‘Forever chemicals’ are pervasive. Here are 4 ways to avoid them in consumer products

April 3, 2024

A group of toxic chemicals known as PFAS have been found in a wide range of consumer products — from nonstick pans to period-proof panties.

Exposure to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) has been linked to a number of ailments, including kidney and testicular cancer and thyroid disease. The chemicals are also sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they linger in the human body and the environment instead of breaking down.

Most PFAS studies have focused on the effects of consuming the substances. The impact of coming into contact with them through the skin is less clear, but experts warn it could also be a concern.

“Not a lot of scientists have looked at dermal penetration by PFAS,” said Jamie DeWitt, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University. 

She pointed to a 2011 study on mice that found one type of PFAS can be absorbed through the skin and that in some cases this is a “significant route of exposure.”

“There’s at least one study to suggest that PFAS can absorb through the skin, but otherwise there’s not a lot of data,” she said. 

While the research is limited, DeWitt added: “I would not feel comfortable applying PFAS to my skin if I knew that PFAS were in the cosmetics” because of the health risks posed by the substances.

 Products that touch more permeable parts of a person’s body, such as the lips, eyes or genital area, are of particular concern, she noted.

“Those have thinner skin, so they’re more permeable, so it’s easier for things to absorb through those membranes than through your regular skin,” DeWitt said. She also warned against products like lotions because they are designed to be absorbed. 

There’s no surefire way to avoid PFAS, however, and they may lurk in packaging as well as products.

But for consumers looking to avoid them, here are some general tips. Please note that this list is not exhaustive and may not apply to every product.

Read the label

Many cosmetics products have been found to contain forever chemicals. Cosmetic companies are required to list their ingredients, so PFAS that are intentionally added to such products should appear on those lists.

David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, said there are “a couple dozen” PFAS ingredients that have been added to cosmetics over the last few years. 

According to the Food and Drug Administration, some common PFAS ingredients in cosmetic products are: PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin and perfluorohexane. 

PFAS have also been detected in a variety of workout wear and other apparel, but there is no similar requirement to list the ingredients in clothing.

“There’s no required disclosure, so oftentimes, at least in a store, there’s no direct way to check. Many companies have statements on their websites, but otherwise it would be asking questions of that company,” Andrews said. 

Check the company’s website to see if it notes that products are ‘PFAS-free’

If a company makes a product that doesn’t contain PFAS — especially in cosmetics, cookware, textiles and other industries where the substances are commonly found — they’ll probably want to tell you about it.

See if the product or company is described as “PFAS-free”on its website.

But be careful. Just because a product lacks one type of PFAS — a group that contains thousands of different chemicals — does not mean that none of the substances lurk within it.

For example, products may be advertised as “PFOA-free,” which means they don’t contain one particularly toxic forever chemical, but they may include other types. 

“Over the last decade or so, as companies moved away from PFOA to other PFAS, they typically advertise that as being ‘PFOA-free,’ so having a product state that it is ‘PFOA-free’ is usually not a good indicator of being PFAS-free,” said Andrews. 

“The companies that are making statements that they’ve moved entirely away from PFAS usually say that it’s either ‘PFAS-free,’ often ‘PFC-free’ or free of fluorinated chemicals,” he added. 

Watch for ‘waterproof,’ ‘stain-resistant,’ ‘non-stick’ and ‘sweat-proof’ 

Some of the most common uses of PFAS are making products resistant to water, stains and sweat.

Not all products that say they repel those substances necessarily use forever chemicals, but if they do, it may be an indicator that you should do more research.

“Any time you see stain-repellent, water-repellent, non-stick, grease-repellent, those are all words that should lead you to go ‘hmm, I wonder if this product contains PFAS’ and then to do a little bit of research … if you want to avoid PFAS in those products,” DeWitt said. 

Even if a product is not marked with one of the specific terms above, if it is intended to prevent you from getting wet, it may be worth checking if it contains PFAS.

Look up the item in a product database

While it’s often difficult to identify whether products contain PFAS, there are several databases that aim to do that work for you. 

The Hill doesn’t endorse particular websites and has not independently verified the accuracy of their data. But among the resources available are a consumer guide from the Green Policy Institute and a personal products index called SkinDeep from the Environmental Working Group.

The European Commission also has a cosmetic ingredients database, which doesn’t investigate specific brands but explains the common use of each compound. 

To search for PFAS ingredients in these or other databases, try typing in “perfluoro,” rather than the acronym.