Environmental Impact of Harmful Chemicals in Beauty Products

Although beliefs in self-love and body positivity are undoubtedly blossoming, the beauty industry remains rife with unrealistic standards and harmful chemicals, which are damaging not just to people but also to the entire planet. These are some of the worst offenders and the impact they can have on the environment.

The Chemical Sunscreen Dilemma

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Chemical sunscreens, in particular, have become a cause for concern from both a health and environmental perspective. The Food and Drug Administration, which recommends wearing an SPF of 15 or higher daily, has named six common active ingredients in chemical sunscreens that absorb into the bloodstream in concentrations that could be damaging. They include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. Three of these chemicals—oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate—can harm marine life and cause coral reef bleaching.

In 2019, the FDA proposed a fresh set of sunscreen regulations to make the market safer, noting that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide were the only two sunscreen ingredients generally recognized as safe and effective. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also considers all but the nano versions of these ingredients reef-safe.

Parabens in Skin Care

According to EWG’s scoring, the skin care categories with the lowest potential hazard were body oil, body wash, bar soap, and moisturizer. About 75% of facial moisturizers and treatments posed moderate or high potential hazards, as did more than 80% of facial powders, about 75% of eye shadows, and 100% of concealers.

Most of the foundations and concealers analyzed plus a slew of various other cosmetics included in the survey contained parabens, a family of notoriously nasty chemicals frequently used as preservatives. 

EWG found six types of parabens in its analysis, each present in about 10% of products evaluated. Apart from their apparent negative impacts on human health, parabens have also been linked to declining wildlife populations. When washed down the drain, they penetrate waterways, bleach coral reefs, and wind up wreaking havoc on animals’ reproductive systems, causing “abnormal formations and a decrease in the fecundity of species,” a 2021 study states.

This family of estrogen-like preservatives has been detected not just in fish and aquatic organisms but also in polar bears, dolphins, sea otters, bears, and birds like bald eagles and albatrosses that eat the fish. In 2015, scientists took to the coastal waters of Florida, California, Washington, and Alaska to measure parabens in marine mammals. Out of the six parabens surveyed, methylparaben was the predominant type found in mammal tissue, with the highest concentration discovered in bottlenose dolphin livers.

Although methylparaben can also come from plants, the concentrations discovered by the study suggested synthetic sources were mostly at play. That the compound was detected as far away as the Beaufort Sea—in the livers of polar bears—is proof of its widespread distribution.

Hair Care Ranked the Worst

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While hair relaxers are some of the most chemical-laden beauty products available—overall scoring an 8.1 out of 10 on EWG’s Skin Deep hazard scale—the data shows that shampoos and conditioners aren’t exactly innocuous.

Relaxers and dyes, even those branded as lye-free (and therefore supposedly more natural), are famously high in parabens, fragrances, and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Similarly, though, 170 conditioners and 89 shampoos analyzed by EWG also contained concerning, often mysterious fragrance mixtures.

Here are some of the harmful compounds found in hair care products and the environmental impacts of these ingredients.

Fragrance

More than half the hair products in EWG’s report contained “fragrance”—which, according to the organization, is merely an umbrella term that can encompass thousands of ingredients. Many of them are synthetic, and none of them are required by the FDA to be individually disclosed to the consumer. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics says “fragrance ingredients may be derived from petroleum or natural raw materials,” noting that some have been linked to major health issues.

The FDA itself says phthalates, a type of plasticizer people generally try to avoid in skin care and cosmetics, are commonly used in fragrance mixtures. These, like parabens, can cause infertility and other reproductive issues among wildlife when they’re released into the environment. Exposure to phthalates can cause oxidative stress, metabolic and endocrine disorders, and immunosuppression in aquatic animals, studies say.

Methylisothiazolinone

EWG discovered the preservative methylisothiazolinone in 118 products, all either shampoos, conditioners, or styling gels and lotions. It’s commonly used in place of parabens—now that parabens have become vastly uncool—even though it’s not much safer. The chemical doubles as a pesticide that the Environmental Protection Agency has historically considered “moderately to highly toxic to freshwater and estuarine/marine organisms.”

In 2013, methylisothiazolinone was the American Contact Dermatitis Society’s Contact Allergen of the Year. Cosmetic use of the chemical is largely banned throughout the European Union and Canada.

Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Other nasty preservatives that can be labeled as paraben-free are those that periodically release traces of formaldehyde, a type of gas that can be toxic in high concentrations. In nature, formaldehyde is emitted through fire or volcanic activity. It quickly biodegrades when released into the atmosphere, breaking down into formic acid and carbon monoxide (not exactly clean substances); therefore, a surplus of it—especially indoors—can badly degrade air quality.

What’s Being Done?

For decades, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967 have been the only laws safeguarding consumers against toxic ingredients—yet, neither one requires products to be approved by the FDA, the federal agency that oversees cosmetics.

In 2017, two U.S. senators introduced a Personal Care Products Safety Act that would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act “to require cosmetics companies to register their facilities with the FDA and to submit to the FDA cosmetic ingredient statements that include the amounts of a cosmetic’s ingredients.” Around the same time, the House of Representatives introduced the FDA Cosmetic Safety and Modernization Act with an almost identical mission. But still, as of 2021, neither had been passed. 

On a positive note, there has been more movement at the state level. In 2020, California became the first U.S. state to ban certain chemicals from beauty and personal care products. The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, effective January 1, 2025, will prohibit the use of 12 ingredients, including formaldehyde, mercury, and several types of parabens and phthalates.

Various groups, including the aforementioned Environmental Working Group and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, are dedicated to exposing these harmful ingredients and lobbying for safer, more environmentally friendly cosmetics. Until the FDA tightens its restrictions on chemicals and contaminants, consumers must do their own research using resources like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ Red List and EWG’s Skin Deep database

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