The Environmental Impact of Cosmetics Is Tremendous—Here's How They're Harmful

From coral-bleaching chemicals to animal testing, plastic pollution, and beyond.

Messy cosmetics and beauty tools on a bathroom counter

Meaghan Skinner Photography / Getty Images

The $400 billion-and-growing global cosmetics and beauty industry's environmental impact stretches from the sourcing of raw materials to production, distribution, and waste generated by end consumers.

Cosmetics affect more than the local landfills left with mountains of single-use plastics—they also affect our oceans, our air quality, and the ecosystems that have provided for flora and fauna for thousands of years.

Indeed, species are going extinct for the sake of making skin care and eyeshadow palettes. And in addition to the ways in which wildlife is impacted by the manufacturing and disposal of the products, they are also directly harmed by the still-prevalent practice of animal testing, which occurs throughout 80% of the world.

Here's a rundown of the environmental and sustainability issues surrounding conventional cosmetics.

What Exactly Are Cosmetics?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines cosmetics as "articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body ... for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance." Legally, cosmetics include makeup, skin care, hair products, deodorant, and toothpaste.

Chemical Ingredients

Person in lab coat behind chemicals in bottles and beakers

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One of the most publicized problems with the beauty industry is its use of toxic chemicals. Parabens, plasticizers, formaldehyde, BHA, pesticides, and coal tar are all rife in cosmetics manufacturing, and sunscreens are a great example of the harm these synthetic ingredients can cause when they reach waterways. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls the world's coral reefs "one of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth," yet they are subjected to an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen every year. Chemicals in sunscreen contain nanoparticles that can disrupt coral reproduction and growth, ultimately resulting in bleaching. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database identifies 1,562 cosmetics and personal care products that contain octinoxate and 615 that contain oxybenzone—these are some of the most environmentally destructive UV filters on the market.

Some 3,600 of the products on EWG's database contain parabens, which can also bleach coral as well as disrupt reproduction in animals, and well over 3,500 contain polyethylene, a type of plastic. Polyethylene is used in cosmetics as an abrasive, emulsion stabilizer, binder, bulker, and film former. It is also the most common material used for microbeads in exfoliating products. Microbeads and other microplastics like glitter wind up in oceans and disrupt the digestive tracts of marine life. 

Global analyses of aquatic plastic pollution have found that plastics have been ingested by two-thirds of fish and 90% of seabirds. Those same studies estimate that the rate of ingestion is increasing by roughly 2% per year.

Animal Testing

White rabbits in restraints in research laboratory

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A reported 80% of countries still allow cosmetics to be tested on animals. Even though the FDA doesn't require any type of testing before a cosmetic hits the U.S. market, countless products that reach American shelves still undergo animal testing because they're produced or sold in countries that allow or require it. Besides the ethical concerns around subjecting more than 100 million animals per year to possible allergens that often kill them, the outdated practice has an apparent bounty of environmental consequences.

Firstly, the animals recruited for laboratory testing are plucked straight from the wild. As a result, the IUCN Red List says the continued existence of species like long-tailed and rhesus macaques—some of the most used—is threatened. The status of the long-tailed macaque, specifically, has jumped two Red List categories, going from a species of least concern to vulnerable to extinction, just since 2008.

Another concern: Animal testing is a highly resource-intensive and wasteful practice. Research animal facilities use 10 times more energy than a standard office because they require so much space, ventilation, temperature stabilization, and constant lighting. A multitude of chemicals are used both for testing and cleaning—these and the bodies of animals contaminated with them create chemical, radioactive, and biological hazards when they're discarded, either by rendering, landfill disposal, or incineration.

Irresponsible Sourcing

Palm Oil Plantation
Palm oil plantation in Johor, Malaysia. Bloomberg Creative / Getty Images

The cosmetics industry is a serious natural resource drainer. Take palm oil for example, a vegetal substance that appears (under 20 different names) in more than 2,300 cosmetics on EWG's database. Palm oil grows only in tropical environments within 10 degrees of the equator. A growing demand for the commodity drove suppliers to clear 500 square miles of rainforest in Southeast Asia alone between 2015 and 2018.

