in 66 products from 15 brands
  • If you’d like to choose personal care products without Teflon or similar chemicals, be sure to check the labels and avoid ingredients that contain “fluoro”

By Dr. Mercola

Teflon is perhaps best known for coating nonstick pans with a slippery surface, such that overeasy eggs slide off with just a flick of your wrist. Yet, this chemical is also found in other consumer goods, from stain-resistant and waterproof clothing to, as revealed by a recent Environmental Working Group (EWG) report, cosmetics and personal care products.

Teflon is a brand name for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a synthetic fluoropolymer, and one of a large group of fluorinated chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs), which include PFOA and PFOS. While the acronyms can get a bit confusing, the important thing to remember is that this family of chemicals (PTFE, PFAS, PFOA, PFOS and PFCs, as per- and polyfluorinated compounds were historically known) is toxic to your health.

In fact, the convenience of a nonstick or stain-resistant surface comes at a steep price, as such chemicals have been linked to developmental problems, cancer, liver damage, immune effects, thyroid problems and more. What effects may result from applying PFASs directly to your skin in the form of personal care products is unknown but raises another level of concern entirely.

PFAS Chemicals Found in 28 Brands of Personal Care Products, Spanning 200 Products

EWG's Skin Deep database contains ingredient lists and safety ratings for close to 75,000 cosmetics and personal care products. EWG researchers used this database as the basis for their study, which sought to identify how many such products contain Teflon or other PFASs.

Overall, 13 PFAS chemicals were found in close to 200 products spanning 28 brands, including makeup, sunscreen, shampoo and shaving cream. Teflon, however, was the most common chemical found among its class, showing up in 66 products from 15 brands. According to EWG:1

"Besides PTFE, EWG identified an alphabet soup of other fluorinated chemicals in the personal care products we assessed — PFH, OFPMA, PFD and others. Absorption of these chemicals through skin is not expected to be a significant route of exposure, but when used on or around the eyes, absorption can increase, posing a greater hazard.

There may also be significant variation in absorption depending on the type of PFAS used in the products, and the other PFAS chemicals present. Not enough is known about the health impacts of these chemicals. Until more is known, EWG strongly urges people to avoid all products with PFAS, including cosmetics and personal care products."

The EWG study detected these toxic substances in a number of personal care products, including the following, so be sure to read labels avidly:2

Foundation

Sunscreen/moisturizer

Moisturizer

Eyeshadow

Bronzer/highlighter

Facial powder

Sunscreen/makeup

Mascara

Anti-aging

Moisturizer

Eye cream

Blush

Shaving cream (men's)

Facial moisturizer/treatment

Brow liner

Other eye makeup

Antiaging Cosmetics Previously Found to Contain PFOA

In 2015 the California-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics had products from multinational cosmetic companies tested by an independent laboratory, looking for toxic chemicals linked to breast cancer. Three antiaging creams with the popular brand names Garnier and CoverGirl contained PFOA. "How do chemicals linked to cancer end up in our beauty products?" the report asked. "The answer is simple. No one is minding the store when it comes to the safety of cosmetics or personal care products." They continued:3

"Due to gaping holes in federal law, it is perfectly legal for cosmetics companies to use unlimited amounts of virtually any ingredient, including chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental harm, hormone disruption and other adverse health impacts, with no FDA pre-market testing or review …

Taken alone, chemicals in any one consumer product may not cause harm. Unfortunately, people are repeatedly exposed to industrial chemicals from many different sources, including cosmetics, on a daily basis. The average American woman uses 12 personal care products a day, resulting in exposure to as many as 126 unique chemicals from personal care products alone."

