Cosmetic Chemicals and Toxic Beauty Pollution
Despite being a clean beauty brand, we've been critical of how some cosmetic chemicals are marketed. Toxic and non-toxic are classifications people believe are black and white. That couldn't be farther from the truth. This is especially true when it comes to beauty products and plastic waste.
Within the world of clean beauty, there is much emphasis placed on the safety of cosmetic chemicals for the people using them. A lesser focus is on the safety of these same chemicals once they pollute the natural environment.
They don't just simply wash away down the drain and disappear.
Beauty Industry Pollution
Environmental pollution can be natural (volcano eruptions, wildfires, etc.) or anthropogenic (human origin). However, the accumulating adverse effects on ecosystems are caused mainly by waste from human activity. Pollution is produced from every aspect of our global community that requires energy. This spans house heating, transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing, including cosmetics. The farming of ingredients and production of cosmetics result in emissions and pollutants. Certain processes have a better or worse carbon footprint, but emissions are released with them all.
Many bioactive substances are used in cosmetics. These include preservatives, fragrances, pigments, antiseptics, polymers, and light blockers. After being thrown into the trash or washed away, they flow into treatment plants, end up in landfills or are littered in the natural environment. Unfortunately, no chemical processing occurs. As a result, these cosmetic chemicals persist in the natural environment. Many of them are not biodegradable, so they may remain for hundreds of years.
They may be invisible, but they're still there.
Environmentally persistent cosmetic chemicals are grouped with drugs under the common term: Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCP), a class of persistent environmental contaminants.
The demand for environmentally friendly, genuinely biodegradable, personal care products has increased with increasing consumer awareness of cosmetic chemicals and beauty industry pollution. The Sustainable Beauty Coalition debuted at Glasgow's COP26, with the question "How can we make greener beauty choices?" and its Planet Positive Beauty Guide.
The issue of microplastics requires a lot of attention. This is because microplastics are potentially the most prevalent component of beauty industry pollution, originating from packaging and ingredients in the product. This is especially true since polyethylene, the most frequently used skincare packaging material is responsible for most water, soil, and air microplastic contamination. It is widely used for skincare containers, but also used as an ingredient in the products themselves.
Most people think of plastic pollution as visible – water bottles and shopping bags floating in the ocean.
Micro and nano plastics persist in the environment, possibly forever. As they get smaller, they increase their ability to disperse. This is a good feature for cosmetics but not for the environment. They are small enough to make it into dust and cross cell membranes into tissues, including the placenta. This means we are eating, drinking, and breathing microscopic particles of plastic.
We don't believe in using fear mongering as a marketing tactic, but this is scary! Determining the actual impact on human, animal, fetal, and ecological health is impossible because these plastics are literally everywhere. There's no way to control exposure.
Liquid Microplastic As Cosmetic Ingredients
These polymers play an essential role in the overall cosmetic industry pollution footprint. To answer the question "how we can make greener beauty choices" regarding microplastics, their liquid forms must be considered. When you see these types of cosmetic chemicals in your products, it's hard to imagine they may exist forever once you wash them away.
Acrylate copolymers are used to deliver active ingredients, or as a binder, hair fixative, or thickening/gelling agent. They are used in colour cosmetics, sun, skin, hair care products, shaving creams, and moisturizers. Matching the performance of synthetic polymers by replacing them with polysaccharides is difficult because each ingredient has a unique texture and skin feel. Natural-derived polysaccharides often do not reach the mechanical properties of acrylic polymers such as carbomers.
Often called synthetic wax, polyethylene is a plastic polymer available as powder, flakes, or granules. PE improves the hardness of cosmetic oils. It is also widely used in stick formulations, hot pour foundations and abrasive PE microbeads for their exfoliating properties. Thankfully microbeads have primarily been banned, but the ingredient is still microplastic, even if it's not in bead form. It exists in many lip balms as well.
Carbomers are thickening and emulsifying agents helping to control the viscosity of cosmetics and skincare products. For example, they improve the texture of creams or shampoos. Carbomers are large molecules that do not penetrate the skin barrier. Thanks to their water absorption and retention properties, they can increase in volume up to 1000x times. They are used in gels such as styling gel, sunscreen, anti-aging treatment, eye cream, cleanser, and scrubs.
Environmental Impact of the Beauty Industry
The first reports about the environmental presence of plastics and compounds derived from the PPCP group appeared in the 1970s. Since then, the occurrence of these pollutants has been confirmed worldwide in all waterways: wastewater, surface, groundwater, and marine water. They're also detected in natural sediments, agricultural soil, and even the polar ice caps. In addition, concentrations of liquid and solid microplastics can be seen in drinking water and tissues of plants and animals.
Though the exact severity of health risk is almost impossible to predict, assuming they're inert and benign bystanders would be a mistake. Research does suggest chronic and acute adverse effects of plastic pollutants on microorganisms, algae, plants, fungi, and animals, including people.
An excellent example of how complex and confusing this can be is silicone/siloxanes in cosmetics. Silicones and their derivatives are used extensively in cosmetics, skincare, and haircare. They are excellent ingredients and non-comedogenic. They aren't toxic chemicals that should be avoided at all costs, but they do have an ecological impact.
An ingredient added to lotions for spreadability and hydration is polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). It is known to be toxic to barnacle larvae, inhibiting their settlement. Polysiloxanes are also used in sunscreens, an element of proper sunbathing hygiene and skin cancer prevention. In combination with UV-shielding oxybenzone, it becomes more potent. This suggests the mix of sunscreen ingredient list poses a greater risk to marine life, such as coral reefs, than individual components.
The results of current studies provide an opportunity to look for environmentally friendly alternatives in commercially available cosmetic formulations. We don't think silicone ingredients are specifically harmful or toxic to humans. Still, there is evidence of ecological impact, and they persist in the environment once we wash them off our faces.
How to Dispose of Products with Microbeads?
An estimated 4360 tonnes of microplastic beads were used in 2012 in Europe, with polyethylene beads representing 93% of the total amount equaling 4037 tonnes.
Think of exactly how many microbeads you need to equal 4037 tonnes!
Thankfully, products with these beads have been mostly banned. However, many of us still have them sitting around in our cosmetics graveyards. So how can you get rid of them safely?
Start by calling the manufacturer to find out if they will accept returns, some do. The next best thing is to throw the product in the trash to prevent the beads from entering the water environment. You can use the remaining cleanser itself by straining it through a paper filter to separate the beads. Finally, there are many substitutes such as, bamboo stem, oats, sugar, and jojoba seeds already on the market.
A priority needs to be increasing the availability of genuinely biodegradable or compostable materials. Switching to products with packaging that can be guaranteed recyclable such as glass, paper, cardboard, steel, and aluminum, is an excellent first step. Plastic packaging has to go! Recycling plastic is a decent option, but it's not enough.
Biodegradable polymer substitutes for traditional plastic are developing. Several bio-based and biodegradable polymers such as polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), and polysaccharides are available. In the next 5 years, we hope to see more plastic alternatives that are truly better and not just greenwashing. Cooperation among researchers and industries will drive the cosmetic sector toward being more ecological and contributing to saving our environment.
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