Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are widely used in everyday products such as cosmetics and clothing—but at the expense of both the environment and our health. Explore recent developments in the understanding of these persistent pollutants and current regulatory efforts to phase them out.

A PFAS Molecule

PFAS are a huge class of nearly 10,000 synthetic compounds that are used to increase durability, stain and water resistance, and many other properties of industrial and consumer products.1-3 But these chemicals are potentially toxic, and they show worrying persistence in both the environment and our bodies.

To date, various PFAS have been recorded in wastewater, rainfall, and human blood, and evidence increasingly shows that PFAS-treated goods are an important source of direct human exposure and environmental contamination. Due to their persistence in the environment and the potential for repeated exposure to PFAS and their associated effects, it is important that their use and emissions are restricted, and there have been calls for nonessential uses to be phased out.

Dressed in Chemicals

One common use for PFAS is in stain-proofing children’s clothes, particularly school uniforms.1 Current data links PFAS with a vast range of different effects, including immunotoxicity, obesity, neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems, asthma, cancer, and more.1,3 Children are especially vulnerable due to their smaller size, and they could be absorbing PFAS from skin contact every time these garments are worn. A recent study in Environmental Science & Technology found that higher total targeted PFAS concentrations were found in school uniforms made of 100% cotton than synthetic blends, with an estimated median potential exposure of 1.03 ng per kilogram of weight each day.1

PFAS and Cosmetics: An Ugly Truth

Another use that puts PFAS directly on to our skin is in cosmetics, where they are used to improve longevity and water resistance, or to increase skin absorption or appearance.2,3 A key concern is that these products are applied close to the eyes, nose, and mouth, which could increase exposure and risk due to enhanced absorption and ingestion. 

Although the most concerning PFAS are no longer used in many beauty products, some have been replaced with related compounds that that have unknown health and environmental impacts. But as well as knowing what is in products at formulation, we also need to know how they break down over time. Another analysis shared in Environmental Science & Technology found a variety of structurally diverse PFAS in cosmetics and beauty products that did not appear to be related to the PFAS listed in the ingredients.3 This could be the result of product aging or contamination from impurities in raw materials.3

Regulatory Efforts and Further Needs

As concerning as this is, it can be hard to navigate as a consumer. Acceptable doses for dermal absorption have not been published, and reference doses or acceptable daily levels are available only for a few individual PFAS, despite their abundance and known toxicity, and there are lax regulatory requirements for reporting PFAS use. Additionally, even where there are regulatory thresholds, products are often found to contain PFAS in quantities far greater than the recommended limits.

Now, two new bills have been signed into law in California and will come into effect in 2025. One of these new laws will ban the sale of cosmetics and personal care items that contain intentionally added PFAS, and the other will prohibit the sale of apparel and other textiles containing 100 parts per million or more of total organic fluorine.4

But what additional action is now needed? Researchers looking at these chemicals agree that there is a need for better organization between manufacturers and governing bodies to establish more comprehensive evaluation, labeling, and oversight of these harmful chemicals.6 Ultimately, a greater understanding of how PFAS impact our planet and health is crucial for developing treatments, recovering resources, and carving more sustainable paths forward.


  1. Xia, C. et al. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in North American School Uniforms. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022, 56, 19, 13845–13857
  2. Whitehead, H.D. et al. Fluorinated Compounds in North American Cosmetics. Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2021, 8, 7, 538–544
  3. Harris, K. J. et al. Targeted and Suspect Screening of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022, 56, 20, 14594–14604
  4. Hogue C. California bans cosmetics and apparel with PFAS. C&EN 2022, 100, 36
  5. Rodgers, K. M. et al. How Well Do Product Labels Indicate the Presence of PFAS in Consumer Items Used by Children and Adolescents? Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022, 56, 10, 6294–6304
  6. Glüge, J. et al. Information Requirements under the Essential-Use Concept: PFAS Case StudiesEnviron. Sci. Technol. 2022, 56, 10, 6232–6242

Want the latest stories delivered to your inbox each month?