Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemicals that are increasingly becoming a focal point in environmental health conversations. They’re found in a wide variety of consumer products, and their impact on our health and the environment is a growing concern.
This guide will provide an overview of PFAS, a list of products containing them, and tips on how to minimize your exposure.
Table of Contents
- Understanding PFAS Chemicals: A Brief Overview
- Health Effects of PFAS
- PFAS vs. PFCs: What’s the Difference?
- Detecting Toxic PFAS Chemicals in Products
- Intentionally-Added vs. Not-Intentionally-Added PFAS
- Are PFAS Regulated?
- The (Semi) Complete List of Common Products Containing PFAS
- Drinking Water
- Non-Stick Cookware
- Stain-Resistant Carpets and Furniture
- Waterproof Clothing, Shoes, & Outdoor Gear
- Cosmetics & Personal Care Products
- Food Packaging
- Cleaning Products
- Firefighting Foam & Turnout Gear
- Industrial Surfactants
- Good News for The Road Ahead
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Understanding PFAS Chemicals: A Brief Overview
PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals used in numerous industries around the globe since the 1940s. They are favored for their resistance to water, oil, temperature, and chemical reactions, making them a useful ingredient in a variety of consumer and industrial applications.
Unfortunately, their environmental persistence and potential to accumulate in our bodies have resulted in growing scrutiny of their use. (This persistence and bioaccumulation is how they earned the nickname “forever chemicals”).
(It’s worth noting that PFAS may not even work as well as we’ve been told they do, at least in some cases. For example, a 2023 study showed that when applied to furniture, PFAS did not perform better than untreated fabrics when it came to resisting stains. This has happened before with other types of chemicals, like when it was discovered that toxic flame retardants don’t really work.)
Health Effects of PFAS
PFAS exposure comes with a variety of health risks, including:
- Testicular, bladder, or kidney cancer
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Weakened response to vaccines
- Reduced fertility
- Birth defects
- and more
PFAS vs. PFCs: What’s the Difference?
Confusion often arises between PFAS and PFCs, and for good reason.
“PFCs” can either stand for perfluorinated chemicals OR perfluorocarbons, which are actually two different things.
Perfluorocarbons are greenhouse gasses that are used in things like refrigerants. They’re different from PFAS.
The term perfluorinated chemicals (or sometimes shortened to perfluorochemicals) is basically used as a synonym for PFAS. It used to be more common for scientists to use the term “PFCs” when talking about PFAS, but many organizations have transitioned to using “PFAS” in order to try and eliminate some of this confusion.
That’s why you see “PFAS” used much more often than “PFCs” these days.
In a practical sense, you ideally want to look for products that are “PFAS-free” because that is the most comprehensive (and least confusing) terminology.
If you see something that is “PFC-free,” then you’ll want to clarify whether they’re talking about perfluorochemicals or perfluorocarbons. If they’re talking about perfluorochemicals, then they probably mean PFAS.
Detecting Toxic PFAS Chemicals in Products
Identifying PFAS in products is not easy. Most companies do not openly disclose their use of these chemicals, and there are very few laws that require them to do so.
What makes it even more difficult is that PFAS often end up in products due to contamination, which means they’re not added intentionally. We’ll get to more in a minute.
That said, you can find clues in product descriptions that can give you a good idea about whether or not a product likely contains PFAS. Terms like “non-stick,” “waterproof,” “stain-resistant,” or “wrinkle-free” often indicate that PFAS may have been used.
When it comes to food packaging, the presence of a shiny or waxy coating could suggest the use of PFAS.
On products that actually do list their ingredients, such as cosmetics, you can look for words that contain “fluoro” in the name, which usually indicates PFAS chemicals.
Intentionally-Added vs. Not-Intentionally-Added PFAS
When it comes to manufacturing, PFAS can either be intentionally added to products or unintentionally present due to contamination.
When they’re intentionally added, they’re used for a specific purpose, such as making a pan non-stick, a jacket waterproof, or a pizza box grease-resistant.
However, PFAS that are not intentionally added can still end up in products in a variety of ways. For example, PFAS might be used to lubricate manufacturing equipment, leading to small amounts landing on the final product through the production process.
They can end up in crops like food or cotton from the water, contaminated soil, or sludge fertilizer. Unfortunately, even organic produce can contain PFAS.
