Environmental Impacts of the Cosmetics and Skincare Industries

Updated: Jul 12, 2021


Environmental Impacts of the Cosmetics and Skincare Industries

The cosmetic industry brings in billions of dollars every year. But at what price?


Everything we use in our daily lives has a ripple effect on the earth and the complex systems of life. Aside from the dangers cosmetics can pose to our bodies, there are hidden dangers in products that impact the environment. And aside from the ingredients, the process of producing these products has an effect as well. The packaging and chemical runoff from production can have severe negative impacts on the environment.


It is no secret that the cosmetic industry uses an horrifying amount of plastics in their packaging, in fact, many industries do - but is it unavoidable? Plastics became commonplace in packaging and it is only in recent years that the subject has received the attention it needs. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch - also known as the floating plastic island or Garbage Island - is a horrific mess of plastic garbage collecting in the pacific ocean and causing untold damage to sea creatures and their delicate ecosystem.


What’s the deal with plastic waste?


Plastic waste is disastrous for numerous reasons, particularly because it takes centuries for it to decompose. And in those years it is decomposing, the plastic will typically end up filling up landfills, or in the mouths of animals who end up dying from it.

Dangerous Ingredients


It is also commonplace for products to use ingredients like BHT and BHA, both of which pose particularly high danger to sea animals. There are many more lethal ingredients, and you need to know how to identify these. The following ingredients pose significant threat to marine life and aquatic life systems.


Danger to Marine Life


BHA and BHT, in the best case scenario, will kill sea animals quickly. But in the worst case, they can also cause genetic mutation to the animals and the fragile ecosystems within marine life.


Triclosan is another common ingredient. This can be often found in deodorants and cleansers. And while they seem innocent enough when you use them, they cause severe disruptions to aquatic system’s biochemistry.


DEA (otherwise known as Diethanolamine) is abundant in cosmetic products. It poses significant risk to all living things, especially since it can easily be transferred via water systems to the environment.


Is there any good news?


We are seeing some accountability on the part of the beauty industry, but whether this is to qualm the trending eco and sustainability demands or because they genuinely care, is up for debate.


Either way, we are seeing strides in the right direction.


For the most part, the beauty industry is setting its sights on reducing its environmental impact. This is being done through eco friendly packaging, a heavier lean on organic ingredients, and relying on renewable energy to produce the products. There is still a long way to go. But you can do your part, by supporting companies that are making greener initiatives.


Instead of using cosmetics without a thought for their green initiatives, use products that are focused on doing their part. Many people assume companies will simply do the right thing and discard the harmful chemicals. This is not always the case.


The Dangers of What goes Down the Drain


In 2010, a study from the NIEHS released a report detailing how the hormone systems of wildlife are disrupted by the waste of beauty products that get washed down the drain. It seems impossible to not cause any harm. But just because we have created a dependency on the chemicals in the products, doesn't mean that they are needed. Are these chemical ingredients really required?


Toxic Ingredients


Cosmetics in the USA are produced with a plethora of chemicals, more than 10 thousand; 10, 500 unique chemicals are present in many everyday cosmetics, and this includes carcinogens that cause damage to both the endocrine and reproductive system.


And if that didn't raise enough eyebrows, how about this:


The Office of Cosmetics and Colors at the federal Food and Drug Administration reports that

“…a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA.”


This means that there is no premarket testing to regulate safety and industrial chemicals that become ingredients in cosmetics and skincare products.


This is in stark contrast to Europe. The European Commission has banned more than 1 500 harmful chemicals, while the USA has only banned 30. Scientific evidence shows that cosmetic ingredients considered ‘normal’ show up in tissue residue of both wildlife and humans. And if we consider the nature of topical cosmetics, they are designed to penetrate, are they not?


These chemicals have been found in breast tumor tissue and phthalates are found in urine.

The time for innocent naivety is over. The results are in. There are hidden dangers in our cosmetic and skincare products that have been having devastating effects for years, and things need to change.


One thing that needs to change more than ever is our response to cosmetic companies. Gone are the days when we responded with naive joy at clever marketing. With the current green trend, we see more companies than ever promoting awareness for cancer and environmental issues. There are many companies that jump on October’s breast cancer awareness every year. The irony is that many of these large corporations are still contributing to the problem. Large companies, most of the industry leaders, still produce their products using ingredients known to disrupt hormones. And carcinogens. Both of these are contributing to cancer.


But cancer doesn't remain a threat to only humans. Research shows that animals exposed to these chemicals develop cancer as well. A total of 216 common ingredients have been identified as cancer causing chemicals for both humans and animals. These are often found in PVC, soaps, shampoos, and herbicides.


And the kicker?


This is all preventable. But still they continue to be used.


Despite the risks, the US has done little to regulate these disastrous chemicals. There have been some who have spoken out, to little avail. More that 25 years ago, the late US Senator Edward Kennedy called out the cosmetic industry by saying “The cosmetics industry has borrowed a page from the playbook of the tobacco industry by putting profits ahead of public health.”


