Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Beauty is an intrinsic part of human life. Through it, among other aspects, we seek acceptance and validation from others in society, because, ultimately, we are social beings. We also seek beauty within ourselves by responding to our needs and in turn, cultivating a healthy relationship with ourselves. Beauty products are one of the tools we use to acknowledge these needs. In the world we live in, there is value in the way we present ourselves. Beauty products can help us look our best and feel our best. However, even in the beauty industry, there is an ugly side.
Environmental Impacts of The Beauty Industry
In recent years, the beauty industry has grown exponentially and new technology has enabled the mass production of beauty products and packaging using various types of cheap and unsustainable ingredients and materials that do more harm than good.
Since the invention of plastic in 1862, many industries have been tempted by the innovative qualities of this material and adopted it as the packaging staple for their products, turning away from the traditional packaging materials sourced from nature such as wood, clay, glass or metal. Unlike other materials, plastic can be easily produced and molded into any shape at a very low cost, creating an opportunity for beauty brands to produce eye-catching packaging to match their branding, or for new types of functional containers with multiple parts, such as pump containers which have a plastic pump lid with a plastic tube that runs down to the bottom of the container. Additionally, the weight of plastic is much less than that of most other materials, for example, transporting products packaged in plastic can typically cost around 85% less than those packaged in glass. Plastic also has great durability, outlasting containers made with any other material. These reasons have been enough to incentivize companies in all industries, including those in the beauty industry to package their products primarily in plastic containers.
There are a lot of issues with this widespread adoption of plastic containers. Firstly, plastic is an unsustainable resource that comes from petroleum, a fossil fuel that requires large amounts of energy to extract, and that is responsible for soil, water and air quality degradation that impacts communities and wildlife. Plastic may be recyclable but only for a limited number of times. Once plastic is recycled more than two or three times, it loses its quality, so it is rendered useless and disposed of into the environment. This is an issue because plastic does not biodegrade like natural and organic matter, instead, it remains in landfills, or it is incinerated, releasing toxic chemicals, or it finds its way into our natural environment through wind or rainwater.
Also, plastic can harm animals in many ways, by creating obstructions in their digestive tracts, or by getting tangled up in plastic packaging, which can result in reduced mobility and likely death. Plastic can also break down into microplastics and pose a threat to both animal and human life. Microplastics end up accumulating in the bodies of fish and animals who eat them. They ultimately end up in humans who consume fish. Global analyses of aquatic plastic pollution have found that plastics have been ingested by two-thirds of fish and 90% of seabirds.
What about plastic containers that come from renewable sources such as plant material? While these are better alternatives than containers derived from petroleum, they are still transformed through a chemical process into a mostly non-biodegradable, and polluting material we call plastic at the end of the day, and the “bioplastic” will go through the same cycle of limited recyclability, disposal, and environmental pollution.
The human practice of self-beautification has occurred for ages, in the past we used natural ingredients to beautify our bodies, the ancient Greeks were known to use nightly ointments made with cedar, cyprus, and incense on their body to achieve beautiful skin and the ancient Egyptians were known to use raw minerals to make their eyes appear bigger and brighter. Today, the percentage of natural ingredients in beauty products has plummeted, being replaced in most products on the market by synthetic ingredients. Lotions, cleansers, sunscreens, etc, often contain certain synthetic ingredients that are harmful to the environment, many of which end up being released into the environment through our water system once we take showers or bathe in a body of water. Popular examples of these are uv filters in zinc-free sunscreens, zinc oxide, and petrolatum. UV filters used in zinc-free sunscreens have been identified as threats to animals and humans alike. Studies have identified them to be the culprits in coral bleaching, and they are also noted to be endocrine disruptors in humans. However, zinc oxide, found in mineral sunscreens, while not harmful to humans, is harmful to multiple water dwelling species, including zebra fish, marine algae, sea urchins, and others. All types of sunscreens, including those advertised as eco-friendly were also found to hinder the growth of freshwater plants. Petrotalum or petroleum jelly, is another popular ingredient found in beauty products, which is derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel.