As for why companies choose to put Teflon in their cosmetics, it's due to its claim to fame: a slick, slippery feel that leads to a smooth finish. Yet, most consumers are unaware that to gain this perceived benefit they're putting a chemical on their skin that's been deemed a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO).4

PFOA is already the subject of at least 3,500 personal injury claims against DuPont, which used PFOA to make Teflon for decades. One woman who developed kidney cancer after drinking PFOA-contaminated water was awarded $1.6 million in damages.5

PFOA Is a Major Water Pollutant

If you're wondering just how toxic PTFE and related chemicals are, consider that, once in the environment, PFOA persists and does not break down. From Michigan to Vermont, companies using toxic perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the manufacture of Teflon-containing fabrics and waterproof shoes have left behind a toxic legacy: contaminated water and soil that's been poisoning area residents for decades.  

The problem is worst near known chemical plants and dumping grounds, but even if you live in a seemingly "clean" area, there's a chance your water could be contaminated with these ubiquitous and highly toxic chemicals. According to a 2016 Harvard study, 16.5 million Americans have detectable levels of at least one kind of PFAS in their drinking water, and about 6 million Americans are drinking water that contains PFAS at or above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety level.6

While toxic water supplies were found in 33 states, 75 percent of the samples with elevated PFAS came from 13 states: California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts and Illinois. Not surprisingly, the highest concentration levels of PFAS were found in watersheds near industrial sites, military fire training areas and wastewater treatment plants.

Private wells were also found to be contaminated. As for health risks, those related to PFASs continue to grow. In May 2015, more than 200 scientists from 40 countries signed the Madrid Statement, which warns about the harms of PFAS chemicals and documents the following potential health effects of exposure:7

Liver toxicity

Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune and endocrine systems

Adverse neurobehavioral effects

Neonatal toxicity and death

Tumors in multiple organ systems

Testicular and kidney cancers

Liver malfunction

Hypothyroidism

High cholesterol

Ulcerative colitis

Reduced birth weight and size

Obesity

Decreased immune response to vaccines

Reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty

Manufacturers Are Swapping Out PFOA and PFOS With Other Toxic Chemicals

As the health and contamination risks of PFOA and PFOS became too large to ignore, the chemicals were phased out of production. However, they're being replaced with chemicals that are largely untested and likely equally as harmful. In addition to cookware, clothing and cosmetics, another product group where you're likely to see PFASs include fast food packaging and food wrappers.

American manufacturers voluntarily agreed to phase out PFOA and PFOS in 2011 due to concerns about their safety, but other countries still use them and some companies are still using them in the production of food packaging. In one study, about one-third of fast food wrappers and containers were found to contain fluorine, which suggests perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) were used to give the paper a slick surface, making it oil and grease resistant.8

Some 400 samples of food packaging from 27 fast food chains in the U.S. were tested between 2014 and 2015. This included packaging from Jimmy John's, Quiznos, Starbucks, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, and Dunkin' Donuts in the Boston, Seattle, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Grand Rapids areas. On average, 33 percent of them contained fluorine.

Dessert and bread wrappers were affected the most, with 56 percent containing fluorine, whereas only 20 percent of paperboard samples (such as pizza boxes and french fry containers) were affected. EWG has urged fast food companies to stop using fluorinated compounds in food packaging altogether, noting:9

"The FDA has approved 20 next-generation PFCs specifically for coating paper and paperboard used to serve food. These chemicals have not been adequately tested for safety, and trade secrecy laws mean that, in some cases, the limited safety data submitted to the EPA does not publicly disclose the identity of the specific chemicals or even the companies submitting them for approval. But what little information manufacturers have provided to regulators is troubling.

In documents filed with the EPA, DuPont reported that a next-generation chemical used to produce food contact paper, called GenX, could pose a 'substantial risk of injury,' including cancerous tumors in the pancreas and testicles, liver damage, kidney disease and reproductive harm …

[R]etired EPA toxicologist and senior risk assessor Deborah Rice,[Ph.D.,] said GenX has 'the same constellation of [health] effects you see with PFOA. There's no way you can call this a safe substitute.' PFC-free paper is readily available, as shown by the fact that the tests detected no fluorine in more than half of the paper samples."

