Guest blog - Beauty at What Cost?

 Guest blog by Lukas Gutierrez from Arizona State University Sustain Earth - Our Mission: We provide sustainability information, news and ideas in an accessible form—without simplifying the issues. Our goal is to help people discover the science and explore ideas for living more sustainably every day.

At Sustainable Earth, we seek to show that every small lifestyle change you make can make a positive difference for a cleaner planet.


The beauty industry is a massive market, estimated at $48.8 billion and continuing to grow. Personal style and expression play a significant role in our lives, and makeup is a popular way to express ourselves. However, the impact of the beauty industry and cosmetic ingredients on the planet is immense and cannot be ignored. From excessive packaging waste to the use of natural resources like palm and soy, the beauty industry has significant sustainability implications.

According to the social justice platform TRVST, beauty packaging amounts to 120 billion units of trash each year, including plastic, paper, glass, and metals that are improperly recycled and ultimately end up in landfills. Many beauty products also create a high demand for natural oils, leading to extensive and intensive cultivation, harming natural habitats through deforestation, and contaminating soil and water through pesticides and fertilizers. The social side of the beauty industry is no less scary, with unethical practices such as the use of mica, a natural silicate mineral dust, found in many cosmetic products to brighten and add shine. Mica mining has seen a fair share of backlash from environmentalists, as studies show extensive and undisclosed child labor in mines throughout Jharkhand and Bihar, India.

To make better choices as consumers, it’s crucial to be conscious of the products we buy and their environmental impact. When purchasing a new beauty product, it’s important to consider how it was made, who made it, and what is in the product. This approach allows us to see the bigger picture behind conscious consumerism, where our purchasing power can create a big difference in such a large industry. While it may be tempting to buy a new product advertised by our favorite social media influencer, sustainability-minded people should fact-check products, watch for greenwashing, and make better choices as consumers. 

We hope this guide will help you understand the health and beauty industry a little bit better to better inform your decision-making!

Packaging

Packaging waste is one of the biggest environmental challenges facing the cosmetics industry. According to a report by Zero Waste Scotland, the average UK household produces around 23 kg of plastic packaging waste each year, with a significant portion of this coming from cosmetics and personal care products. According to Euromonitor, in 2018, the United States produced over 7.9 billion units of cosmetic waste. This waste contributes to global plastic pollution and causes the depletion of natural resources while also emitting greenhouse gases.

To combat this issue, many cosmetics brands are now using eco-friendly packaging materials such as glass, paper, and recycled plastic, which are biodegradable or recyclable and have a lower carbon footprint than traditional virgin plastic packaging. To further reduce waste, consumers should choose products with sustainable packaging or buy larger sizes to minimize packaging waste. Additionally, microbeads, tiny plastic beads found in some exfoliating products like scrubs and toothpaste, pose a serious threat to marine life and waterways. It’s better to choose exfoliating products that use natural ingredients like salt, sugar, or crushed seeds instead of microbeads.

Bio-based products and packaging that are fully compostable offer an amazing opportunity for a more sustainable cosmetics industry. When composted, these products close the loop of their lifecycle, reducing emissions and creating new soil that can be used to support soil health in communities. As consumers become more conscious of their environmental impact, choosing fully compostable bio-based products and packaging can significantly reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and contribute to a more circular economy. This makes it a win-win situation for both the environment and the cosmetics industry.

Fragrances 

Around 4,000 years ago, Mesopotamians created the first version of perfume: incense. Fragrances began being used for religious ceremonies and then became a status symbol to mask bad odors. Liquid distillation allowed for mass access to perfumes. Today, perfumes are made up of synthetic and natural ingredients. Synthetic ingredients include aroma chemicals which are synthetic compounds that mimic natural scents, fixatives which are synthetic compounds that help prolong the scent of a perfume, and solvents which are used to dissolve the other ingredients in a perfume, such as ethanol and propylene glycol.