Other products contain ingredients that disperse into the air and are a direct cause of air pollution. These products include spray sunscreens, spray deodorants, hairsprays, and perfumes, etc. They contain certain chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that react with the atmosphere to create toxic compounds and smog. These chemicals often occur naturally, but are produced synthetically in a lab in large proportions for use in beauty products, these include the by-products formaldehyde and benzene. They can cause cancer, mutations, asthma, and chemical sensitivity. In Los Angeles, the pollution caused by spray beauty products is so high that it now rivals that caused by cars.
It is worth noting that this section covers only some of the most widely used synthetic ingredients that are causing environmental degradation and toxicity, however, there are many more.
Although most natural ingredients are more sustainable than their synthetic counterparts, this is not always the case. Naturally occuring palm oil is one of the main causes of rainforest deforestation. It is a cheap oil derived from the fruits of the fruit of oil palm trees. The lack of cheap and widely accessible natural oils in the beauty and food industry has led many businesses to turn to palm oil as their preferred moisturizing ingredient for their products. This great demand for palm oil has led producers of the oil in many countries to expand their farms illegally to increase their supply by cutting down native forests surrounding their farms. Which has in turn led to the deforestation of large patches of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. In fact, the use of palm oil in beauty products has resulted in 5% of tropical deforestation to this day.
Why should we care?
As mentioned above, the benefits of the beauty industry come with negative side effects. The perpetual use of plastic is damaging ecosystems, from marine habitats to our own homes. With many of our beauty products containing microplastics, we are not only contributing to the buildup of plastic in the surrounding environment, but in our bodies as well. A study found microplastics in 80% of human blood tested. And although there is still little information on what the long-term effects are, it is best to err on the edge of caution as we witness the detrimental effects on our environment. The beauty industry is said to contribute up to 120 billion units of packaging a year – and if the packaging is plastic – it can take up to 1,000 years for it to degrade naturally. Time, as we know, is not on our side and we can’t afford to waste it.
In terms of the actual ingredients in products, it’s important to note that it’s not always as simple as looking whether the ingredients are natural or synthetic – it requires a sort of an investigation. In some instances, a natural ingredient will be less sustainable, for example, palm oil may be renewable but it’s not sustainable, and overall palm plantations have devastating effects on a large number of animals and plant species as mentioned above, while a synthetic ingredient may be more sustainable, for example, a synthetic vanilla scent may be more sustainable than growing vanilla as there is a current shortage of vanilla. So, it comes down to a case-to-case basis, although natural ingredients using regenerative or organic farm practices are usually better for the environment since it supports biodiversity and improves soil health.
Thus, switching to natural personal care products does more than just cut irritants and reduce flare-ups for your body – it can have a positive impact on the environment as well. Natural product businesses tend to use less water and material and energy during production. Not to mention, the packaging is often sustainable and recyclable. Of course, not every business is doing this, and, again, it does require a bit of research when choosing to switch to a more sustainable brand. Due to the increase of interest in sustainable and environmentally-friendly brands, “greenwashing”, which is, deceiving consumers into believing one’s products are environmentally-friendly, is becoming increasingly prevalent in every industry. So, as we move forward towards a more sustainable way of living – we should be conscious in the choices we make, especially as consumers.
Skincare also doesn’t have to be difficult, despite there being claims of attaining the perfect skin with a 7-step routine. Yes, an excessive skincare routine may work for some but it can also lead to unnecessary product waste and overall, remain unaffordable to many. Making conscious choices also entails evaluating how many products you actually need – it could just be a cleanser and moisturizer. We are pressured to buy more, when we should be buying intentionally, taking time to figure out what our bodies actually need without putting a strain on the planet.
What can we do?
Always think proactively about repurposing beauty product containers. These containers can be great for holding pencils and pens, incense, toothbrushes, candies, small plants or seedlings (if you can make holes at the bottom), among other things. As previously mentioned, periodically check your personal care product stock and evaluate the number of products that form your skincare routine. Consider what you really need to keep your skin feeling and looking healthy. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping your skincare routine simple, the only products necessary for maintaining healthy skin are cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreen, anything beyond these three items may lead to irritation. When possible, consider products that combine two functions in one, such as exfoliating cleansers or moisturizers with toning capabilities. This saves on packaging and reduces the number of steps in your skincare routine. Do not buy more products than you need, and most certainly, do not dispose of products before finishing them, unless they are causing irritation to your skin or they are past their expiry date.
