Teflon in Your Makeup? Yes – and It’s Perfectly Legal.

This month, an Ohio woman won a $1.6 million settlement against DuPont for toxic exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8. The woman had developed kidney cancer (one of many diseases linked to PFOA exposure) after living near a DuPont manufacturing facility. For decades, DuPont had knowingly polluted nearby water sources.

What is PFOA, and what are the health concerns?

PFOA is a toxic chemical linked to several diseases, including kidney and breast cancer. Studies have shown that higher PFOA levels correlate with an increased risk of breast cancer. For example, a case study in Greenland found that breast cancer patients had one and a half times the levels of PFOA in their bodies compared to their peers without cancer.  PFOA is also an endocrine disrupter, meaning it mimics natural hormones and can interfere with children’s development or cause fertility problems.  

Additionally, PFOA does not break down in nature and has been found all across the globe, from remote regions of the Arctic to human umbilical cords. It can build up and remain inside our bodies for years, putting us at risk of numerous diseases.

Even if you don’t live near manufacturing facilities, you could still be exposed to PFOA through everyday consumer products, according to a new report.

The report, co-authored by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Breast Cancer Fund, found PFOA in anti-aging products. PFOA is sometimes added to cosmetics during the manufacturing process because it aids in blending fats and waters. This is often true for products containing polytetrafluoroethylene (a chemical used to help create a smooth finish). PFOA is later removed but trace amounts can remain in the final product.

PFOA has been used by manufacturers for decades because it gives products water- and stain-proof properties. It’s what makes Teflon pans non-stick and gives stain resistance to carpeting and clothing.

Even if consumers are aware of PFOA’s health risks, people are unknowingly exposing themselves to this cancer-causing substance since these products are not labeled as containing PFOA. Disturbingly, anti-aging products are particularly marketed to middle-aged women – the demographic who have the highest risk of developing breast cancer.

Researchers tested seven beauty products for PFOA and found the toxic chemical in three of them.

This includes two products by L’Oréal  (Garnier Ultra-Lift Transformer Anti-age Skin Corrector and Garnier Ultra-Lift Anti-Wrinkle Firming Moisturizer) and one by Cover Girl (Advanced Radiance with Olay, Age Defying Pressed Powder). 

While the amount of PFOA in these products is relatively low, the average American woman uses 12 beauty products each day, exposing herself to about 126 different chemicals. The risks from harmful levels of toxic chemicals substantially increases when these beauty product chemicals are added to the countless chemicals people are exposed to through the environment and other consumer products. What can we do to protect ourselves and our families?

  1. The report recommends avoiding products with polytetrafluoroethylene and certain other ingredients that could indicate PFOA contamination. They also suggest visiting the Campaign for Safer Cosmetic’s webpage to learn about ingredients of concern to watch out for in your cosmetics.
  2. Consumer demand can spur change at the corporate level. For example, following public pressure, Walmart agreed in 2008 to stop selling baby and water bottles containing BPA (another endocrine-disrupting chemical). Manufacturers then had to change their processes in order to continue selling to Walmart. This “retail regulation” can have significant ripple effects in removing toxic chemicals from consumer products.
  3. You can visit the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to learn what ingredients are in your personal care products and the health risks they pose. You can also sign the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics action alert demanding that L’Oréal remove PFOA contaminants from their beauty products.


In order to prevent toxic chemicals from entering products in the first place, we need to fix our broken chemical laws. 

Cosmetics and personal care products are some of the least regulated products in the U.S. New products are not required to be tested prior to coming on the market. Additionally, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) – the agency responsible for overseeing cosmetics in commerce – cannot even issue recalls of unsafe products.

The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, our nation’s primary law granting FDA the authority to oversee cosmetics, has not been significantly updated since it was enacted in 1938. Since then, tens of thousands of new chemicals have entered the marketplace. Yet FDA lacks authority to approve or even review chemicals that end up in personal care products.

Two current bills would strengthen FDA’s oversight of cosmetic ingredients.

The Senate’s bipartisan Personal Care and Product Safety Act of 2015 would require FDA to review a minimum of five ingredients each year, including cancer-causing formaldehyde and endocrine-disrupting propyl paraben during the first year. The bill would also require manufacturers to register their products and ingredients with the FDA and would grant the agency the authority to recall unsafe products.

While these are important first steps, FDA’s review of just five chemicals a year would mean that ensuring the safety of remaining chemical ingredients is left to manufacturers. (We’ve seen 22,000 chemicals enter commerce in the past 40 years – over 500 per year – so FDA could not possibly keep pace.) Additionally, the bill does not require manufacturers to follow FDA’s safety standards  during their internal safety reviews so the current climate of self-regulation would largely continue.    

A bill that would reinvent the way cosmetics are regulated in the U.S. is expected to be reintroduced this year.

The Safe Cosmetics & Personal Care Products Act offers the best potential to change the regulatory landscape and protect the public from harmful cosmetic ingredients. The bill would raise the bar for manufacturer’s safety assessments and require data sharing between companies. It would phase-out the use of cancer-causing and other harmful ingredients. Companies would also be required to label product ingredients (including chemical constituents of fragrances) and the bill would establish a publically-accessible clearinghouse of product ingredients.

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