Natural ingredients in makeup can include essential oils, which are oils extracted from plants like lavender or rose, resins which are substances that are extracted from plants like trees and myrrh, and animal-derived ingredients. Ingredients derived from animals have been used in fragrances for centuries. Although these ingredients can be made synthetically, it is essential to check the ingredient list if you are looking to buy vegan or cruelty-free fragrances. Here are some ingredients to keep an eye out for:

  • Ambergris: formed from the secretion of the bile duct in the intestines of sperm and pygmy whales. It is solid, waxy, and has a marine-like odor.
  • Civet: the glandular secretion of viverrids which are small mammals that live in Africa and Asia. Viverrids are farmed and kept in cages to collect the secretion. The soft, yellow material is diluted into a sweet aroma. 
  • Castoreum: the beaver castor sac, or anal glands. Creates a leathery, animalistic scent.
  • Honey: nectar collected by bees that are stored in a honeycomb. Smells sweet and flowery.
  • Musk: the glandular secretion of musk deer. Deer are killed in the wild to acquire musk. It gives off a complex earthy and woody smell.

If you see these ingredients but there is a certified vegan label on the packaging, then the ingredient was most likely made in a lab. Speaking of packaging, raw materials are used to preserve and package fragrances. At the end of the product’s life, the packaging is typically thrown into the garbage and subsequently ends up in the landfill or is incinerated. When in the landfill, glass can take millions of years to decompose. If fragrance is still left in the bottle, it can create chemical vapors, also known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs can react with other chemicals to create particulate matter in the air.

Makeup 

The earliest evidence of makeup dates back to 3000 BC in Egypt as a representation of wealth and godliness. They used natural ingredients like crushed grey ore as eyeliner and red ochre mixed with fat for lipstick. As time went on, the perception of cosmetics changed as the Stoics began interpreting it as a sign of vanity. The content of the makeup also began to change. During the time of the Roman Empire, makeup with lead was used to whiten skin. Although it would work temporarily, it would degrade skin over time. Today, makeup contains chemicals that are linked to health concerns including asthma, eczema, fertility issues, and cancer. It is essential to understand the products you’re putting on your skin that can affect your health and the environment. Let’s take a look at the entire life cycle of cosmetics, from supply chain to landfill!

The production of cosmetics begins with the acquisition of raw materials. Makeup typically contains oils and surface-active agents. Natural materials, like minerals, plants, and animal products, and synthetic materials, like parabens, sulfates, and silicones, are used. Natural, organic products do not include dyes, preservatives, or synthetic fragrances. Synthetic ingredients are man-made and can be harmful to your skin. However, it is important to consider that synthetic materials can have perks, like being longer-lasting with preservatives, using lab-derived ingredients that can have a smaller environmental impact, and creating a more affordable product. 

In addition, these ingredients could be tested on animals at any step of the formulation process. Although the FDA does not require animal testing for cosmetics before they are launched to market, it does permit it. Animal testing for cosmetics includes skin and eye irritation tests in which chemicals are rubbed into skin or dripped into their eyes. Some cosmetic companies label their products ‘Cruelty-free’, but this is still an unregulated label that can be put on finished products even though the ingredients could be sourced from suppliers who tested on animals. Check out this infographic by the Humane Society if you’re looking to buy cruelty-free products.

Where you live has an effect on the ingredients in your makeup. The European Union has banned 1,300 ingredients from cosmetics due to safety concerns whereas the United States has only banned 11. If you’re interested in figuring out the ingredients in your makeup, check the label. The ingredients are listed in order from the highest quantity in the product to the lowest.

Products are made in large quantities where factories can produce hundreds of thousands of ingredients and packages every single day. The cosmetics are stored in a variety of primary packaging, including tubes, bottles, jars, compacts, pumps, and more. These can utilize a number of materials, from glass to plastic. Secondary packaging, or the packaging that carries the product in the primary packaging, provides extra protection and allows for further customization of the product. The final layer of packaging is tertiary packaging, which carries the products during bulk handling and transportation. The number of ‘eco-friendly’ packaging types is on the rise. Some of these are biodegradable, including bamboo and paper made of limestone, but the majority of packaging used is not biodegradable and goes straight to the landfill.

Makeup is purchased by consumers and used for variable lengths. All makeup eventually expires, typically within 2 or 3 years of purchase. Expiration dates are typically present on products. Once past expiration, makeup can change color, odor, and consistency as well as grow bacteria. People throw away makeup products before their expiration dates for a number of reasons, including not liking or using the product. Occasionally, people donate their unexpired makeup. Organizations like Project Beauty ShareBeauty Bus (for corporate product donations), and domestic shelters accept makeup items. Makeup can also be recycled through organizations like Terracycle.

Most of the time, makeup is thrown away and ends up in landfills. When makeup products end up in landfills, they can have negative impacts on the environment. The specific effects depend on the materials used in the makeup products, as well as the conditions of the landfill.

