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Are forever chemicals in makeup, fast-food wrappers? Here's what our tests say

Two Ideastream reporters in lab coats test common household items for PFAS.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Ideastream Public Media reporters Taylor Wizner, left, and Zaria Johnson test common items, including fast-food wrappers, nonstick skillets, cosmetics and water resistant sprays, for PFAS.

This is part of a special report on forever chemical contamination in Ohio. Ideastream Public Media reporters spent months investigating the impact of these chemicals to answer the question, "How worried should we be?" New radio stories dropped every Tuesday in January, 2024.

Industrial chemicals have spread throughout our water systems, food sources and into our bodies, according to experts. The chemicals are called PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyls, known for their nonstick and waterproof properties. They're also known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not easily break down in the environment.

These chemicals are so widespread that nearly every person in America has some PFAS in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lauren Green
Ideastream Public Media

How worried should we be?

Understanding what that means for our health is not easy. Not everyone with PFAS in their bodies will get sick, the CDC points out.

The risks associated with PFAS dependon many factors: How a person is exposed and to how much and for how long matters, according to the CDC. As does an individual's sensitivity to the chemicals and other determinants of health like the quality of health care a person receives.

Scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposure to mixtures of different PFAS present in the environment over a lifetime.

One way they're doing that is through animal studies. Those studies have found PFAS can cause damage to the liver and the immune system and cause low birth weight, birth defects and delayed development in lab animals.

But the CDC said the results of animal studies, while important, don't necessarily translate to human outcomes because test doses of PFAS are generally higher than doses people experience in the environment and people and animals react differently to PFAS.

How did they get there?

Experts say PFAS are present in the food chain,including in freshwater fish, and they've been found in nearly half of the nation’s tap water, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

A new report found fish from Ohio's lakes and rivers tested positive for forever chemicals. Now the state is studying the issue.

PFAS are also present in many common consumer goods: stain-resistant furniture, certain brands of dental floss and some waterproof makeup to name a few.

Ideastream Public Media wanted to find out whether PFAS were in some common items, so we launched our Forever Chemicals Test Kitchen to see for ourselves.

We used two analytical methods to determine whether these chemicals linked to so many health problems are present in nonstick skillets, makeup, waterproofing sprays and fast food wrappers — all sourced in Northeast Ohio.

One test of solid product samples submitted to Summit Environmental Technologies, a lab in Cuyahoga Falls, did not detect PFAS, but a much more sensitive testing method detected forever chemicals in our samples.

Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Ideastream Public Media host Jeff St. Clair, right, speaks with an employee from Summit Technologies, the lab which tested Ideastream's samples for PFAS.

Ideastream's Jeff St. Clair, a former analytical chemist, devised that more sensitive test using water, acid and heat to collect what's called a leachate sample that simulates the leaching process of heat and moisture in everyday situations.

The method was simple.

Ideastream reporters heated 500 milliliters of distilled water, added 10 milliliters of vinegar (the acid), added the sample and maintained the solution at approximately 95 degrees Celcius for five minutes. Then they strained the solids out and delivered the liquid samples, including a blank, to the lab.

A blank is a sample that includes only water and vinegar to test for any contamination.

Ideastream also used the leachate method to test water that had been heated in nonstick pans, one of the classes of consumer products most famously associated with PFAS. The test found no PFAS.

Though the Ideastream testing employed a common methodology, it is not peer-reviewed and has limitations. Our tests looked for 28 common PFAS chemicals of the thousands of PFAS chemicals that exist.

What our tests provide is a snapshot of the ubiquitous nature of these chemicals in modern life and how every day people come into contact with these invisible chemicals, which have been linked to an assortment of health problems, including high cholesterol, low birth weight and cancer.

They also highlight how difficult it is to know when you might be coming into contact with PFAS. It can be challenging to tell whether an item may contain the chemicals because it is often not marked on packaging.

What our tests do not indicate is what risk, if any, the presence of these chemicals pose to people who come in contact with them.

Experts say the best way to protect yourself from PFAS is to be knowledgeable about where they are and find alternatives. Doing so will help reduce exposure and limit the risk of long-term effects like high cholesterol and various types of cancer.

Summit tested our leachate samples using the “EPA 537.1 modified” testing protocol. They also tested our solid samples.

We reached out to all of the companies to discuss positive results.

Watch the videos below to see how we did the testing and find out what we found. Our full test results are below.

Nonstick skillets

PFAS are perhaps best known for their use in nonstick cookware. Teflon, the brand name of polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, a type of PFAS chemical, was one of the first brands to enter the popular consciousness as a source of PFAS contamination after a lawsuit resulted in a study of the health effects on nearly 70,000 people in Ohio and West Virginia.