Deforestation is already severely polluting because it's often conducted through fire methods, which release tons of carbon—more, even, than the trees themselves sequester—into the environment. But the direct victims of palm oil's widespread rainforest destruction are, of course, primates.

Orangutan Foundation International estimates that 1,000 to 5,000 orangutans are killed in palm oil concessions each year.

Deforestation is also rampant in the mica mining industry. The mineral is often used to add shimmer to cosmetics. It was discovered in more than 13,500 products assessed by EWG, and 4,249 of them were lipsticks and eye shadows.

What's more, both these industries—palm oil and mica—are extracted from the earth by some of the most vulnerable and lowest-paid people in the world. Mining, harvesting, and manufacturing methods are extremely labor-intensive and often carried out in unsafe, unhealthy conditions.

Water Consumption

Jar of watery gel surrounded by bottles and plants

Iana Kunitsa / Getty Images

Water is in almost every beauty product on the market. The ingredient was listed simply as "water" in more than 33,000 products assessed by EWG, and that's not including the thousands more that list it as "aqua" or "eau." From a waste standpoint, water is entirely safe for the environment (because, well, it makes up 71% percent of the planet already). But from a sustainability standpoint, the resource is noticeably dwindling. The United Nations has predicted that 52% of the world's population will live in water-stressed regions by 2050.

Another problem with using water as a filler to bulk out a product is its weight. Water is heavier than most oils, even, and the heavier the load, the higher the transportation emissions.

Transportation

A beauty product's (or brand's) environmental footprint can be measured using a science-based tool called life cycle assessment. LCAs, as they're often called, look at each stage of the product, from the extraction of ingredients to manufacturing to use to, finally, post-consumer disposal. In the traditional life cycle, transportation occurs between each of these stages—and oftentimes distribution is international.

The U.S. is one of the largest importers and exporters of cosmetics and beauty products. Trade maps show that imports into the states travel, on average, 4,711 miles (about the distance between New York City and Bulgaria), and exports travel even farther.

According to a 2018 Cosmetics Europe report, companies are reducing their carbon footprints by "shifting their transportation from road to rail and from air to sea" or by using hybrid and electric vehicles. Other efforts include consolidating distribution networks and growing distribution centers to store products until they're ready to ship, ultimately cutting unnecessary trips.

Air Pollution

Glass perfume bottles against a mirror

Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images

In addition to the air pollution caused by carbon emissions from transportation, beauty products with strong scents also clog up the atmosphere with volatile organic compounds. In fact, one study found the VOCs from fragrances, hairsprays, and deodorants to emit the same level of chemical vapors as cars in some cases. (It did note, however, that the balanced ratio was more a result of car pollution going down than pollution from cosmetics going up.)

When the VOCs combine with other air particles, they develop into a nasty kind of particulate matter, PM2.5.

Plastic Pollution 

Various beauty bottles and containers on wooden surface with plants

Carol Yepes / Getty Images

Some products' entire footprint (almost) is in post-consumer recycling and disposal. For instance, as little as 5% of shampoo's total impact is attributable to raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, and packaging. The plastic that's either downcycled, incinerated, or sent to landfills to break down slowly over 450 years accounts for the remaining 95%.

According to Zero Waste Week data, the global cosmetics industry produces 120 billion units of packaging per year. Much of it is plastic—and worse, a variety of plastics that make recycling the packages next to impossible. Therefore, the disposal of these containers accounts for up to 70% of the whole industry's carbon emissions.

The specialized recycling company TerraCycle has been seminal in making sure mixed-material containers (i.e., pump bottles, mascara tubes, compacts, cream jars, etc.) at least get turned into insulation, carpeting, and car parts, but the program has been criticized for giving big corporations an out in the sustainable packaging department.

How to Be a Better Cosmetics Consumer

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