Environmental Impact of the cosmetic industry

When I started formulating cosmetics back in the late 1990’s, one regulatory movement was to reduce the VOC (volatile organic compounds) of cosmetics. What this primarily meant was that all the hairsprays we sold would have to be reduced to 55% VOC. Since these formulas could be composed of up to 90% VOC, that made it a big challenge.

I always thought it was a ridiculous thing to regulate. It seemed to me the amount of VOC produced by personal care products was minuscule compared to that of automobiles and airplanes. And if you look at the numbers, this is true.  Less than 4% of VOC emissions come from personal care products.

Vilification of the Cosmetic Industry

While this study of VOCs  is worth considering further, this experience prompted me to start noticing other instances where the cosmetic industry was seemingly unfairly targeted. It seems the media and internet provide a steady stream of stories about the harms and hazards of the cosmetic industry. In addition to causing air pollution you can find claims that the cosmetic industry is

Let’s look at the relative impact that each of these might be having on the specific problem.

Are cosmetics killing choral reefs?

There are lots of sources claiming that sunscreens are responsible for the bleaching of choral reefs. A few governments have banned what they believe are the offending ingredients including oxybenzone and octinoxate. Numerous brands have popped up claiming to sell “reef safe” sunscreens.

The justification they are reef safe? They don’t contain any of the banned sunscreen ingredients, but instead feature mineral sunscreen ingredients like Zinc Oxide.

This is a weak rationale for two main reasons. First, there is no good evidence that sunscreens are causing choral bleaching. Global warming and the acidification of the oceans are the main culprit. And second, if one does find the evidence compelling, there is also evidence that zinc oxide can cause choral bleaching. So, if you believe sunscreens are causing choral bleaching, using a zinc oxide based sunscreen isn’t going to help.

No, sunscreens are not the main cause of choral bleaching. There is not even good evidence that they contribute to the problem at all. But banning cosmetic ingredients is a lot easier to do than better regulating CO2 emissions and agricultural runoff.

And if we banned sunscreens, the choral reefs would continue to bleach.

Are cosmetics killing animals?

Concern about animals being used for testing in cosmetics first garnered a lot of attention in the 1970’s. Some suggested this was spurred on by Peter Singer and the establishment of the animal rights movement. Since then numerous groups have attacked the cosmetic industry for doing unnecessary testing. This has led to significant government action and currently animal testing of cosmetics is “banned” in numerous places around the world, most notably the EU.

So, there is a lot less animal testing being done in the cosmetic industry. In truth, companies don’t want to do animal testing. It is expensive, it is terrible for a company’s reputation, and most people who work at cosmetic companies don’t like animal cruelty either.

However, animal testing of cosmetics still happens. We do not yet have enough reliable animal testing alternatives to prove ingredients are safe. When we do, the cosmetic industry will gladly stop doing any animal testing.

Yes, there is still some animal testing going on in the cosmetic industry. It’s worth pointing out that the pharmaceutical and chemical industries does way more animal testing than the cosmetic industry.

If we banned all animal testing of cosmetics, there would still be a lot of animal testing.

Do beauty products create too much plastic?

The cosmetic industry certainly produces a lot of plastic waste. Very little of the plastic packaging is recycled. There is movement to change this with companies like Terracycle  and big brands creating programs to address the problem. There is also a trend towards companies trying to produce solid products that don’t require plastic bottles.

However, this problem will not go away any time soon. Solid formulas don’t really work as well as standard beauty products. Recycling of plastic is not yet feasible on a large scale. Until there are laws passed that make recycled packaging more economical than new packaging, the plastic problem will persist.

And while the beauty industry certainly contributes to the problem, it pales in comparison to food and beverage companies. It’s reported that Coca Cola produces 3 million tons of plastic each year. The EPA reports 14 million tons are produced in the US so that’s a pretty high percentage by a beverage company.

If we got rid of all cosmetics, we’d still have a plastic problem.

Are cosmetics causing global warming?

Certainly the beauty industry requires energy to produce products so it will contribute to global warming and climate change. But how much? It’s hard to say since no one really keeps track of this in much detail. We can guess by looking at the EPA estimates for the sources of greenhouse gas production. According to this 23% of greenhouse gases are produced by industry. The cosmetic industry is a small fraction of that.

So, while the cosmetic industry does contribute to global warming it is only a small fraction of the problem.

Eliminating emission levels from the cosmetic industry would not have a significant impact on global warming.

Are cosmetics causing cancer?

Concerns about cosmetics causing cancer are not new. But there has never been evidence that cosmetics cause cancer. The ingredients and products are safety tested and the products are safer than they have ever been. What is new is how rapidly fear marketing has taken over the cosmetic industry. Companies and NGOs, and content makers look for any concerning issues then use the media and social media to scare consumers away from ingredients. The trend of Clean Beauty has allowed companies to use fear marketing to get consumers to spend more money on products that are not safer but cost more.

No, cosmetics are not causing cancer. They are not a primary cause or even significant cause of cancer.

But if you are afraid of cosmetics don’t use them. You will experience no negative health effects by avoiding all cosmetics. Although you may smell and look worse.

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