Some common makeup ingredients, such as plastics, metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury, and synthetic chemicals like parabens and pthalates, do not easily break down in landfills and can persist for many years. This can lead to the accumulation of waste and pollution in the landfill. Leachate, or the liquid that comes from the makeup and seeps into the soil, can contaminate nearby soil and water sources. Additionally, when makeup products are not disposed of properly, they can also pose a risk to wildlife that may mistake the products for food or become entangled in packaging materials.

Nails

Products for nails have grown in recent years, from cuticle oils and nail polish to polish removers and false nails. Nail polish is a popular beauty product with millions of users globally. They are typically made of film-forming agents, resins and plasticizers, solvents, and coloring agents like dyes and pigments. These ingredients result in harmful side effects. Toluene can cause memory loss, confusion, neurological, and reproductive issues when exposed at low levels. Formaldehyde is a potential carcinogen, and inhaling it can lead to breathing problems. Nail polish can also include glitter which, although pretty, are typically made of nonbiodegradable microplastics.

More environmentally-friendly versions of nail polish are in circulation. There are water-based polishes that have water as the main ingredient instead of a harsh chemical. Most nail polish is solvent-based. Gel and acrylic nails are not biodegradable and can remain in landfills for centuries. There are no organic nail polish options as synthetic ingredients are essential to its chemical composition. Some brands tout “x-free” polishes that are free of certain chemicals, but the other ingredients in use are never entirely natural.

You may think that nail polishes don’t have to be tested on animals. Unfortunately, any brand sold in China tests its polishes on animals. Some brands use animal-derived ingredients in their polishes, like guanine from fish scales and shellac from ladybugs. Here is a list of cruelty-free and vegan nail polish brands to shop from.

Once the nail polish is created, it is stored in glass bottles. This allows consumers to see the color of the nail polish, and glass is a stronger option compared to plastic bottles which can be weakened by solvents.

At the end of their life, nail polish bottles typically cannot be recycled. Some brands have recycling programs, including Elle PolishCote, and Zoya, but many popular drugstore brands like OPI, Essie, and Sally Hansen have yet to consider the end-of-life of their products. Some people may dump nail polish down the drain which can harm septic systems before negatively impacting watersheds. To be properly disposed of, nail polish bottles should be brought to a household hazardous waste facility. Look up ‘household hazardous waste disposal near me’ to find a drop-off location. 

When nail polish ends up in a landfill, it can potentially release harmful chemicals into the environment. The chemicals in nail polish such as aforementioned toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), are toxic to the environment. Over time, these chemicals can leach out of the nail polish and contaminate the soil and groundwater around the landfill. This can potentially harm wildlife and humans who come into contact with contaminated soil or water. In addition, nail polish containers can take hundreds of years to decompose in a landfill. This means that even after the nail polish inside has degraded, the container itself may continue to linger in the environment, contributing to the problem of plastic pollution.

Sunscreen

Sunscreen is an essential product for protecting the skin from the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation, including sunburn, premature aging, and an increased risk of skin cancer. However, the widespread use of sunscreen has also been linked to environmental damage, particularly to coral reefs.

Many sunscreens contain chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, which have been shown to have toxic effects on coral reefs, causing bleaching and disrupting the growth and reproduction of corals. These chemicals can enter the ocean through swimmers’ bodies and wastewater runoff from showers and can have a negative impact on marine life. In addition to harming coral reefs and animals, some sunscreen chemicals have been linked to hormone disruption and can be harmful to human health.

To address these issues, some governments and organizations have implemented bans or restrictions on the use of certain sunscreen chemicals, particularly in areas with sensitive marine ecosystems. Additionally, consumers can choose to use mineral-based sunscreens that use natural ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are less harmful to the environment and have fewer potential health risks.

One of the most recognized certifications for eco-friendly and safe sunscreens is the “Reef Safe” label. This label indicates that the sunscreen has been formulated without the harmful chemicals that have been linked to coral reef damage. Other labels to look for include “Ocean Safe” and “Cruelty-Free,” which certify that the product has not been tested on animals

It is important for individuals to be aware of the potential environmental and health impacts of sunscreen and to make informed choices about the products they use. By choosing sunscreen products that are free from harmful chemicals and are labeled ‘reef-friendly’, consumers can help protect their skin and the environment at the same time.

