Ocean waves foam birdseye view Sergey Bogomyako

Ban 'forever chemicals' PFAS

3 minute read

Victoria Riglen, Head of Communications and Campaigns

10 Feb 2020

A steady stream of PFAS chemicals is causing irreversible damage to our ocean.

New research by the Marine Conservation Society has identified that popular bathroom essentials, from sun cream to skincare products and make up, contain invisible ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which have a long-lasting and detrimental impact on our ocean.

These chemicals are fluorinated substances that remain in the environment without breaking down for several decades. They are highly polluting and extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove once they enter the environment. The PFAS group is made up of over 4,000 chemicals which can be found in everything from firefighting foam to non-stick pans (Teflon is the brand name for a particular PFAS), and greaseproof packaging.

Non-stick frying pan Cooker King

Credit: Cooker King via Unsplash

The Marine Conservation Society has identified a number of bathroom staples which commonly contain PFAS and are likely to be found in almost every UK home. PFAS have several properties which make them ideal in cosmetics, specifically for a smooth application and mixing ability, some are also not reactive, making them useful ingredients to include in many different cosmetics.

PFAS chemicals can be found in:

  • Make-up products, particularly eyeshadow and foundation
  • Face masks
  • Facial cream
  • Hair care
  • Face wash
  • Shaving foam and similar shaving products
  • Nail care

The Marine Conservation Society says the chemicals’ presence in so many bathroom staples is concerning due to their direct pathway into water sources and eventually the ocean. In addition, PFAS currently escape classic wastewater treatment systems because, among other reasons, they remain dissolved and therefore cannot be filtered out like solid materials.

Dr. Francesca Bevan, Marine Conservation Society's Chemical Pollution Specialist says: “The dangers which PFAS pose to the marine environment are similar to those posed by ocean plastic, a steady stream causing an ever-growing build up in the environment. What makes the problem of PFAS more challenging is that they are an invisible threat, we can’t physically see these chemicals building up and as such, don’t know the true extent of the damage.

What makes the problem of PFAS more challenging is that they are an invisible threat, we can’t physically see these chemicals building up

Dr Francesca Bevan, Chemical Pollution Specialist

“PFAS chemicals are widely used in many products, including cosmetics, and this steady stream of chemicals into the marine environment is putting animals at risk, with the full extent of the possible damage not yet known. Studies have been conducted on dolphins, polar bears, otters and seals and have shown the negative effects of PFAS on their immune systems, blood, kidney and liver function.  PFAS chemicals should be banned from non-essential use in consumer and industry products solely because of their extreme persistence in the environment. These chemicals will build up over time in the environment and animals leading to potentially unforeseen effects.”

Chemical beakers in lab Hans Reniers

Credit: Hans Reniers via Unsplash

Currently, only two PFAS chemicals have been banned globally due to data proving a link between exposure to these chemicals and effects on the liver, gastrointestinal tract and thyroid in humans and animals. These two PFAS chemicals have also been shown to have carcinogenic effects and to cross the placenta in some animals.

Organisations including the Marine Conservation Society are working to demystify PFAS chemicals and to introduce better legislation in manufacturing. CHEM Trust is advocating for a ‘grouping’ approach in chemical regulation, allowing regulation of the entire group of PFAS to accelerate the phasing out of the chemicals in products. Environmental charity Fidra is conducting a study looking at the use of PFAS in UK food packaging. Fidra is calling for UK supermarkets to follow the example set by Denmark and take a lead in removing these harmful chemicals from our food shelves, setting the stage for wider legislative change. The use of PFAS chemicals in manufacturing is so prolific that improved legislation would likely have the most impact on stemming the flow of PFAS chemicals into the environment.

Full ingredient labels on cosmetics would theoretically allow consumers to make an active choice to avoid PFAS chemicals by opting for ‘fluorine free’ products, and the Marine Conservation Society encourage consumers to do this as much as possible. However, the charity recognises ingredient lists can be very confusing and exhaustive, for other products there is often no way of knowing whether they contain PFAS.