Unfortunately, there is much ugliness in the beauty industry.
In part one of my series on The Ugly Side Of Beauty, we looked at The Truth About Sustainability And The Cosmetics Industry. Most of what I learned in the research and writing of this article didn’t come as much of a surprise. I already knew of the significant negative impact the beauty industry has on our environment as a result of plastic waste, palm oil production, exploitation of resources and the prevalence of single-use products. After all, I’ve made it my mission to ensure my skincare products are not part of the problem.
The cosmetics industry and I have a complex relationship. Therefore, when I became part of it (and yes I do recognise that Olive & Joyce are part of the beauty industry because we produce beauty products), I was determined to do things differently. I decided that my approach would be based on a promise made by doctors when they take the Hippocratic oath - ‘first, do no harm.’
For this reason, as well as striving to be as sustainable in manufacturing as it is possible to be, I also formulate all-natural products free from chemicals and synthetics. Perhaps it is because I have been so committed to this that, when it came to studying the chemicals that other cosmetics are using I found myself genuinely shocked. So much so that I almost feel this article should come with a trigger warning. So, here's my advice - if you're using products that may contain chemicals and you don’t want to be put off using them, no matter the cost, then you probably shouldn’t read on. Because, in part two of my Ugly Side Of Beauty series, we’re going to get real about the chemicals in cosmetics and how toxic they are, both for us and for our environment.
Brace yourself - it’s about to get ugly.
Are Toxic Chemicals Used In Cosmetics?
You’d think not, right? After all, we apply these directly to our skin. Sometimes even around our eyes. Yet, you may be surprised by how many alarming ingredients are in our skincare, make-up and other cosmetic products.
In the UK, the cosmetics industry is governed by the UK Cosmetics Regulation and is known to have some of the most robust product safety standards (on paper). The EU has very similar regulations which of course the UK was signed up to prior to 2020, and both the UK and EU are generally considered to have tougher regulation around cosmetics than the US. In fact, the US is often criticised for allowing the self-regulation of the cosmetics industry and this has led to the beauty industry putting profit over product safety.
In May 2023, Washington State passed the Toxic-Free Cosmetic Act banning many harmful and ‘forever chemicals’ from products being manufactured or sold in the state. This was enacted following the testing of a number of mainstream cosmetic products, particularly those marketed to women of colour. The results of these tests were quite disturbing - Lead and arsenic were found in many products, including a CoverGirl powder foundation, and formaldehyde was found in a huge number of hair products. Disturbingly, it was present in 26 out of 30 hair products typically marketed to women of colour, who also tend to use products more frequently.
Formaldehyde is a colourless chemical that has been linked to causing cancer in humans. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration therefore recommends short-term exposure should be limited to just 2 parts per million over a 15-minute period. One of the hair products, available to buy in the US, was found to have 1,660 parts per million.
Thankfully, this should not be allowed to happen in the UK or EU since our regulations are far more robust. However, that’s not to say the chemicals that are allowed in our products are not bad for us. To meet standards, manufacturers are required to limit levels of certain ingredients that may be toxic to us or the environment. Yet, most of us are using more than one cosmetic product daily which means we have little idea what the combined use of those ‘safe levels’ of toxic chemicals is really doing and whether this really can be considered safe.
Furthermore, since the whole world shares a water supply and is affected by air pollution, having better regulation in some areas of the world, whilst not unimportant, means that everyone is potentially affected by toxic beauty products, regardless of which products they actually use.
Chemicals Found In Cosmetics
Parabens are commonly used as preservatives in a range of products including skincare, shaving gels, deodorants, toothpaste and makeup. They can be absorbed through the skin and are considered potentially disruptive in the human body as they mimic estrogen and can be linked to hormone instability. Many Parabens in the UK are banned, although not all.
Phthalates cause similar problems and, although some are banned and others are regulated in the UK, you can find some types in cosmetic products. As endocrine-disrupting chemicals, Phthalates are most harmful to children whose bodies and systems are still developing.
Triclosan is another endocrine-disrupting chemical. Some animal testing has linked Triclosan to a decrease in some thyroid hormones. Whilst regulated use is allowed in the UK, meaning that Triclosan is found in many products including soaps, body wash and toothpaste, there is an assessment underway on endocrine-disrupting chemicals in cosmetics in the UK that is currently collating data to determine whether regulation needs review.