Obviously, this unintentional presence is even more challenging to regulate and detect since their existence may not even be known by the manufacturer or grower. We’ve also reached a point where PFAS chemicals are ubiquitous, meaning contamination potential is everywhere.
This is important to keep in mind as you shop for “PFAS-free” products. Your top priority should be to look for products that do not have intentionally added PFAS for two main reasons:
- Because those products are likely to have much higher levels of PFAS chemicals than products that have PFAS contamination.
- Because avoiding products with intentionally-added PFAS is something you actually have control over. When it comes to PFAS contamination, we need more regulation on a larger, systemic level.
Are PFAS Regulated?
As of 2023, there are very few laws and regulations on the books that regulate PFAS compounds.
In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally established a “lifetime health advisory” of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for combined PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. (PFOA and PFOS are two of the most studied types of PFAS.)
However, this is simply an “advisory” and is non-enforceable.
Then, in March 2023, the EPA proposed a national primary drinking water regulation for six specific PFAS in drinking water. They set the maximum at only 4 ppt for:
- Mixture of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and HFPO-DA (GenX)
This lowered standard is an acknowledgment of how toxic PFAS are. Only the most sophisticated labs can even measure something so small. (To give you an idea, 1 ppt is equivalent to one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools!)
If passed, public utilities must meet enforceable standards called Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) by 2024. This means they must notify residents if MCLs are exceeded and take steps to become compliant.
Some states have also begun passing laws on PFAS in other products. For example, California, Washington, Vermont, and others have passed laws in recent years banning intentionally-added PFAS in things like clothing, menstrual products, and cosmetics.
While these are state-based laws, they can have positive effects on products sold across the country.
Many of these laws have not gone into effect yet, but they will steadily be implemented over the next 5-ish years.
Safer States is a great resource that can help you stay up to date on the regulations passed in each state.
The (Semi) Complete List of Common Products Containing PFAS
The wide use of PFAS across various industries means these chemicals can be found in an array of everyday items. This is not a complete list of all of the places where PFAS are used, but it gives you an idea of many of the most common uses.
Although they’ve become ubiquitous, here are the places you’re most likely to find forever chemicals:
As previously mentioned, PFAS are very common in tap water in the U.S., and most municipal treatment facilities do not have the infrastructure to remove it.
Filtering your drinking water can be a great practical way to reduce PFAS exposure, but keep in mind that not all water filters remove PFAS. That Brita pitcher or the filter in your fridge may be able to reduce some PFAS, but they cannot remove them completely.
All types of drinking water filters have their own pros and cons, which is why it can be difficult to recommend a “best” water filter for forever chemicals. If you want to take a deeper dive into the different kinds of filtration media that can significantly reduce PFAS, check out this guide.
But if you’re in a hurry, here are some recommendations for water filters in various categories, all of which have been independently tested to remove PFAS to 95-99%:
- Affordable pitcher-style: Clearly Filtered
- Countertop reverse osmosis: AquaTru (you can save $100 with our link)
- Countertop distiller: Aquanui (use the code THEFILTERY5 for 5% off)
- Under-sink and whole-home filters: Aquasana
- Whole-home for well water: SpringWell
- Shower filter: Aquasana (see this article for more)
Some water filters remove PFAS, but not all. Find out which water filter protects you best from exposure to PFAS “forever chemicals.”
PFAS are often used to create the non-stick surface that most of us know as Teflon.
There are a lot of safer, PFAS-free alternative materials for cookware, including cast iron, ceramic, and more. You can find our comprehensive guide to non-toxic cookware right here.
Be aware that there is a lot of greenwashing that goes on in the world of cookware, especially now that consumers are becoming hip to the dangers of Teflon.
You’ll see a lot of companies making claims such as “PFOA-free” on their cookware. Remember that PFOA is just one out of thousands of different PFAS chemicals. They slap a “PFOA-free” label on there to make consumers think it’s “non-toxic,” but just because it’s free from PFOA does not mean it’s free from all other kinds of PFAS.
So you’ll want to look for cookware that is 100% PFAS-free.
There may not be a 100% *perfect* kind of non-toxic cookware, but this guide will help you figure out the best fit for you based on your needs and preferences.
Stain-Resistant Carpets and Furniture
PFAS provide water and stain-resistant properties to textiles and upholstered furniture like sofas.