PFOA Found in 99 Percent of Americans' Blood Samples

PFOA is now found in over 99 percent of American blood samples, according to analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).10 Hundreds of internal documents have been uncovered showing DuPont knew about the chemical's danger to the public and employees, likely as early as 1961.

PFOA continues to be released into the air and water through use of products that are already on the market, while DuPont and other companies have only substituted newer versions of such chemicals in the production of stain-resistant materials and Teflon-coated pans, which means the damage will only continue.

The film "The Devil We Know," released at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, depicts the struggle employees and residents of the Ohio River Valley went through to ensure DuPont takes responsibility for their actions of dumping Teflon waste into waterways, which will be experienced for centuries to come.

Likewise, toxic emissions from ChemFab, a maker of Teflon-coated fiberglass fabrics, polluted drinking water and soil in North Bennington, Vermont, with PFOA for decades, such that on average, Vermont residents have PFOA blood levels of 10 micrograms per liter.

Among Bennington residents living in the areas of contamination, blood levels of 1,125 micrograms per liter have been detected. Hundreds of wells in the area have also been contaminated, some found with more than 2,000 parts per trillion of PFOA in the water.11 Residents worry not only for their long-term health but also for their financial futures.

Aside from possibly being saddled with PFOA-related health care costs, their property values have taken a hit and the groundwater and soil contamination may prevent them from being able to sell their homes. Over a decade ago the EPA fined DuPont $16.5 million for withholding decades' worth of information about health hazards, but although it was the largest fine the EPA had ever assessed, it did not act as a deterrent to the company, which continues to manufacture such chemicals.

How to Avoid Teflon in Your Cosmetics

In order to avoid PFASs, it's important to avoid most products that are stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick. If you'd like to choose personal care products without Teflon or similar chemicals, however, be sure to check the labels and avoid ingredients that contain "fluoro" or the following ingredients:12

Perfluorononyl Dimethicone Phosphate

Perfluorodecalin

C9-15 Fluoroalcohol

Octafluoropentyl Methacrylate

Perfluorohexane

Pentafluoropropane

Polyperfluoroethoxymethoxy

Difluoroethyl Peg Phosphate

Polyperfluoroethoxymethoxy

Peg-2 Phosphate

Methyl Perfluorobutyl Ether

Perfluorononylethyl

Carboxydecyl Peg-10

Dimethicone

Perfluorodimethylcyclohexane

Perfluoroperhydrophenanthrene

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)

Polyperfluoromethylisopropyl Ether

DEA-C8-18

Perfluoroalkylethyl Phosphate

Teflon

More helpful tips can be found in EWG's Guide to Avoiding PFCs.13 Among them, avoid:

Items that have been pretreated with stain-repellants and opt out of such treatments when buying new furniture and carpets

Water- and/or stain-repellant clothing. One tipoff is when an item made with artificial fibers is described as "breathable." These are typically treated with PTFE.

Items treated with flame retardant chemicals, which includes a wide variety of baby items, padded furniture, mattresses and pillows. Instead, opt for naturally less flammable materials such as leather, wool and cotton

Fast food and carry out foods, as the wrappers are typically treated with PFCs

Microwave popcorn. PFOA may not only be present in the inner coating of the bag, it also may migrate to the oil from the packaging during heating. Instead, use "old-fashioned" stovetop popcorn

Nonstick cookware and other treated kitchen utensils. Healthier options include ceramic and enameled cast iron cookware, both of which are durable, easy to clean and completely inert, which means they won't release any harmful chemicals into your home. A newer type of nonstick cookware called Duralon uses a nonfluoridated nylon polymer for its nonstick coating. While this appears to be safe, your safest bet is still ceramic and enameled cast iron.

Oral-B Glide floss and any other personal care products containing PTFE or "fluoro" or "perfluoro" ingredients.

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