The Environmental Cost of Beauty: Exploring Cosmetics’ Major Environmental Impact

Cosmetics is a $483 billion global industry, and it continues to grow as new products emerge. As consumers become more conscientious, eco-friendly, toxin-free brands are flooding the market. Unfortunately, the environmental cost is still significant, from production and testing to packaging and distribution

Is it possible to indulge in beauty routines without such a large carbon footprint? How can you ensure that your cosmetics are sustainably produced? Let’s take a look at three aspects of the industry and their environmental effects.

Toxic Ingredients

As you may know, many cosmetics are laden with synthetic chemicals, including phthalates, parabens, and PFAS. Many brands are now releasing paraben-free formulas. That’s progress, but there are still ingredients of concern in many cosmetics.

In addition to potential hormone disruption and carcinogenic effects, these chemicals negatively impact the environment. When you wash off your makeup, you’re washing phthalates, octinoxate, parabens, etc. down the drain. These lead to hormonal problems and cancer in fish and other aquatic species. Declining populations affect the food chain — including ours! We could be facing serious ecosystem disruption that impacts water quality, climate, and multiple food sources.

If you use a product with micro-beads — those mini plastic orbs in body scrubs — you’re literally sending thousands of plastic bits down the drain and into the waterways. Those, too, kill fish and corals, destroying nature’s delicate balance.

Some ingredients are environmentally harmful before they’re even added to the product. Many lipsticks and cream-based colors use petrolatum, a byproduct of petroleum. As we seek to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, it might be time to say goodbye to Vaseline.

One of the most destructive cosmetic ingredients is palm oil. Another common lipstick ingredient, palm oil is harvested from the aptly named oil palm (Elaeis). These crops often replace native rainforests that were home to stunning biodiversity. Malaysia and Indonesia, the top producers of palm oil, are losing their natural ecosystem in favor of oil palm forests. This heavy mono-cropping is destroying the habitats of the endangered orangutan and Sumatran rhino, among other species.

Wasteful and Unethical Cosmetics Testing

One of the top complaints about cosmetics companies is in regard to their animal testing. You don’t have to be a die-hard animal rights activist to be shocked and disgusted by these procedures. There is plenty of information out there on this point, so we won’t go into it here. What’s often not discussed is the massive pollution caused by animal testing.

Laboratory animals are discarded en masse after testing. Whether they die due to the testing or simply live out their short lives in the facility, their bodies make up tons of biohazardous waste. And because they had various chemicals applied to them, those chemicals leach out into the environment. Add in the nitrogen-heavy excrement, and you’ve got a recipe for serious groundwater contamination, algal blooms, and other pollution.

The testing process can also be resource-intensive, using lots of energy and disposable materials that ultimately increase the company’s carbon footprint. And what’s truly odd is that many of these formulas are testing ingredients known to be safe — which means we could be spending many animals’ lives and a lot of fossil fuels for nothing.

Non-Recyclable, Polluting Packaging

The global cosmetics industry produces more than 120 billion packaging units. In the U.S. alone, more than 200 million mascara tubes are tossed in the trash. Even these small items cumulatively gobble up landfill space. Many end up in waterways, where cheap plastic breaks down into microparticles that affect aquatic life. They have been found in the gills and digestive tract of many fish species — including those we eat! You don’t want a side of plastic with your flounder.

Many consumers don’t bother to recycle cosmetic packaging, and even if they tried, it’s often not feasible. Cosmetics containers tend to be a mix of materials, only some of which may be recyclable. As they must be separated, most people can’t figure out how to do so — or they simply don’t have the time. About 80 percent of cosmetics packages aren’t recycled because (a) the consumer doesn’t attempt to recycle it or (b) either the consumer or the recycling facility discards it as non-recyclable. (And as government budgets tighten their belts, many recycling facilities are understaffed or only accepting materials that can be easily processed and sold to manufacturers.)

What to Do

From end to end, cosmetics products typically have some sort of negative environmental impact. The easiest solution is to avoid buying cosmetics at all. However, there are some brands that are changing the game by eliminating animal testing, using sustainable production and recyclable materials, and avoiding toxic ingredients. Companies respond to consumer demand.

Buy from direct-to-consumer brands. These either ship to your door or you can buy them from an exclusive retailer (e.g., Lush, Izzy Zero Waste). Products that are sold in mass retailers (i.e., most drugstore brands) have much larger carbon footprints for shipping and distribution.

Choose brands that are committed to reducing their carbon footprint. Some brands have altered their packaging to minimize the plastic used. Others use refillable containers — or even cardboard or stainless steel ones!

Buy brands that are “cruelty-free.” These companies do not use animal testing.

Avoid formulas with parabens, phthalates, polyethylene compounds, octinoxate, and propylene glycol. All of these have been linked to organ damage, hormone disruption, and potential carcinogenic effects. Tip: Most products labeled “waterproof,” “anti-aging,” or “with sun protection” contain these ingredients!

Plus, a few simple tweaks to your beauty routine can make a big difference:

Take care of your cosmetics. Mascara is supposed to be replaced every 3-6 months — that’s a lot of tubes in the trash! By extending the life of your products, you can reduce your plastic waste. Store cosmetics in a cool, dry location, and avoid prolonged exposure to oxygen.

Use brushes to apply. Many cosmetics packages are designed to be unusable after a certain point. By using brushes, you can get out the most product and delay replacing the item.

Let your makeup pull triple duty. Once you find a sustainable brand, make the most of them. Basic pink hues can be used on the eyes, cheeks, and lips — rather than buying separate products for each of these. A dark eyeliner can double as a brow pencil, and so on.

Wrapping Up

Can you look good and still feel good about your environmental impact? It’s possible, although it will take some work! Choosing sustainable cosmetic brands is ultimately worth the extra effort. In addition to sparing yourself from the effects of toxic ingredients, you’ll be protecting our waterways and precious aquatic life — plus minimizing the plastic dumped into our landfills. With conscientious consumption, we can drive the cosmetics industry to continue shifting toward eco-friendly products and processes.

This article is inspired by an interview with Shannon Goldberg, the owner of Izzy Zero Waste, a vegan, organic, cruelty-free mascara released in refillable containers.

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