Tattoos

Tattoos have become increasingly popular over the years, and with that, comes concerns about the sustainability of tattoo ink. Traditional tattoo ink often contains heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, which can be harmful to both humans and the environment.

To address this issue, there has been a rise in the use of sustainable and eco-friendly tattoo ink. These inks are made from natural ingredients such as plant-based pigments, and they are free from harmful chemicals and heavy metals. They are also biodegradable and compostable, which means that they won’t have a negative impact on the environment once they’re disposed of.

Another way to make tattoos more sustainable is by choosing to get a tattoo from a tattoo artist who uses sustainable practices. This includes using eco-friendly materials such as biodegradable gloves, compostable razors, and reusable or biodegradable ink caps. Some tattoo studios also have recycling programs in place for their waste materials. Some tattoo shops that have implemented sustainable practices include Birdhouse Tattoo in Oregon, Machine Age Tattoo in Arizona, and Forte Tattoo in Texas.

However, it’s important to note that sustainable tattoo ink and practices are still relatively new, and not all tattoo artists have made the switch to eco-friendly materials and practices. Therefore, it’s important to do your research and find a tattoo artist who is committed to sustainability and transparency about their materials and practices. 

Cosmetic Ingredients

A common problem in the cosmetics industry is the lack of understanding among consumers about the various chemicals used in cosmetics. When we use cosmetics, we may not realize that they contain a variety of chemicals that serve different functions. Some of these chemicals can be harmful to our health and the environment.

  • One commonly used chemical is parabens, which is a preservative that prevents the growth of bacteria and mold in cosmetic products. However, some studies have linked parabens to hormonal disruptions and other health issues.
  • Another group of chemicals commonly used in cosmetics are phthalates, which are used to increase the flexibility of plastics and as a solvent in fragrances. Some phthalates have been linked to developmental and reproductive issues.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is another chemical found in many cosmetic products. It is a foaming agent commonly used in shampoos and body washes, but it can be irritating to the skin and eyes, especially for people with sensitive skin.
  • Formaldehyde is a preservative used in some cosmetic products such as nail polish and hair straightening treatments. However, it is a known carcinogen and can cause skin irritation. 
  • Synthetic fragrances are often used in cosmetics to add a pleasant scent. However, they can contain a range of potentially harmful chemicals and may cause allergic reactions or skin irritation.

While not all chemicals in cosmetics are harmful, it’s important to be aware of what’s in the products we use and choose those with natural or organic ingredients when possible. By educating ourselves about the chemicals commonly used in cosmetics, we can make informed choices about the products we use and take steps to protect our health and the environment.

Certifications

With all of the greenwashing and lack of transparency from companies, it can be hard to actually tell who’s good vs who’s just saying that they’re good. Thankfully, there are a few certifications out there that have a set of criteria companies have to meet to get certified. Here are a few: 

  • Ecocert: This is an independent certification body that certifies cosmetics that are organic and bio-based. The Ecocert certification ensures that products are free from harmful chemicals, use environmentally friendly production methods, and promote fair trade.
  • COSMOS: This is a global certification for organic and bio-based cosmetics. It is a collaboration between five European certification bodies, and it sets standards for the use of natural and organic ingredients, environmentally friendly production, and ethical sourcing of raw materials.
  • Leaping Bunny: This certification is awarded to cosmetics that are not tested on animals. The Leaping Bunny certification ensures that the products and their ingredients have not been tested on animals at any stage of the manufacturing process.
  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): This certification is awarded to cosmetics that use packaging made from responsibly sourced wood or paper products. The FSC certification ensures that the wood or paper used in packaging comes from sustainable and well-managed forests.

Resources

The Environmental Working Group, commonly referred to as EWG, is a valuable resource for those seeking to learn more about the chemicals used in cosmetics. With a comprehensive database containing thousands of brands and products, EWG provides detailed information on each ingredient and its level of toxicity. This allows consumers to make informed decisions about the products they use and understand the potential risks associated with certain ingredients.

By using EWG’s resources, consumers can educate themselves about the potential health and environmental impacts of their cosmetic choices, and take steps to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals. The organization’s efforts also serve to promote transparency in the cosmetics industry, encouraging brands to prioritize the use of safe and sustainable ingredients. Overall, EWG is an important tool for anyone seeking to navigate the complex world of cosmetics and make informed, responsible choices for themselves and the planet.

 

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