Updated: Oct 26, 2020
By Sophia Noon
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All that glitters is definitely not gold. The beauty industry is perceived to be all glitz and glamor, sparkles and sunshine. How serious can Sephora hauls really be? However, perceptions can be deceiving, and it’s worth pointing out that every step of your makeup routine is directly contributing to the planetary crisis.
Makeup and its impact on the environment is a nuanced subject, but the harmful effects of makeup production can be roughly split up into two categories: packaging and contents. Fancy and frivolous packaging is a huge problem within the cosmetic industry wherein one single purchase can involve a range of harmful materials such as plastic wrapping, cardboard sleeves, mirrored glass, foam and paper inserts. What makes them so harmful? According to Zero Waste Week, 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the global cosmetic industry every year. This packaging is designed to be stable as to remain unaltered by the product inside, which in turn, also allows them to stay in the environment for hundreds of years. The cardboard which encompasses our palettes, lipsticks and concealers is a direct product of the 18 million acres of forest cut down each year. To add fuel to the fire, most of the cardboard used for cosmetic packaging is mixed with plastic and glue to add the eye catching glossy finish, making the material entirely unrecyclable. Moreover, about 70% of this packaging still has product left inside when it is dumped into either landfills or the ocean where it is shielded from direct sunlight, making decomposition incredibly slow and nearly impossible. If this level of consumption continues, by 2050 there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills.
Content wise, most mainstream cosmetics harbor a deadly array of toxic chemicals which act as poison for both our bodies and our ecosystems. According to a Canadian survey, 80% of all products tested contained one of the “dirty dozen”, and more than half contained multiple, which are responsible for the 700 thousand pollutants released into our oceans every day. “The Dirty Dozen” is a list scientists have curated outlining twelve harmful chemicals we come in contact with daily, even while doing our makeup. Most moisturizers and cream based products contain BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), which are listed as possible carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and are deadly to fish and shellfish. Almost all fragranced products contain parabens, an extremely popular preservative which has been linked to a possible increase to breast cancer risk. The list goes on. When these chemicals are inevitably washed down the drain, they wreak havoc on our aquatic ecosystems. Since these toxins are synthetic, they bio accumulate and cannot be broken down. They may also react further with other chemical compounds in water bodies which may be harmless individually, but deadly when combined with the aforementioned dirty dozen. From our lakes, streams and rivers, this toxic water vaporizes and forms clouds, returning to the soil as rain. This chain reaction is fatal for marine life and is linked to altered behavior and genetic mutation.
As awareness and transparency regarding the chemical composition of makeup has increased, big corporations have raced to cash out on the ‘natural beauty’ movement. It should come as no surprise that these profit centric companies use the “natural”, “sustainable”, and “ecofriendly” labels callously and with little actual concern for the environment. Recent trends in the industry have shown brands doing the bare minimum, by keeping the harmful chemicals, but adding one or two organic ingredients and plastering a misleading label on the packaging. Moreover, ‘natural’ ingredients can be just as problematic as their chemical counterparts. The FDA stated, “In fact, natural ingredients may be harder to preserve against microbial contamination and growth than synthetic raw materials (…) consumers should not necessarily assume that an organic or natural ingredient or product would possess greater inherent safety than another chemically identical version of the same ingredient.”
Ironically, the exponential rise in demand for sustainable beauty products has led to widespread unsustainable production of these natural ingredients. The large scale use of organic ingredients in cosmetics involves damaging practices such as the mining of minerals and petroleum based products which not only disrupts ecosystems, but also depletes nonrenewable resources. A prime example of how destructive this façade of sustainability can be is seen with the industry’s rampant utilization of palm oil. Recent years have seen brands heavily promoting the false narrative that is ‘sustainable palm oil’ as an ingredient; to put it simply, a fully sustainable method to farm palm oil does not exist. As the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, its present in everything from ice cream to soap, and you guessed it, makeup too. To match the high global demand for cheaply produced oil, acres of rainforests are being cut down at an alarming rate which endangers a wide range of ecosystems and is highly destructive towards the Earth’s climate due to the abundance of greenhouse gases released. Among the species at risk are orangutans; research indicates that the quest for palm oil has led to the deaths of an estimated 100,000 orangutans over a time period of sixteen years.
So what can you, as a consumer, do about this? There are definitely ways to both enjoy makeup for what it is and help the environment. Be aware of your purchasing habits: scan the ingredient lists before buying a product, skip out on products with excessive packaging, use biodegradable glitter for your Euphoria inspired makeup look, avoid products which contain plastic micro-beads, and look into Fair Trade practices and give back initiatives. A little due diligence on an average consumer’s part goes a long way and might push companies within the industry towards actual environment friendly practices. Let’s be a little more mindful of our summer 2020 beauty hauls and do our part for a cleaner and greener future.
Written by writer Sophia Noon