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How did we end up with “forever chemicals”? And how long is “forever”?

The answer to “how” is usually “with arrogance and ignorance.” Every day should be Earth Day, and we should be careful about introducing new chemicals into Earth.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are a class of artificial compounds made of a perfluoroalkyl main chain and a terminal functional group and have been applied widely.

In the mid-20th century, we were more naive about what chemistry and invention could do and not do. On their introduction in the 1940s, PFASs were considered inert. Still, early occupational studies revealed elevated levels of fluorochemicals, including perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, C8), in the blood of exposed industrial workers. At that time, no ill health effects were noted, and blood concentrations seemed to be well below toxic and carcinogenic levels found in animal studies. However, due to the long life of PFASs and widespread environmental contamination, this type of chemicals has been shown to accumulate in humans to such a degree that adverse health outcomes may result. It was now time to lose the naivety.


What is “forever”? Words are often misused in the public forum. In science, we are supposed to use words with precision. Outsiders who try to scare you into contributing to “nonprofits”  love using words like that as if we didn’t have enough real stuff to scare us!

Forever chemicals are not “forever” because nothing lasts forever. Still, long enough can be too long, like a serum elimination half-life of 4–5 years, especially for workers in the relevant industries. However, PFAs are not forever, and studies show that chemical treatments, including photochemical, electrochemical, and thermal, can degrade  PFASs. The degradation pathways of PFASs are associated closely with the type of head groups and chain lengths, factors that should be considered when choosing a chemical for a particular use.

Did we learn anything? How about future “inventions”?

We already know that when industry bosses worry more about the bottom line than the environmental impact, the results can be widespread ecological contamination.

We also know that humans are known to take risks when profit is involved. Organic chemists and their employers should be less adventurous when designing chemicals that don’t exist in nature already. Why? Nobody knows what an unknown chemical can do to the human body or the rest of nature. I particularly object to creating new chemicals when they are not needed. The cosmetic industry gives plenty of examples because it bases advertising on novelty. A novel vitamin C? They don’t even bother to demonstrate that the chemical they invented has vitamin C activity!

When a new chemical is advertised, ask the advertiser why we need it. Do we need a new hair conditioner that plasticizes our hair and scalp? Why?

The take-home message is not to be scared by language like “forever.” Also, don’t be adventurous when it comes to products that are not essential. For example, I may be ready to take risks to save the life of a firefighter, but not to save a few cents on a hair conditioner. Why invent a new wax when we already have plenty of them in nature? Yes, they may save some money in the short term, but are they worth it? Maybe the industry would be more careful in introducing novelty if it had to spend money and time demonstrating that a new chemical is safe.  Moreover, it gives an incentive to use materials that would otherwise be destined for the trash.

If the skincare industry continues to use novelty as a selling point, we risk introducing new “chemicals that last too long” or worse. I suggest we start by distrusting newly created ingredients. This doesn’t mean that natural ingredients are risk-free, but at least they have been around for thousands of years, and we have gotten to know them better. At Skin Actives, we take pride in our knowledge of natural ingredients and we use them to best advantage. And we have no problem using lab-made chemicals that are identical to the Mother Nature-made ones!



Behr, A-C; Lichtenstein, D; Braeuning, A; Lampen, A; Buhrke, T (2018). Perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS) affect neither estrogen and androgen receptor activity nor steroidogenesis in human cells in vitro. Toxicology Letters, 291: 50-60, doi:10.1016/j.toxlet.2018.03.029 
Uwayezu, J.N., Carabante, I., van Hees, P., Karlson, P. and Kumpiene, J.  (2023) Validation of UV/persulfate as a PFAS treatment of industrial wastewater and environmental samples. J. Water Process Engineering 53: 103614,