Opt for beauty products with sustainable ingredients
Try to avoid the aforementioned unsustainable ingredients: petrolatum, palm oil and cetyl alcohol and stearic acid (they usually come from unsustainable palm oil, unless stated), and sunscreens, but especially chemical sunscreen. While these ingredients may provide short-term benefits to your skin, their long-term environmental damage can not be neglected. Give sustainable alternatives a try. Instead of petrolatum, try products with cocoa butter, shea butter, or castor oil. No sunscreen has fully sustainable ingredients, so instead of slathering on sunscreen when not needed, avoid sun between 11 a.m - 2 p.m when UV is at its highest, and use sun protective clothing, such as long sleeved tops and bottoms, and wide brimmed hats. Apply moisturizers with antioxidants, as they help provide some sun protection naturally. If it is a situation where sun protective clothing is not an option, opt to use mineral sunscreens, not chemical. For palm oil, many other vegetable oils, such as coconut or avocado work as well to moisturize. For cetyl alcohol and stearic acid, alternatives may be harder to find, as they work to provide body in skincare products, but you can look for products that source sustainable cetyl alcohol or stearic acid. If you are unsure about whether an ingredient in one of your products comes from a sustainable source, look on the product label for certifications such as Ecocert, Cosmos, or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) or the words palm oil free. Any ingredient using those labels must go through a lengthy process whereby the regulating body confirms that the ingredient is sourced sustainably, biodegrades, and is a result of fair trade. Finally, avoid products that dispense in spray form, get them in non-spray form instead
Purchase products that come in plastic-free containers or refillable options
Plastic-free packaging options exist for virtually any product in the beauty industry. Today you have the option to use a cardboard container for lip balms and deodorants, metal jars for lotions and moisturizers, metal tins for makeup palettes, etc. Other businesses are also offering refills for a discount if you visit their physical location and take your empty jar with you.
Going a step further, some businesses have started offering their beauty products for a discounted price to those who bring their own containers. The products offered in this form vary, but can be anything from cleansers, moisturizers, shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes. This reduces the need for both packaging and labels, which are almost always derived from plastic as well and it provides a cheaper option for those looking to cut down on their beauty spending.
In general, both of these options will contribute to reducing the demand for plastic and potentially reduce its quantity in the environment.
Learn to differentiate between “greenwashing” and genuine sustainability
Many businesses claim to care for the planet and its sustainability, but their actions, or ingredient’s lists state the opposite. For example, some businesses may claim that they condemn plastic waste, but send out unsolicited free samples in the mail, or ship their products with plastic bubble wrap. Other businesses will market products packaged in “bioplastic” as sustainable, which as previously mentioned, is not much better. Be critical of businesses and their advertising. Instead, support businesses that make sustainability their mission, rather than a side activity amid many unsustainable practices.
Keep reading about what you can do as a consumer to support sustainability measures. Research different blogs, scientific articles. Pick up products that you may have in your household, and research the ingredients one by one. A quick way to begin this research is to go on a search engine and search for the ingredient, followed by the words “environmental impact”. However, know that it is not just up to consumers to fix these issues: the responsibility falls greatly on the producer as well. Make sure you sign petitions and join groups that demand for change from beauty industry producers and polluters such as Stand.earth.
We, as a humanity, are entranced by beauty, constantly looking for it in our surroundings. We take beautiful trips, we see beautiful paintings, we buy beautiful things so we can look and feel better. But beauty has a price, and it can come in the form of destruction and excess waste. We must cultivate a level of consciousness in the things we do and buy, remembering to take not only our needs into account but the needs of the planet as well in hopes of preserving the beauty that it carries.
This article has been realized through a collaboration between Boost My Eco and NODIVISION.
Boost My Eco
Boost My Eco is a Canadian personal care brand with a focus on handmade natural and sustainable skincare products that promote beauty without putting at risk the health of your body or the environment by employing effective ingredients backed by scientific research.
NODIVISION, based in Canada, is a blog that delves into the self, environment (inner and outer), travel, and culture. We look inward - how to be better people - so that we can create a better world in which to live.