Graham Peaslee, professor in the Department of Physics and Astrophysics, and collaborators have received a 2021 Best Paper Award for their published article about “forever chemicals” in cosmetics.
Editors with the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science and Technology Letters (ES&T) selected the article,“Fluorinated Compounds in North American Cosmetics,” as one of the top five best papers in the journal. The study tested more than 200 cosmetics and discovered many contain high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are carcinogens that do not naturally degrade and contaminate groundwater for decades.
“We knew the article would have popular appeal,” said Peaslee, who is affiliated with the Eck Institute of Global Health. “My group is trying to make an impact by showing how widespread PFAS are; when you make a molecule that lasts forever, you have to be very careful.”
Heather Whitehead, first author on the study, is a fourth-year doctoral student in chemistry who works in the labs of Peaslee and Marya Lieberman, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Whitehead used total fluorine measurements to screen large numbers of cosmetics for PFAS, and she identified specific PFAS in a majority of mascaras, lip products and foundations.
The study is similar to others that Peaslee has completed, including one demonstrating that fast food chains used PFAS-containing wrappers on their products and another showing that firefighter turnout gear contained PFAS.
The recent cosmetics study led to congressional interest in legislation and increased support among some retailers to certify PFAS-free products, Whitehead said.
“After the general public saw this, the industry began to make a change on their end,” she said, adding that she has narrowed her personal purchasing choices. “We’ve seen several brands test their products and state whether they are PFAS-free.”
Studies have linked certain PFAS to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, hypertension, thyroid disease, low birth weight and immunotoxicity in children. The issue with PFAS in cosmetics is not just about their application to the skin but also about what happens when products are discarded, Peaslee said.
“Ninety-nine percent of the PFAS isn’t going to be absorbed in the skin, but most of it is going to stay in the products,” he said. “What happens when you use mascara, and leave the tube open? It turns to powder. Then you throw it away, and 100 percent of the PFAS goes into landfills, in our drinking water, meaning that all of us are drinking it.”
Other co-authors of the study are Emi Eastman, Megan Green, Meghanne Tighe, John T. Wilkinson and Sean McGuinness at Notre Dame; Marta Venier and Yan Wu at Indiana University; Miriam Diamond, Anna Shalin and Heather Schwartz-Narbonne at the University of Toronto; Shannon Urbanik at Hope College; Tom Bruton and Arlene Blum at the Green Science Policy Institute; and Zhanyun Wang at ETH Zurich.
Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Great Lakes Protection Initiative of the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada partly funded the study.