PFAS: Hard to escape in food, clothes, and makeup
A multi-part investigation found PFAS contamination ubiquitous in consumer products. Here's what you can do about it.
EHN.org, in partnership with the website Mamavation.com, spent the bulk of 2022 finding PFAS in scores of everyday products. Our findings suggest these troublesome chemicals are on our shelves, in our bodies, and almost impossible to avoid.
Surprisingly, many brands that tout clean and green credentials – like Lululemon, Burt’s Bees, Trader Joe’s – are contaminated with PFAS, according to our investigation. PFAS—a family of plastic additives that contribute to cancer, reproductive and immune system damages, elevated cholesterol, and other health issues—remain largely unregulated, leaving consumers to fend for themselves.
The collaboration between EHN.org and wellness community Mamavation looked for fluorine, an indicator of PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. We found contamination in clothing, food, and makeup products from popular brands like Lululemon, Old Navy, Burt’s Bees, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s.
It is not entirely clear what this exposure—especially from clothing—means for our health. But experts say it contributes to our overall load of PFAS.
The problem feels overwhelming, but you can act. Share our series with people in power that shape policy, learn about the brands and products with the highest levels, and subscribe to our daily newsletter where we will keep you informed of all the movement on PFAS pollution and regulation.
You can see the entire investigative series here.
- Evidence of PFAS in 15 of 23 popular sports bras, and in eight of 32 workout pants and leggings—with fluorine levels as high as 284 parts per million (LulaRoe Leggings).
- Evidence of PFAS in 54 of 83 lipsticks, mascaras, and other beauty products tested—with fluorine levels as high as 865 ppm (Clove & Hallow Lip Velvet Liquid Lipstick).
- Evidence of PFAS in canola cooking oils, and pasta sauces.
“Every single woman who's working out in the United States, I promise if you ask her, “Do you want a chemical on your athletic wear that is linked to metabolism woes and weight gain and vaccine issues,” [she] will say no,” Leah Segedie, founder of eco-wellness and consumer safety blog Mamavation, which commissioned the testing, told EHN.
Testing for PFAS is tricky—for scientists, industry, and nonprofits like us.
Here are some important takeaways about testing and contamination
Takeout containers are a common PFAS source.
Credit: Rosalind Chang/Unsplash
- Testing for PFAS—a family of 8,000 to 9,000 individual compounds—is expensive, hard, and imperfect. We used an accredited lab and, in testing some products more than once, found different levels for each test. There is no standardized test for checking products for PFAS.
- Many companies—especially clean beauty brands—expressed a desire for standardized, affordable testing.
- Some products, such as outdoor clothing, may have PFAS intentionally added for water or stain resistance. However, we found evidence that these “forever chemicals” can unintentionally contaminate consumer goods in many ways—including manufacturing lubricants and coatings, misidentified raw materials, even plastic packaging.
PFAS is so pervasive in society that many manufacturers cannot—or simply will not—get accurate information about what's in their products.
“Oftentimes, those suppliers don't know the answers to the questions you're asking even though they should be the expert, or they don't want to look for the answers because they don't want to tell you what it is," Lindsay Dahl, senior vice president at the clean cosmetics brand Beautycounter, told EHN. "Or they just flat out send you a piece of paper that says whatever you want it to say.”PFAS are largely unregulated in the U.S. and the bulk of attention remains on the chemicals in our drinking water, which experts suspect is the major exposure route. There are an estimated 40,000 U.S. sites that are potential PFAS sources, and state and federal data shows roughly 200 million Americans may have PFAS-contaminated water.
Bans and legislative movement
- Lawsuits target companies with PFAS in their products, especially in cosmetics. Toxin Free USA sued CoverGirl; Burt’s Bees faces a class action lawsuit filed in February based on the Mamavation testing.
- Third-party certifications give consumers more knowledge. While a step in the right direction, researchers warn these remain imperfect with some allowing too many toxics in “passing” grades.
- In April, Starbucks announced it will eliminate PFAS from all U.S. packaging by the end of 2022. Burger King, Tim Hortons, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s have all announced similar bans.
- Also in April, Washington state passed a bill to phase out PFAS in select consumer products by 2025. Maine banned the sale of PFAS in all products, including cosmetics, except when their use was "currently unavoidable," starting in 2030. California and Maryland banned the sale of any cosmetics with some PFAS starting in 2025.
- The EPA last month added five PFAS chemicals to its screening and risk assessment program.
- A House Committee recently approved the Federal PFAS Research Evaluation Act, which directs federal agencies to research and advance our understanding of PFAS.
- There’s a federal bill in the works — “No PFAS in Cosmetics Act,” introduced by Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME in the Senate and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-MI, in the House.
Given our findings, and the glacial pace of federal action when it comes to toxic chemicals, this can all feel overwhelming.
But there are things you can do
- Learn the essentials about PFAS with our comprehensive guide.
- Put pressure on manufacturers by sharing this investigation and asking for evidence that products you're buying are PFAS-free.
- Sign up for Above the Fold, our free daily newsletter that gives subscribers the “need to know” news every morning on PFAS and other ongoing environmental threats.
- Visit Mamavation and go to Product Investigations for suggestions on food, clothing, and makeup that appears PFAS-free.
Want to know more about PFAS? Check out our comprehensive guide.
Have something you want tested for PFAS? Let us know and write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Investigation: PFAS on our shelves and in our bodies - EHN ›
- Unintentional PFAS in products: A “jungle” of contamination - EHN ›
- What are PFAS? - EHN ›
- PFAS-polluted North Carolina alligators have weakened immune systems - EHN ›