How to Avoid PFAS

'Forever chemicals' are in the products we use, food we eat, and water we drink. Here are some ways to reduce your exposure.

Multiple items that can contain PFAs. Photo Illustration: Lacey Browne/Consumer Reports, Getty Images

Consumer Reports recently found PFAS—chemicals that are linked to a growing list of health risks and that linger in the environment for years—in the packaging at many chain restaurants. We previously found them in drinking water, too. The chemicals—officially known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—are also used in a host of other products, from nonstick pans to water-resistant clothing. 

All these findings have prompted many readers to ask us if there are ways they can limit exposure to PFAS.

More on PFAS

Yes, according to Alan Ducatman, MD, professor emeritus at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health in Morgantown and an expert in chemical toxicology who studies the health effects of PFAS. You can do that, he says, by “thinking about the products you’re purchasing, thinking about the things we put on and in our bodies.”

Organizations like the Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI) have put together guides that consumers can use to limit their exposure, by seeking out PFAS-free products, says Jamie DeWitt, PhD, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University in Greenville.

But to effectively address PFAS contamination, government regulators and PFAS manufacturers also need to act, she says. 

Some are. In California, a law that goes into effect in 2023 will restrict PFAS in food packaging. Maine has passed a law that will limit nonessential use of the chemicals, and several other states have taken similar steps. The Environmental Protection Agency is working to establish limits on some PFAS in drinking water. And after being informed of CR’s food packaging investigation, ​​Burger King, Nathan’s Famous, and Chick-fil-A publicly announced plans to get PFAS out of food wrappers. 

Many experts, however, say more needs to be done. “When faced with chemicals that are as ubiquitous as PFAS, it’s a little unfair to ask individuals to limit their exposure,” DeWitt says. “These chemicals are made by corporations, and the onus shouldn’t be on the individual.”

Still, there are some steps you can take to limit your exposure now.

Tips for Avoiding PFAS

Because the chemicals are so widespread, it’s not realistic to think you can avoid all PFAS exposure. But by staying away from products that contain PFAS, you reduce not only your direct exposure but also the overall environmental burden created by these chemicals.

Food Packaging

CR’s tests found PFAS in everything from burger wrappers at Burger King to salad containers at Cava to cookie bags at McDonald’s. And some research indicates that people who eat food cooked at home more often may have lower levels of PFAS in their blood than people who frequently eat out. 

To limit exposure, CR’s experts suggest that you transfer food out of packaging as soon as you can and avoid reheating food in takeout containers, because both heat and time increase the likelihood of PFAS transferring from wrappers to food. It’s also worth favoring restaurants that have worked to phase PFAS out of packaging, because levels there tend to be lower. Restaurants that have made such pledges include Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and Wendy’s. 

And many experts suggest avoiding microwave popcorn because the bags that contain it tend to have high levels of PFAS.

Fabrics and Textiles

PFAS are often found in stain- and water-resistant fabrics. Carpets, furniture, and clothing can all contain PFAS. When purchasing new carpets or furniture, favor retailers that have policies restricting the use of PFAS, as listed by the GSPI

PFAS are also found in water-resistant outdoor gear, like jackets and hiking pants, though some outdoor companies have policies limiting use. Patagonia, for example, has said it will phase PFAS out by 2024. 

When it comes to clothing or bedding items like mattress protectors, many water- or stain-resistant products may contain PFAS. Avoiding products with these features can limit exposure, experts say.

Cosmetics

Recent research has shown that cosmetics frequently contain PFAS. Avoiding water-resistant products and products with PTFE or “fluoro-” in the ingredients can help limit exposure. And the Environmental Working Group maintains a database to help identify which shampoos, dental floss, makeup, and other personal-care products do and do not contain PFAS (and other concerning ingredients).

Tell Fast Food Chains to Get PFAS Out of Food Wrappers

Sign CR’s petition urging fast food chains to stop using food packaging with these harmful chemicals

Cookware

Most nonstick cookware is made with PTFE, a type of PFAS. But some nonstick pots and pans—such as the Blue Diamond Diamond Infused Ceramic pan and the Red Volcano Textured Ceramic pan—should not have any, because the nonstick surface is made from ceramic. Or you could opt for a more traditional cast iron or carbon steel pan.

CR’s experts say that nonstick products are less likely to release PFAS if they are used properly. That means don’t scrape them with metal cooking utensils or abrasive cleaners, or overheat them when cooking. And remember that the production and disposal of these items can still cause some PFAS to end up in the environment.

PFAS in Dust and Water

The air we breathe and water we drink can also contain PFAS, but you can still limit some exposure here. To avoid harmful chemicals in dust, the GSPI recommends using HEPA filters while vacuuming, dusting with wet cloths or a mop, and changing filters on your heating and cooling units as recommended.

CR also has a guide to testing and treating your drinking water for harmful contaminants. If tests or your municipal water report reveals PFAS in your water, consider using a water filter to remove the chemicals.


Head shot image of CRO Health editor Kevin Loria

Kevin Loria

I'm a science journalist who writes about health for Consumer Reports. I'm interested in finding the ways that people can transform their health for the better and in calling out the systems, companies, and policies that expose patients to unnecessary harm. As a dad, I spend most of my free time trying to keep up with a toddler, but I also enjoy exploring the outdoors whenever possible. Follow me on Twitter (@kevloria).