Synthetic fragrances are used in many cosmetic products to improve the scent. However, synthetic fragrances have been linked to asthma and other respiratory problems, especially in already vulnerable persons. They are also often the cause of allergic reactions and some connections have even been made between synthetic fragrances and neurological problems, from headaches and dizziness to autism.
Formaldehyde is thought to be banned in the EU and UK for being carcinogenic but also for being linked with other health issues. However, it may be used under restriction as a preservative in cosmetic products. Restrictions on usage are also subject to change since the UK has left the EU. Formaldehyde can sometimes be found in nail varnish and other nail-hardening products.
Heavy Metals - Some cosmetics, particularly those with vibrant pigments, may contain heavy metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium. Many of these are toxic in certain quantities and although these quantities are limited in cosmetics due to regulations, they are still making their way into the ground and water supplies.
There are many other chemicals found in cosmetics and whilst in the UK these have been through processes that deem them safe in certain quantities, the truth is we have limited knowledge of the long-term effects. Particularly when you consider we are likely using multiple products containing these chemicals.
Why Are Chemicals In Cosmetics A Problem For The Environment?
If you’re like me and you don’t want any chemicals, especially those considered toxic, anywhere near your skin, then you can opt for all-natural and/or ‘chemical-free’ products. Yet, we will still be exposed to these chemicals through our environment.
The problem with cosmetics is they end up being washed away. Often during the application process but also when we’re rinsing out bottles to recycle. If we’re not doing this then excess product likely ends up in landfill along with the plastic. This means we are releasing potentially harmful chemicals into the ground and into our water supply. Remember when I explained how regulation meant chemicals went through a testing process to establish safe quantities? Well, how can safe quantities be maintained when chemicals are entering the water supply?
A few years ago, microplastics became big news. This was great because until around a decade ago hardly anyone had ever heard of microplastics and they certainly didn’t know they were in so many household products. Knowledge was power in this case and in 2018, the UK banned the inclusion of microbeads in cosmetic products.
Although the ban was welcomed, we will still have a massive problem with microplastics in the ocean for many years to come since the main issue around them is that they are impossible to clean up, due to their small size. Meaning they will be ingested by wildlife causing damage to marine life and likely entering the food chain.
Allowing chemicals into our water system could affect environmental and human health and, like microplastics, these mistakes are difficult, and in some cases impossible, to reverse.
Chemicals, including preservatives, fragrances, dyes and synthetic compounds that are washed off in sinks, showers or during make-up removal, make their way into rivers, streams, lakes and the sea. Many wastewater treatment methods are unable to remove all of these chemicals, leading to the release of pollutants into the water supply, harming aquatic ecosystems and threatening aquatic life.
Furthermore, the manufacturing and production of cosmetics and beauty products can also release pollutants into the air. This includes volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from aerosol sprays and the energy-intensive processes involved in manufacturing. Air pollution contributes to smog formation and can have negative health impacts on both humans and the environment.
Will There Always Be Chemicals In Cosmetics?
I hope not. After all, my products and many other all-natural products have proven there don’t need to be. Just to clarify, almost everything in the world is in some way made up of chemicals. We ourselves are made of chemicals and chemicals exist in the natural environment so, when we’re talking about chemicals in cosmetics I, and others who speak on this subject, am referring to harsh and/or toxic chemicals that are volatile, potential irritants or harmful in any way.
It is possible to avoid such chemicals by using alternative ingredients. For instance, there are many natural exfoliants, including ground nutshells, sugar and salt. For fragrance, essential oils can be used, shea butter is a wonderful natural moisturiser and henna and plant-based dyes can be used in place of synthetics. There are even natural preservatives, including grapefruit seed extract and vitamin E, which can replace Parabens.
Admittedly, the shelf life of cosmetics can be shorter when these harsh chemicals are not included and that presents an issue for beauty product manufacturers who can bring down costs by bulk production.
Natural ingredients can also be more costly and difficult to source sustainably, in a way that doesn’t deprive the earth of precious resources. These are likely the reasons why shop shelves are still predominantly stacked with face and body creams, make-up and hair products that are packed with harsh chemicals.
All we can do to discourage this is reject them. To send a clear signal that we choose natural over synthetic and that a lower-cost cosmetic isn’t worth the price of our planet. Or our health.