Are you like millions of people who spray their furniture and carpets with 3M’s reformulated Scotchgard? You may scotchgard your home (yes, it’s so popular that it’s become an action word p well as a brand name) because you believe it’s safe and completely non-toxic. Unfortunately, there is a considerable body of evidence that casts doubt on this conclusion.
In this article, we’ll look closely at the evidence about Scotchgard’s safety. How strong is the proof? For those looking for a Scotchgard alternative, you’ll find out what companies selling other fabric protectors told us when we asked about their safety. And for people who prefer all-natural fabric protectors, we’ve got you covered, too.
Table of Contents
- History of Scotchgard
- PFBS in Scotchgard: How Toxic Is It?
- PFBS in Scotchgard and Potential Toxicity in Humans
- Proposed EPA Drinking Water PFBS Limit and Levels in Consumer Products
- How Much PFBS Are You Exposed to on a Daily Basis?
- 3M Consumer Products with PFBS and Other Organofluorines
- Are There Other Fluorochemicals in Scotchgard Besides PFBS?
- Conclusion on PFBS Safety
- Alternatives to Scotchgard: Are They Safe?
- Natural Alternatives to Scotchgard
- Key Takeaways on Scotchgard’s Safety
History of Scotchgard
To understand the science behind the “new” Scotchgard, it’s worthwhile to take a brief look at where it came from. For a complete view of Scotchgard and its chemical cousin, Teflon, see this detailed timeline from the Fluoride Action Network. For greater detail on Scotchgard, Minnesota Public Radio’s timeline is superb.
As luck would have it, the key ingredient in Scotchgard was accidentally discovered by 3M chemist Patsy Sherman in 1952 in an eureka moment. Something had fallen on her shoe while working at the lab bench one day, and she observed the chemical did not leave a stain. Further, it made her shoe resistant to water and anything else that made contact with it. Sherman recognized that she had created a product unlike anything else (except Teflon, which was introduced to the market a few years prior in non-stick cookware).
Like Teflon, Scotchgard is an organofluorine (fluorochemical) made mostly of the elements carbon and fluorine. The building blocks (monomers) of the original Scotchgard, also like the original Teflon, contain eight carbon atoms (C8).
While the C8 compound in Teflon, called perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFOA), was an additive used to make Teflon and not present in the final product (except possibly as an impurity), the entire eight-carbon chemical in Scotchgard is its key ingredient. The C8 compound in Scotchgard is known as perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). 3M marketed it as “the solution for your problems.”
PFOS in Scotchgard and in Human Blood
3M began selling Scotchgard as a fabric protector in 1956. It quickly became wildly popular in the textile, furniture, carpet, and clothing industries. Although workers making the similar product, Teflon, noted health concerns as early as 1954, the toxicity of C8 stayed under the radar of the government and the general public until the late 1960s.
Then in 1968, independent scientists looking into the health effects of dental fluoride treatments reported that PFOS was commonly detected in human blood samples. A full decade later, 3M made a similar announcement about PFOS in the blood of their workers. They also said at the time that there were no associated health effects, even in lab animals.
Thirty years later, the conclusion was alarmingly different. Animal studies showed massive morbidity in the offspring of adult rats exposed to PFOS. Blood tests in humans and wildlife turned up PFOS worldwide.
EPA and PFOS
Lacking a clear legislative mandate to regulate any industrial chemical, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to prove two things before restricting or removing PFOS (or any of the 80,000 registered chemicals, for that matter) from the market:
- The chemical presents an “unreasonable risk” to humans
- It enters the environment “in substantial quantities” or presents a likelihood of “substantial human exposure.”
EPA began investigating PFOS in the 1990s. They reviewed studies that showed, for example, that PFOS exposure results in:
- Developmental damage
- Reproductive irregularities
- Liver toxicity
- Immune suppression
Later reviews revealed that:
- Health risks to young girls and women of childbearing age are higher than acceptable levels
- Children had the highest blood levels (56 ppb) when the national average in adults was 5 ppb
- In wildlife, levels were high enough to kill affected organisms
- High blood levels were associated with increased risk of chronic kidney disease in the general public
It also came to light that DuPont and 3M knew about the health hazards of C8 in the 1970s (if not before), but kept it secret. Rich Purdy, an environmental scientist at 3M who resigned in 1999 citing frustration at 3M’s lack of concern over the toxic chemicals it was selling, described PFOS as “the most insidious pollutant since PCB.”
Finally, under increasing scrutiny by the EPA and observing how judges were siding with affected workers against DuPont (Teflon’s maker), 3M stunned everyone, especially the chemical industry. In 2000, they announced the voluntary three-year phaseout of Scotchgard… But it wasn’t for human health reasons. They still claimed it was safe, saying they were doing the phaseout for “responsible environmental management.”