Again, it can be difficult to tell whether or not a piece of furniture contains PFAS because manufacturers are not required to disclose this information to customers.
Although PFAS are still widely used by most furniture companies, there are a few retailers, such as IKEA, that have phased them out.
Other DTC furniture companies, like Burrow, have switched to a PFAS-free water/stain-resistant finish called C0.
Still other companies don’t put any finishes at all on their upholstered fabrics. Although this might not be the best option for everyone (like those with pets or young children), it can be a safer option to consider. Opting for darker-colored and/or patterned furniture, which can hide potential stains, is a good idea too!
For a more in-depth guide on non-toxic couches, check out this guide.
Waterproof Clothing, Shoes, & Outdoor Gear
PFAS make clothing and outdoor gear resistant to water and stains. But these days, there are safer options for waterproofing outdoor gear.
Companies like KEEN and Fjallraven have already transitioned away from intentionally-added PFAS completely. Retailers like REI are in the process of transitioning away from them.
Don’t let the waterproof coatings on your hiking boots, pack, or tent poison you or the environment. Check out these PFAS-free brands the next time you need new outdoor gear.
Cosmetics & Personal Care Products
Just like with other categories, some cosmetics contain PFAS on purpose (like to make them waterproof), while other makeup products are contaminated with PFAS from the manufacturing process.
To avoid makeup and personal care products with intentionally-added PFAS, you can check the label for ingredients with “fluoro” in the name, such as polytetrafluoroethylene or DEA-C8-18 perfluoroalkylethyl phosphate.
Conventional dental floss contains toxins like PFAS and phthalates. Here’s what to look for in safer floss for your family and our favorite natural, non-toxic, and plastic-free dental floss brands without PFAS.
PFAS can resist oil and grease, making them common in food packaging like microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, fast food wrappers, and other to-go food containers. (Even the grease-resistant paper packaging that’s advertised as “compostable” can be coated with PFAS.)
Minimizing to-go food when you can is one way you can decrease PFAS exposure. You can also stay updated on which fast food companies have phased PFAS out of their packaging using this resource from Toxic Free Future. If you do get fast food regularly, you may consider buying from one of these restaurants.
When you go out to eat, you can also consider bringing your own food storage container to the restaurant with you! Putting your leftovers in a glass or silicone container instead of one of the restaurant’s disposable ones is a small step you can take.
Certain cleaning products may contain PFAS as well. While you’re not likely to find them in typical all-purpose cleaning products, they’re often used in carpet and upholstery cleaners and treatments like Scotchgard.
‘Works like magic,’ you might say. But is Scotchgard safe? Find out about the “new” formulation of this fabric & carpet protector, plus Scotchgard alternatives.
Firefighting Foam & Turnout Gear
In firefighting foam, PFAS are used as surfactants to spread the foam and suppress the fire. This not only creates a health risk to firefighters and members of the military, but it also contributes to water and soil contamination as all of that foam gets washed away. (In 2019, more than 75% of line-of-duty firefighter deaths were from occupational cancer!)
Turnout gear is also commonly treated with PFAS as well. These PFAS can “flake off” of textiles just like with regular raincoats and upholstered furniture, but it’s even worse for firefighters because of the heat. The increased heat causes even more leaching, and then firefighters absorb them into their skin or breathe them in through the air.
Several non-profit organizations and partnerships—such as Freedom To Choose/PFAS-Free PPE—have been started and led by firefighters with the goal of getting PFAS out of these foam and gear. You may want to consider giving them your support!
In industry, PFAS are used as surfactants due to their ability to reduce surface tension. As mentioned, this is one of the main ways that PFAS contamination can happen on consumer goods.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do about this on an individual level; we need state and federal legislation that limits and/or bans how PFAS are allowed to be used in manufacturing. You may want to call and/or write to your representatives and make your voice heard on this issue.
Good News for The Road Ahead
Navigating a world filled with PFAS can feel overwhelming, but with awareness and informed choices, we can significantly reduce our exposure to these persistent substances.
Choosing products without PFAS not only protects our health but also sends a clear message to manufacturers and legislators about consumer demand for safer alternatives. While the transition may not always be easy, remember that each small step brings us closer to a healthier and safer environment for all. Let’s strive to make informed purchases, advocate for products without PFAS, and push for a sustainable, safer future!
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