Attorney Robert Bilott has spent decades working to hold chemical manufacturers accountable for contaminating the environment with forever chemicals.

Since then, many cooks across the country have struggled to determinethe safety of using nonstick pans, only some of which include information about what PFAS they contain on their labels.

We tested water that had been heated in two pans selected to recreate the conditions in home kitchens. One was a scratched-up, years-old pan and the other was a brand new Mainstays brand pan from WalMart.

WalMart said the Mainstays brand pan is manufactured without PFOA, perfluorooctanoic acid, one type of PFAS chemical that causes cancer.

Results begin at :53

Our tests did not detect PFAS in water cooked in either nonstick pan.

Waterproofing sprays

The majority of products marketed as stain-resistant or water-resistant contained PFAS, according to a 2022 study published by Toxic-Free Future, a nonprofit that advocates safer products and chemicals.

We tested two sprays, a Penguin brand waterproofing spray and 3M’s Scotchgard Outdoor Sun & Water Shield.

Results begin at :53

We found seven types of PFAS in the Penguin brand spray, including PFOA. PFOA is a human carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer at the World Health Organization.

The maker of the Penguin brand spray has not yet responded to requests for comment.

The Scotchgard spray had only one PFAS from our list of 28: PFPeA, or perfluoropentanoic acid.

PFPeA is a member of a group of perfluorinated chemicalsthat have been linked tocancer, endocrine disruption, accelerated puberty, liver and immune system damage and thyroid changes, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. A 2022 study in mice linked PFPeA exposure to changes in liver and skin cells.

3M, the maker of Scotchgard, said in a statement that its Sun & Water Shield product uses a non-PFAS polymer to help protect fabrics from UV and water damage.

"While we don’t have information to verify the reliability of this particular test, reliable testing for PFAS compounds requires a validated experimental approach, including a sufficient number of control samples and procedures to reduce cross-contamination," a spokesperson wrote. "3M cannot comment on the accuracy of this result."

"Scotchgard™ Sun & Water Shield has never been formulated with intentionally added PFAS," the statement reads. "We will continue to seek to innovate new solutions for customers as we work to discontinue the use of PFAS across our product portfolio and exit all PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025."

Experts say if you are concerned about PFAS exposure through water-repellant sprays, you can avoid them by choosing waterproofing products with silicone or wax-based formulas.


PFAS are used in cosmetics for the same reason they're used in other products. They are water and oil-resistant and are often used in products marketed to stay in place.

The use of PFAS in cosmetics is not unheard of. In 2018, the Environmental Working Group, found 13 different PFAS chemicals, including Teflon, in nearly 200 products from 28 cosmetic brands. EWG also found PFAS in sunscreen, shampoo and shaving cream.

"Absorption of these chemicals through skin is not expected to be a significant route of exposure, but when used on or around the eyes, absorption can increase, posing a greater hazard," according to the EWG.

We tested CoverGirl Lash Blast Fusion mascara and Wet-N-Wild Megalast concealer. Test results showed both contain PFAS chemicals.

Results begin at :53

The concealer contained small amounts of PFOA, the compound linked to cancer, and PFPeA.

The mascara contained PFPeA, as well as HFPO-DA, hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid. The chemical company Chemours said it uses HFPO-DA to make fluoropolymers, a class of PFAS used in semiconductors, automobiles and airplanes.

"There is over a decade of scientific data about HFPO-Dimer Acid that confirm its safety profile," according to Chemours. "Multiple studies demonstrate that it does not bioaccumulate and, if incidental exposure were to occur, it’s rapidly eliminated from the body."

In 2021, the U.S. EPA concluded there is "suggestive evidence of Carcinogenic Potential of oral exposure" to HFPO-DA and its ammonium salt in humans, based on a two-year study in rats who were exposed to the chemical orally.

Neither manufacturer has yet responded to requests for comment.

Fast food wrappers

PFAS are sometimes used as grease-proofing agents infast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, take-out paperboard containers and pet food bags to prevent oil and grease from leaking through the packaging, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Ideastream collected fast-food wrappers from a McDonald's and a Taco Bell drive-thru in Northeast Ohio.

Here’s what we found.

Results begin at :53

The McDonald's wrapper contained four different PFAS chemicals, including PFBA, which can affect liver and thyroid function and cause developmental problems, according to the CDC.  

Our tests also found that compound in the Taco Bell wrapper along with one other PFAS chemical.

McDonalds and Taco Bell have committed to phasing out PFAS in their wrappers by 2025. Neither company has yet responded to requests for comment.

View our full results here:

Tests run using the leachate technique

Test results from the tests of the solid materials

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.