For a while in the early 2000s, 3M released a replacement Scotchgard in a spray can. It was waterproof but not oil-resistant. The formulation did not contain fluorochemicals. Unfortunately, it was not a best seller.
PFBS in Scotchgard: How Toxic Is It?
To salvage the brand and millions in profits, 3M returned to an organofluorine product in 2003. The company settled on perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS). With only four carbon atoms in each monomer instead of the harmful eight, PFBS was dubbed safer than the original by 3M. The company stated that they had performed over 40 studies, reviewed only by the EPA which won’t release them to the public.
The official position on PFBS by 3M, echoed by the EPA, is that it’s non-toxic. According to 3M, PFBS, as a short-chain organofluorine, doesn’t accumulate in animals or people like C8 does. PFBS enters the bloodstream, but it’s eliminated more quickly than PFOS in the original Scotchgard. 3M also states that PFBS does no harm at low levels.
Although it persists in the environment, 3M believes it isn’t a problem since it doesn’t accumulate in living organisms and is non-toxic. However, there is research that shows PFBS toxicity in aquatic organisms and polar bears.
For example, a 2011 study investigating several organofluorines including PFBS in zebrafish development, found it to be a teratogen (which means it leads to abnormalities in embryo formation). It led to malformations of the tail and swim bladder, causing fish to swim abnormally. PFBS exposure also resulted in head malformations. The potential for abnormalities was greater in substances with the sulfonic chemical grouping like PFBS.
A 2015 study found several organofluorines including PFBS in various brain regions of Greenland polar bears. It affected neurochemical systems. It’s not known if these chemicals are affecting the bears’ cognition or motor abilities.
PFBS in Scotchgard and Potential Toxicity in Humans
The EPA published a final assessment for PFBS toxicity in 2021 (after it was meddled with by officials in the Trump administration and temporarily removed from the EPA website). It focuses on the potential human health effects associated with oral exposure only.
It does not consider potential cumulative effects or possible interactions with other PFAS and/or other chemicals. Many scientists believe the ever-increasing body burden of all PFAS—and their interactions—represent a serious health problem not yet studied or understood.
According to the EPA, animal studies reveal health effects caused by PFBS on:
- The thyroid gland
- Reproductive organs and tissues
- Developing fetus
The EPA stated that they can’t draw a conclusion from the data collected so far on cancer and PFBS. Based on the reviewed studies, the EPA believes that PFBS is less toxic than C8.
The toxicity of PFBS and other PFAS is also on the radar of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Recognizing how serious the health crisis presented by all fluorochemicals is, in 2018 ATSDR placed the threshold for harm by C8 chemicals ten times lower than EPA’s 2016 level (70 ppt). A final report on their study was published in 2022.
Other animal studies on PFBS conducted by the state of Minnesota showed similar effects from PFBS compared to those from PFOS. These include:
- Reduction in several hormones
- Developmental delays
- Reproductive abnormalities
- Neurotoxic effects
The Minnesota report also included references to a few studies on PFBS and humans. They revealed associations of PFBS and negative health outcomes in children or pregnant women.
- A Taiwanese study showed a positive association between asthma and asthma-related biomarkers with PFBS.
- A Chinese study following several hundred children found an association between PFBS in maternal cord blood with increased frequency of respiratory tract infections and decreased IgG concentration in 5-year-old children.
- Women with endometriosis-related infertility had significantly higher median levels of PFBS compared with those without the disease.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) noted on its PFBS page of its Human Toxome Project that there was a 28-day toxicity study on rats that was “inadvertently” made public by 3M. It showed that PFBS caused decreased total protein, globulin, aspartate aminotransferase activity (in males) and prothrombin (in females). (This could have various downstream effects with blood clotting, amino acid metabolism, and more.) The effect on prothrombin was still present 2 weeks after the end of dosing.
Proposed EPA Drinking Water PFBS Limit and Levels in Consumer Products
In 2023, the EPA proposed drinking water standards for several fluorochemicals (including PFBS) for the first time. This means public utilities must measure them. When those levels are exceeded, they must notify the public and take steps to reduce the levels.
The proposed minimum reporting level for PFBS—at which local utilities must report it to the EPA—is 3 ppt. For context, 1 ppt is like one drop of impurity in 500,000 barrels of water. The lifetime health advisory for PFBS is 2,000 ppt. That’s the level of PFBS which the EPA believes is acceptable to have in your body from all sources—not just from drinking water—over a lifetime.
How Much PFBS Are You Exposed to on a Daily Basis?
To have a better idea of how to estimate your daily exposure to PFBS, here’s a chart of information taken from a 2019 report on PFBS published by the state of Michigan. Notice how common PFBS is in modern society. Recall EPA’s proposed lifetime health advisory for PFBS is 2,000 ppt.
