The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry
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The global beauty industry is worth $511 billion as of 2021, with the U.S. market making up almost $63 billion of it. This large industry creates large amounts of plastic pollution, damages the environment by harvesting massive amounts of ingredients like palm oil, and includes chemicals that are harmful to human and environmental health. Fortunately, there are sustainable brands that use healthy ingredients you can choose from, but we’ll get to that later. First, we have to understand the problem we’re up against.
The global cosmetics industry produces about 120 billion units of packaging each year. A majority of this packaging is plastic, much of it being non-recyclable. Even the recyclable plastic often isn’t recycled because consumers find it inconvenient or difficult. Most of the packaging ends up in landfills or in the environment as litter.
The accumulation and decomposition of plastic in landfills can produce methane: an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Methane has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. An estimated 25 percent of global warming can be traced back to human-made methane emissions. While the largest contributor to methane emissions is the oil and gas industry, landfills come in third, producing 15 percent of all methane emissions.
Palm oil is one of the most common ingredients in cosmetics, found in almost half of all packaged consumer goods. The harvest of this oil severely damages the environment. Forests are cleared and the land is used for monoculture oil palm plantations. In this process, animal habitats are destroyed and some species face extinction. Palm oil production also contributes to air pollution as many forests are burned in the clearing process. Mills produce 2.5 metric tons of wastewater for every metric ton of palm oil, which when released into the environment causes freshwater pollution. The clearing of natural forests also increases soil erosion and decreases the forests’ ability to capture carbon, exacerbating the climate crisis.
The U.S. federal government doesn’t require ingredients in personal care products -- which includes things like make-up, deodorant, lotion, and mouthwash -- to be studied before they enter the market. Currently, brands can put almost anything into their products, including known carcinogens. The safety of ingredients in cosmetics is generally studied by the manufacturer-controlled Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel after they’ve hit the market. And unfortunately, of the approximate 10,500 ingredients found in cosmetics, 89 percent have not been studied in any capacity.
Ingredients like phthalates, formaldehyde, parabens, and more are common in American beauty products. Phthalates have been shown to be endocrine disruptors -- facilitating early puberty, reducing sperm counts, and causing birth defects. When phthalates enter the environment, commonly through water, the effects seen on humans can also be seen in animals. To learn more about chemicals to avoid in your cosmetics and why, you can check out Byrdie’s article or the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics database.
Choosing Healthy and Sustainable Products
The point of this discussion is not to scare you, but to empower you with the information to take care of your health and to protect the planet. Luckily for us, there are tons of healthy and sustainable personal care brands out there!
Check out our reward page to see what beauty brands have joined us in the fight to carbon neutrality.