Scientists Found That 82% of Waterproof Mascaras Have Toxic Chemicals in Them — Here’s What to Shop Instead

Everything to know about PFAS in makeup, and how to tell if your routine has them.

I know exactly where I was when Urban Decay’s original Naked palette launched… In those pre-Instagram days, I don’t remember how I knew it had dropped, but with the fervor of someone who took any chance to detour into Sephora, I knew it would complete me. It was my go-to for years, but the name “Urban Decay” now takes on an unpleasant irony — because Teflon, listed under the name “PTFE,” is on the label. And that’s bad news for everyone. 

As a study published by researchers at the University of Notre Dame in mid-June found, the problem extends far beyond one palette. After testing more than 200 cosmetics, including concealers, foundations, eye and eyebrow products and various lip products, scientists found that 52 percent of all the cosmetics they tested contained high levels of fluorine, which is an indicator of PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — in the products. 

According to the EPA, the group of man-made chemicals are “very persistent in the environment and in the human body, meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time.” That explains why they’re used in cosmetics, says Notre Dame study lead Graham Peaslee, despite only a fraction of the tested products listing a perfluorinated chemical on the label. 

They’re used basically to impart a water-resistance or a long-lasting effect, and that’s why we know that some of it’s intentional. If you look at regular mascara and you look at waterproof mascara, guess which ones have all the fluorine in it? It’s the waterproof ones,” Peaslee says. To that point, 47 percent of all the mascaras they tested had PFAS in them, compared to 82 percent of waterproof ones. It was a similar story with liquid lipstick (sob), where 62 percent of them had PFAS, versus 55 percent of all lip products tested.   

As Peaslee notes, previous studies have found that the average lipstick wearer eats anywhere from 4 to 7 pounds of lipstick in a lifetime. That’s worrisome, because the CDC says that exposure to high levels of some PFAS can lead to an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancers, changes in liver enzymes, decreased infant birth weights, increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, increased cholesterol, and a decreased vaccine response in children. 

The risks continue, says Rainer Lohmann, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Superfund Research Center on the Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFAS (STEEP). “Numerous studies indicate a link to a weakened immune system, and adverse effects on metabolism, insulin resistance, [and] obesity,” Lohmann told InStyle via email. Which is especially bad news, considering we’re still in the midst of a global respiratory pandemic — and, as a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study found, higher exposure to some PFAS that accumulate in the lungs is associated with more severe COVID-19 cases.  

Elsie M. Sunderland, a Harvard professor of environmental science and engineering in the department of environmental health, says that outside of the ingestion pathway, how well PFAS penetrate the skin isn’t well understood. Lohmann says that drinking water contaminated by PFAS or inhaling them is much worse than having Teflon particles in your eyeshadow, but per Peaslee, that doesn’t absolve manufacturers using PFAS in cosmetics. Because once a mascara with the ingredients goes into a landfill, for instance, the contents will wash out and enter the drinking water supply.

Inhalation is also a concern when it comes to aerosol sprays from brands like Living Proof, which uses a perfluorinated ingredient, OFPMA, in a majority of its products. While the brand says “OFPMA is thoroughly researched and regulators around the world confirm that it is safe to use — for you and for the environment,” Peaslee is less certain. 

Are they all toxic? Pretty much. Every one we’ve tested has been toxic, or bioaccumulative and persistent at least,” he says. “So we maintain a pretty strong line that we’ve never met a good PFAS yet.” Lohmann concurs: “Even compounds like OFPMA can cause problems once released. OFPMA will break down to smaller, very long-lived PFAS that will persist in the environment for hundreds of years.” 

There is no good reason to keep using it. Once problems are discovered later, it is almost impossible, and very costly, to remove OFPMA’s breakdown products from the environment and drinking water.” Which brings us to a point that every expert I spoke with highlighted: Wherever possible, we should be cutting out these “forever chemicals,” and as convenient as it is to not have to reapply lipstick or long-lasting foundation, PFAS aren’t essential in cosmetics — and certainly not worth the risk. 

So how do you shop for cosmetics that don’t have PFAS in them when so many are flying under the radar? Peaslee says if it has “remarkable properties of being long-lasting or waterproof, those are the ones that most likely contain PFAS.” If you’re not sure, he recommends a simple test: Paint a piece of paper with a swatch of your lipstick or mascara, put a drop of water on it, and see if it’s there the next morning. If it is, there’s PFAS; if the water soaks into the paper within seconds, there’s not. 

Sound complicated? Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the No PFAS in Cosmetics Act in June, although it’s unclear when the act will pass or take effect. Until then, Peaslee suggests brands place a “PFAS-free” designation on their labels — and while that’s yet to come, brands like It Cosmetics have already taken steps to remove PFAS from popular products (look for ingredients “perfluorohexane,” “perfluorodecalin,” and “pentafluoropropane” to know if you have the old formulas). 

In the meantime, the brands below confirm that they’re PFAS-free, so you can shop knowing you aren’t putting your face up close and personal with a toxic chemical.

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