I’m a chemist, and chemicals are my friends. So I always get a little upset when journalists pick on them. It’s particularly upsetting when it is the Guardian that is doing so. The Guardian has a reputation for being the most accurate of the UK newspapers, a reputation that in my experience is usually well founded. But they’ve let themselves down with an article exposing the presence of what they deem ‘forever chemicals’ in makeup. We should be worried because they are allegedly linked to cancer. The article calls them PFAs, but the more normal term is perfluorocarbons. I prefer it because there are other chemicals called PFAs, and it is easy to get confused.
This must be seriously worrying for lipstick users. And I’d hope that any media outlet would check pretty thoroughly before printing it. If they did, they’d find that the story falls apart more or less straight away. Yes, perfluorocarbons are used in cosmetics as slip agents. But that isn’t the only reason that fluorine might be found in them. There are other cosmetic ingredients that contain fluorine. Fluorine is also used as a treatment for cosmetic packaging sometimes too. It prevents some kinds of pack interactions. So the perfluorocarbons are probably a lot less prevalent than the articles numbers suggest.
But as I say, these compounds are used. But that doesn’t mean they are necessarily, or even possibly, doing any harm. As I say, chemicals are my friends. And like my more regular friends, it is sometimes fun to talk about their good points and their bad points. Fluorine is a very active and busy atom, but it’s also very clingy. The two things are linked. It is very reactive and so tends to create very strong bonds with other atoms. This means that while fluorine itself is very reactive, the compounds it forms are very stable and inert. This translates into being very hard to interact with. So other materials simply slide past them. This ability to keep at arms length from other chemicals gives perfluorocarbons their most widespread and famous use. The most widely used perfluorocarbon is sold under the trade name Teflon, and is used to give frying pans the non-stick property that we all appreciate.
So if you are concerned about the health effects of perfluorocarbons you ought to be looking at them rather than makeup. It is obviously the case that cooking food in contact with them is going to give a vastly greater level of exposure than applying makeup to the skin. But are there any health drawbacks to non-stick frying pans? I dare say I could find some if I googled, but I’ve never heard of any myself – and I would be really interested in them if I did. If I had written a paper on perfluorocarbons in makeup I’d certainly be sure to investigate their other uses.
But I think if I can explain why this rather relevant fact about perfluorocarbons isn’t mentioned. The scientist quoted has published quite a few papers on this class of compound – so it isn’t very likely that he doesn’t know about their most common use. But he does seem a bit vague about the cosmetic industry. He is quoted as saying “this is the first study to look at total fluorine or PFAS in cosmetics so we just didn’t know what we were going to find.” Well he could have looked at the ingredient lists of course. He then went on to opine that the supply chain was complicated and companies might not even be aware that they were using perfluorocarbons. Really? How does he suppose cosmetic manufacturers work? They employ cosmetic chemists like me to devise the most competitive formulations they can come up with, and then somehow just add stuff to the finished product without even realising what they are doing?
The reality is that if you follow back the links in the article to the source you find that this is my old friends the Environmental Working Group, the EWG, up to their normal tricks. They aren’t the activists they claim to be, they are members of the cosmetic industry as much as I am. They have a standard that cosmetic companies are invited to sign up to in return for a fee. If you pay up the EWG will certify your products as safe. They’ve turned scaremongering into a business opportunity.
When you know this, it is easy to explain some otherwise odd features of the Guardian article. For a start, why have they spent money running tests? All they need to do is look at the ingredient list on the packs. Any ingredient listed with ‘fluoro’ as part of the name has a good chance of being a perfluorocarbon. If this were a genuine health scare would this information not be the first thing you would want to get out?
Secondly, why not name the brands? As I say, the information is already in the public domain.
And why the suggestion that cosmetic companies don’t understand their own products? That’s a pretty scary assertion. I’d be bothered if I thought it were true. Are inadvertenly putting high tech chemical additives into their products? And afterwards slapping their foreheads and saying ‘we’ve just accidentally made our products glide onto the skin smoothly and evenly ,what are we like’? I don’t think any business is that haphazard.
The whole tone is designed to sow doubt and fear, backed up with misinformation. The reality is that perflourocarbons are a large chemical class – most are extremely safe. For example they are used to create artificial blood to treat very sick people. I’m not aware of any that have been shown to have toxic effects, but even if they were you couldn’t extrapolate that back to other members of the family. The EWG make a business of spreading scare stories like this, and are very skilled at doing so. Don’t fall for it.
If you are in the business and have to cope with these kinds of stories you might find this post covering the same story on my pro blog interesting.