Note on conversion factors:
1 ppt = 0.000001 ug/L = 0.001 ug/kg = 0.000001 ug/m2
3M Consumer Products with PFBS and Other Organofluorines
The following Scotchgard consumer products contain PFBS:
• Scotchgard Fabric Protector
• Scotchgard Suede and Nubuck Protector
• Scotchgard Protector for Rugs & Carpet.
Besides these products there are many other products containing PFBS including:
- Food packaging
- Paper coating
- Cleaning agents
- Paints, varnishes
- Aviation engine fluids
- Firefighting foams
- Photographic film
- Insecticides and pesticides
- Medical devices and fabrics
- and more
Are There Other Fluorochemicals in Scotchgard Besides PFBS?
There are other fluorochemicals in Scotchgard products. They also contribute to the toxic load of fluorine-containing compounds in your body and in the environment.
The major ingredients in Scotchgard are:
- Fluorochemical acrylate polymer
- Fluorochemical urethane
- Perfluorobutanesulfonamide (PFBS)
Today, there are several companies around the world manufacturing fluorochemicals, including C8 compounds PFOA and PFOS, banned from production in the United States. In 2015, 27 tons of PFBS alone were produced. All fluorochemicals accumulate in the environment, contaminating drinking water in many places. Many forms of these chemicals build up in living organisms, including humans.
Conclusion on PFBS Safety
There is ample evidence, albeit incomplete, to believe that PFBS used in the reformulated Scotchgard shows many of the same toxic effects as the old formulation based on PFOS (C8). Broader exposure to PFBS is likely since it replaces PFOS. Plus, since it is less effective than the original, more of PFBS is used per bottle.
Experts do not know the full impact on human health of the increased body burden of fluorochemicals, let alone on the environment. In light of the facts that 3M knew about the toxicity of PFOS for decades but kept it secret, it’s reasonable to think 3M knows more about the toxicity of PFBS than they are telling us. Especially when, as late as 2019, 3M continues to state publicly that PFAS are safe.
Until 3M releases all of its data on PFBS, and until independent scientists reproduce the same results in their investigations, The Filtery cannot say that Scotchgard is safe. In fact, given how serious the health effects of PFAS as a class are known to be, consumer products made without fluorochemicals are assuredly safer.
We applaud retailers like Lowe’s that recently banned the sale of all fabric protectors containing PFAS, and hope to see many more follow. Considering that 3M recently said they would be stopping PFAS production by 2025, it’s unclear what the future of Scotchgard is.
Alternatives to Scotchgard: Are They Safe?
There are a number of Scotchgard alternatives on the market. We reached out to the companies producing them for more information. Most did not respond. Included in this group is Vectra, one of the most popular alternative fabric protector brands.
The companies which answered us but did not provide information on the chemicals in their products, stating they were proprietary, are DetraPel and D1 Leather Guard. Not knowing what’s in them, we cannot recommend them.
Nanotechnology is used in several of the fabric protectors. Research into the safety of nanoparticles has not proven its safety. In fact, there are many unanswered questions as well as evidence that certain nanoparticles may be harmful. Because of this, The Filtery cannot recommend fabric protectors using nanoparticles.
Brands using nanotechnology include:
Natural Alternatives to Scotchgard
If you want to limit the toxic chemicals in your home, there are a few DIY methods that keep it simple and non-toxic. Here are a few:
- Waterproofing with beeswax and plant oils, like Skidmore’s or Otterwax
- Stain removal with enzymes
- Odor elimination with Force of Nature
Scotchgard is a preventative measure to keep water, stains, and smells off your clothes, carpet, and furniture. What if you tried to prevent these mishaps in the first place? Enforcing rules in your home like food or drink only in designated areas or keeping pets off the furniture or always on a washable blanket go a long way in reducing the occurrence of stains or spills.
Key Takeaways on Scotchgard’s Safety
Scotchgard’s “new” fabric protector contains short-chain (C4) PFBS which is toxic to humans, pets, and the environment, although less so than the original PFOS. Although PFBS is not as long-lived as PFOS in the first Scotchgard formulation, it is associated with many of the same adverse health effects as PFOS is known to cause. Among the most serious of these are:
- Hormonal imbalances
- Developmental defects
- Reproductive damage
There are ten or more products on the market today which claim to be safer fabric protectors than Scotchgard. We found their websites and email communications with us to be unconvincing. The Filtery recommends that you avoid these products, too, if you are looking for a totally safe, non-toxic fabric protector.
Enzymatic spot cleaners may remove unsightly stains or dirt from fabrics or carpet. A professional, eco-friendly cleaning now and then is another option. Keeping pets and food away from areas where you’re trying to keep it spotless could be part of your cleaning strategy. Although none of these methods is 100% fool-proof, at least you can rest easy knowing that you, your family and home are free of a toxic fabric protector.