Despite this, nothing has been done to deter corporations from continuing to profit off of harmful ingredients.


But the difference between the dangers of the tobacco and cosmetic industries is that the tobacco companies place warnings on their products.


If you want to avoid dangerous cosmetics, there’s one thing that you could start with. The FDA may not be strict on their regulations, but they do tend to stick to their guns when it comes to labels on organic products. Look out for the certified organic label, as this will ensure the product is free from toxic chemicals. And not ‘sourced from local ingredients’, but made with 100% organic ingredients.


Poisoning Our Planet: how to put an end to it


Knowledge is power, and when it comes to protecting the already fragile ecosystems that determine our future on this planet, it could be argued that in this case, knowledge about which chemicals to boycott is a superpower.


These ingredients directly contribute to poisoning our planet and if we stop buying them and all playing a small part, the big cosmetic companies will have no choice but to put the enviroment and our health first:


  • BHA and BHT

These are cosmetic preservatives. But while they preserve the cosmetics, they have the opposite effect on species such as shellfish and fish. They also cause severe genetic mutations in amphibious animals.


  • P-phenylenediamine

This chemical ingredient is present in many dark coloured cosmetics such as lipsticks and hair colour.


  • Dibutyl phthalate

Also known as DBP, this chemical is present in many nail polishes. It has disastrous consequences for aquatic life. It directly results in the death of aquatic life and plant plankton. DBP is highly toxic and when environments have high levels of this chemical, all organisms will die.


  • Triclosan

Found in most deodorants and cleansers, this chemical results in direct disrupts to the biochemistry of amphibians, aquatic plants and fish


  • Diethylene

Also known as DEA, it is one of the most abundant chemicals in skincare and cosmetic products. It has a cumulative effect on the environment and forms carcinogenic nitrosamines when in contact with nitrates. These nitrosamines are deadly to many animals, amphibians, fish, animal plankton, crustaceans, and almost any other natural life form.


  • Dioxane

This is another known carcinogenic found in many common products. It disrupts the endocrine system and can have lasting damaging effects. It is difficult to pinpoint because it is often masked within other ingredients such as sodium laureth sulfate, polyethylene glycols and siloxane. Dioxane is common in many creams, bubble baths, soaps, moisturizers and shampoos. As a run off it travels down the drain and ends up in aquatic systems. When these ecosystems are exposed to dioxane, behaviour is altered and populations die off.


It doesn't take a scientist for us to realise that our life here on earth is dependent on water cycles. Sure, it took science for the weight of it to sink in, but we all know that without water, we perish.


Chemicals in common cosmetics and skincare products get transferred in water systems, which then transfer into clouds, and then return in the rain. The ripple effect of everyday cosmetic products affect every living being and life system on earth.



What can be done?


As mentioned, thanks to the trending eco movement, more companies are under pressure to pursue more eco-friendly alternatives. But, many are still hiding behind marketing techniques that may seem sufficient on the surface, but when we examine their production and ingredients it's clear that not enough attention is given to eco friendly initiatives. So, here’s what you can do. You can become a smart consumer. It's not about boycotting all cosmetics and skincare products, it's about making smarter choices that help both your health and the environment.


Here’s how you can help:

  • Opt for certified organic products. If consumers stop supporting companies that sell chemicals and support certified organic products instead, this will guide the industry towards a greener future.

  • Support companies and brands that choose to register their products with the Environmental Protection Agency. This is a voluntary thing for companies to do, and it shows commitment to the cause.

  • Consider your Sunscreen

Most sunscreens advertise their products as protective measures against the sun, but at what cost? Many sunscreens contain Oxybenzone. This is a harmful chemical that is fatal to aquatic environments, including coral reefs. The NOAA states that chemicals such as Oxybenzon are released through both runoff pollution and unwitting swimmers using these sunscreens. Essential processes such as photosynthesis are disrupted in algae, fish fertility is disrupted and coral reefs die off. There are now many sunscreens that actively pursue safer ingredients without compromising their efficiency, so choose to support them instead. Read the label and avoid sunscreens containing chemicals like Oxybenzon.


The Slow Poison Effect: how to put a quick end to it


While many of these products only contain miniscule amounts of chemicals, these products are used in daily life by millions, if not billions, of people. These chemicals do not break down. They accumulate and are currently wreaking havoc on our environment. These chemicals either leak through the skin, or down the drain, and end up in natural systems. The ocean, streams, rivers, lakes, and public water systems are all subject to contamination that is entirely avoidable. But while it is entirely avoidable, the irony is that their effect is fatal and, all too often, irreversible.


The worst part? Companies can remove these types of contaminants. But they simply choose not too. Why? Because it revs up production costs and time.


Putting a quick end to this starts with you, the consumer.


Common cosmetics and skincare products are causing fatal damage to the environment. As a consumer, you have more power than you might realise. By making simple choices and supporting environmentally conscious brands, you can do your part. Choose eco responsible products and you could have a hand in curbing the environmental pollution caused by the hidden toxic chemicals in skincare and cosmetic products.


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