The Beauty Industry’s Impact on the Environment

I started my career in the environmental education field and then moved on to work for Minnesota based environmental non-profits. Having a deep connection to protecting the Earth and our scarce resources, I was honestly a little annoyed when I took my first job campaigning to remove toxic chemicals from children’s products. I thought I was abandoning my environmental roots…but I was wrong.

Having worked on environmental health issues since 2006, the connection between the health of our bodies, products and environment couldn’t be more clear. And working in the clean beauty industry, questions of sustainability rise on a daily basis. Often times people are missing some of the key connections between the conventional beauty industry’s impact on the environment.

The good news? Many brands are tackling these sustainability challenges head on.

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Plastic Microbeads

Plastic microbeads are an easy connection between beauty and environmental impacts. Thankfully plastic microbeads were banned from skin care products in the United States and now other countries like the UK are following suit. The beads were used as exfoliators (which honestly didn’t work well) and would wash down the drain and get into rivers, the Great Lakes and oceans. Today, companies are using natural exfoliators like ground up nuts, jojoba esters and other natural solutions.

Sourcing of Natural Ingredients

Everyone wants natural ingredients these days, and for the most part, I get it. However, in the natural skin care craze, many of the evangelists of natural ingredients also deeply care about protecting the environment. As the industry takes off and scales to meet market demands for the masses, what happens to the environment? Those natural ingredients come from somewhere.

As I outlined here, essential oils, which are often used to scent products, need to be grown and sourced responsibly. The problem is that many aren’t and companies are relying on supply chains that aren’t easy to trace. This also holds true for oil crops such as jojoba, marula, and argan oils.

A great direction that some clean beauty brands are moving in, is around the sourcing of oils (essential or otherwise) from women’s co-ops, most located in Africa, which give women the opportunity to support their families and communities, while sustainably harvesting crops.

Pesticides Used on Oils

The oils we love so deeply can be laden with pesticides, linked to harm of the environment, farm workers and surrounding communities where the crops are grown. There hasn’t been much science on the human health impacts of pesticide residue (residual pesticides that end up in a finished product like jojoba or marula oil). Regardless, if you care about the environment opt for organic oils when possible.

I would note that organic oils can dramatically push the cost of a product up, pushing beyond most peoples’ budgets. I personally buy organic oils for cooking (and coconut oil for beauty uses), but don’t require my clean beauty companies to source entirely organic if the other ingredients are safe.

Finally, be wary of beauty products that use the term organic since it is currently unregulated and many products can contain organic ingredients AND harmful preservatives like parabens. If this seems super confusing, please reference an article I wrote about tools and apps that do the homework for you!

Waste from Packaging

This is a large impact the beauty industry has on the environment, as consumer goods generate packaging.

What to look for:

  • Companies that carefully screen packaging materials for toxic chemicals (ie no phthalates, BPA, vinyl)
  • Recyclable materials like paper, glass and plastic
  • Glass containers (although these require more carbon to produce and ship)
  • FSC certified paper (signifying the paper was responsibly and sustainably grown)

Supply Chain Impacts

As an average consumer, it’s virtually impossible to fully understand the carbon used for producing and shipping packaging and goods across the globe for any particular beauty product. And to be honest, this is incredibly hard for companies to track internally as well.

But one thing you can do is shop with personal care and beauty companies who are Certified B Corporations. Being a B Corporation is a rigorous process and makes sure the company is considering a variety of factors, including tracking the supply chain, sourcing safer ingredients, showing a commitment to sustainability, transparency and treating their employees well.

Finding “green” beauty products isn’t simple and just because a company markets itself as such doesn’t mean they are carefully considering impacts to the environment. By using the criteria listed above you can shop with clean beauty brands who care about the environment. And finally, check out my favorite safer beauty products HERE.

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