Cosmetics and “Forever Chemicals”

Why they are there and what’s being done about it?

What are PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large family of synthetic organic chemicals containing carbon chains in which most or all of the hydrogen atoms have been replaced by fluorine. There are more than 12,000 different PFAS currently identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but only a few hundred have been used commercially; this includes multiple intentional uses in cosmetics and other personal care products.

Due to the strength and stability of the carbon-fluorine bond, PFAS tend to be very stable and chemically inert, which makes them both very useful in multiple applications and very persistent in the environment, hence their popular label as “forever chemicals.” Depending on the length of the carbon chain, they may also be very persistent in the human body once they have been ingested as contaminants in food, drinking water or house dust, or inhaled in the air. (Absorption through the skin appears to be far less significant.)

Why are They Used in Cosmetics?

PFAS have been used in the formulation of cosmetics and other personal care products to perform a variety of functions, including the following:

  • To act as emulsifiers or lubricants and to control product consistency and texture.
  • To make cosmetic products more durable and water-, weather-, sweat- and tear-resistant.
  • To add a shine to the skin and make it appear brighter.
  • To aid in the penetration of the surface of the skin by lotions and creams.
  • In hair conditioners, to assist in combing of wet hair and make them oil-resistant.

Which Cosmetic Products Might Contain PFAS?

Cosmetics and personal care products in which PFAS historically have been used include: foundation; blush and highlighter; eyebrow products; eye makeup (mascara and other lash products, eyeshadow, eye cream); moisturizers, cleansers, and other creams and lotions; shampoo and hair conditioner; lipstick and lip balm; nail polish; sunscreen; shaving cream; and dental floss. Intentionally added PFAS may appear on a product’s ingredient list, but that is not always the case. Some PFAS may be present in cosmetics unintentionally as the result of raw material impurities, contamination from processing equipment, carryover from processing aids, or the breakdown of other, intentionally added, PFAS ingredients.

Can PFAS in Cosmetic Products Be Detected?

There are two main classes of PFAS — fluoropolymers (very large molecules) and non-fluoropolymers (relatively small molecules). Fluoropolymers account for the bulk of industrial production, while non-fluoropolymers make up the majority of individual PFAS in EPA’s database. Basic fluoropolymers such as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, e.g., Teflon™) tend to be completely inert and non-toxic, while non-fluoropolymers (which include the highly publicized but no longer used acids PFOS and PFOA) display a wide range of chemical reactivity and potential toxicity. Fluoropolymers like PTFE have been widely used in cosmetics, and a 2022 survey noted that PTFE was the most common ingredient found in most cosmetics.

However, current test methods do not appear to be capable of identifying fluoropolymers per se; testing can either identify and quantify a short list (up to about 40) of so-called “targeted” non-polymeric PFAS individually, or measure what is known as Total Organic Fluorine (TOF). TOF, specified in some state PFAS bans, measures only the total weight of organically bound fluorine in a product without identifying any individual PFAS, or distinguishing between fluoropolymer and non-fluoropolymer content. Thus, a high TOF content in a cosmetic may not be so much of a cause for concern from a toxicity perspective if the majority consists of inert, non-toxic fluoropolymers like PTFE, but currently there is no easy way to determine if that is the case.

Can PFAS in Cosmetics Be Absorbed into the Body?

For PFAS in most types of cosmetics, the only likely route for entrance into the body is through the skin (dermal absorption); the few exceptions would appear to be loose face powder (through inhalation) or products applied to the lips and mouth, such as lipstick and lip balm (through inadvertent ingestion). In general, however, the dermal absorption route is far less significant than ingestion or inhalation, as was demonstrated in a 2023 Norwegian study.

Individual States Are Starting to Regulate PFAS in Cosmetics

The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 (MoCRA) requires the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to assess the safety of PFAS in cosmetics and publish its results by the end of 2025. In the meantime, however, a number of states have taken matters into their own hands, enacting laws that ban or restrict the use of PFAS — usually all PFAS but occasionally a few specific PFAS — in cosmetics and other personal care products. In general, they ban the manufacture, sale, distribution for sale or offering for sale of such products to which PFAS have been intentionally added in order to provide a specific characteristic or perform a specific function in that product.

Individual State Laws

California has two PFAS-in-cosmetics laws, both effective January 1, 2025. The PFAS-Free Beauty Act of 2022 (AB 2771) bans the sale of cosmetics and personal care products to which any PFAS have been intentionally added, while the Toxic-Free Cosmetic Act of 2020 (AB 2762) bans any such products to which have been intentionally added any of 13 specific PFAS or certain other chemicals.

Colorado’s Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Chemicals Consumer Protection Act of 2022 (HB 22-1345) bans the sale of cosmetics (including personal care products but not prescription drugs) containing any intentionally added PFAS, effective January 1, 2025.

Maine’s Act to Stop PFAS Pollution (LD 1503) requires the manufacturer of any product containing intentionally added PFAS to submit a written notification to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to include a description of the product, the reason for adding the PFAS, and the amount of each PFAS present. It would ban the sale of any new product containing intentionally added PFAS as of January 1, 2030, unless DEP had determined the PFAS use was unavoidable.

Maryland’s HB 643, effective January 1, 2025, bans the intentional addition to cosmetic products of any of the same toxic chemicals (including 13 PFAS) as California’s AB 2762.

Minnesota’s omnibus Environmental and Natural Resources Act (HF 2310), Section 21 (Products Containing PFAS) bans the sale of certain products (including cosmetics and personal care products) containing intentionally added PFAS, effective January 1, 2025.

Oregon’s Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act of 2023 (SB 546) bans the sale of cosmetics containing any intentionally added PFAS as of January 1, 2027. The ban applies to cosmetic products regardless of whether they also contain drug ingredients regulated by the FDA (such as sunscreens) included to perform a secondary function, but not to those ingredients themselves.

Washington state’s Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act of 2023 (SHB 1047), effective January 1, 2025, bans the intentional addition in cosmetics and personal care products of all PFAS, along with certain other chemicals. The ban, like Oregon’s, applies to cosmetic products regardless of whether they also contain drug ingredients regulated by the FDA, but not to those ingredients themselves. In-state retailers are allowed up to a one-year sell-through period for existing stock.

Numerous other states are currently considering similar bans on intentionally added PFAS in cosmetics and personal care products, including Illinois, Tennessee, Vermont, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. Five of these proposed bans separately list dental floss. In most cases except for Hawaii and New York, the language does not specifically list personal care items in addition to cosmetics, but the definition of “cosmetics” is generally broad enough to encompass them:

“Cosmetic” means an article for retail sale or professional use intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.

California has two additional PFAS laws — covering food packaging and juvenile products — that ban any PFAS above 100 ppm (measured as TOF), regardless of whether have been intentionally added or are inadvertently present. It would not be surprising if that, overall, the 100 ppm limit was eventually applied to cosmetics as well, in both California and other states.


With multiple state bans going into effect as early as January 1, 2025, the intentional use of any and all PFAS in cosmetics, regardless of possible toxicity issues or lack thereof, is rapidly coming to an end, and manufacturers are being forced to reformulate. An additional ban on any PFAS above 100 ppm may well be on the horizon.


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