the environmental impact of Cosmetics

The Environmental Impact of Cosmetics

When it comes to apply cosmetic products to our skin and body we are blindly trusting the entire supply chain and manufacturing process to ensure that is safe for use and we will not have adverse effects. However, certain product are not really good for our health in the long term and there is also a cumulative significant impact on the environment worth considering. In this post we will learn what are cosmetics and what are they made of, whether these products impact our health, what is the environment impact of cosmetics, how these products are regulated and what alternatives have we got.

Body decoration is not a modern practice; humans have been using pigments and other substances to ornament their bodies for at least 100,000 years to display their social status within the group or identify. It is in our DNA and a non-spoken language in our society. Hence, there is little question why the Cosmetic industry is one of the most lucrative markets, because we all want to look good and smell great in accordance with the standard cannon of beauty, health and wellbeing. If your appearance fits the standard cannons, you will be more successful in life than if you divert from them. But it seems that the standard cannon of beauty have been funneled for the benefit and growth of the Cosmetic industry. Through media, our brain has been indoctrinated to trust the man with a clean suit and suspect of the one wearing tattoos and piercings, and we, as consumers, have been given no choice but to comply with them if we want to get that job, conquer that platonic love, be accepted in a group of friends or even obtaining that loan that you badly want to get to the next social status in life. Basically, we want to fit in because if we don’t we became alienated. Hence, it is right that we get to know a little bit more about Cosmetics and the environmental impact of cosmetics so that you, as a consumer, can take informative decision on cosmetic consumption without alienating yourself from the Society! 

What are cosmetics?

Cosmetic product means any substance or mixture intended to be placed in contact with the external parts of the human body (epidermis, hair system, nails, lips and external genital organs) or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance, protecting them, keeping them in good condition or correcting body odours. Within the cosmetic industry, functional cosmetics relate to items fulfilling specific actions like skin whitening, minimizing the appearance of lines in the face and body, protecting from the sun and sun tanning. 

Noting also the definitions of substance meaning a chemical element and its compounds in the natural state or obtained by any manufacturing process, including any additive necessary to preserve its stability and any impurity deriving from the process used but excluding any solvent which may be separated without affecting the stability of the substance or changing its composition; and mixture meaning a mixture or solution composed of two or more substances. 

What are cosmetics made of?

A typical cosmetic product will contain between 15 to 50 different ingredients which mainly consist of emulsifiers, preservatives, thickeners, moisturisers, colours and fragrances in addition to water. Emulsifiers are needed to homogenize the oil-water mixture to achieve the usual consistent moisturized texture of the cosmetic product. Typical emulsifiers used in this industry are polysorbates, laureth-4, and potassium cetyl sulfate. Preservatives are added to prolong the cosmetic life in perfect condition. Some preservatives include parabens, benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, formaldehyde and tetrasodium EDTA  (ethylenediaminetetra-acetic acid). Thickeners are used to increase the consistency of the mixture. They can be lipid, natural, mineral or synthetic. Examples of lipid thickeners are cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, carnauba wax; natural thickeners include hydroxyethyl cellulose, guar gum, xanthan gum and gelatin. Popular mineral thickeners include magnesium aluminium silicate, silica and bentonite. The most common synthetic thickener is carbomer (an acrylic acid polymer), cetyl palmitate, and ammonium acryloyldimethyltaurate. Emollients are moisturizers that soften the skin by preventing water loss. Some examples include beeswax, olive oil, coconut oil and lanolin, as well as petrolatum (petroleum jelly), mineral oil, glycerine, zinc oxide, butyl stearate and diglycol laurate. Colouring agents are formed of mineral ingredients such as iron oxide, mica flakes, manganese, chromium oxide and coal tar, from plants, such as beet powder, or from animals, like the cochineal insect. Pigments can be organic as in carbon-based molecules and inorganic which are typically metal oxides. Materials such as mica or bismuth oxychloride are used to create shimmering effects. Finally, and the most disturbing substance that cosmetics are made of is fragrance. Fragrances can be made of hundreds of different ingredients including chemicals, however since fragrance formulation is protected by the so-called “trade secret”, this formulation would not be included in the cosmetic ingredients and will just refer to the generic ingredient “fragrance”. Of course, most of the cosmetics require water, which is a purified or distilled water free from microbes, toxins, and any other suspended particles or dissolved substance. 

On average, a woman applies around 515 chemicals on their skin every day, which they absorb and many of them are channelled through the streams of the body. If you want to know how many chemicals are you exposing your body to each day, I recommend to do a list of your beauty products used daily and note down all those chemicals described in the labelling of your cosmetic product. You will be surprised!

Also worth considering that all those daily chemical products used by just sort of 8 billion of people end up in landfills and the ocean where the accumulate and degrade. So what is the environmental impact of cosmetics in reality? If you want to find out now jump to the last section of this post.

Are these cosmetic products safe?

Now that you know what these products contained, you might be asking yourself whether they are safe for your health and, in extend, the environment.

In absence of an harmonized international legislation, some regulatory bodies (e.g., FDA, USA; European Commission, EU; Health Canada, Canada; China FDA, China; ASEAN Cosmetic Directive, Southeast Asia Nations; and Department of Health, Australia; etc.) have set-up the laws for selecting appropriate ingredients for cosmetic products and its concentration limits based on persistency, cumulativeness and recurrency. As with any chemical, the concentration present in a product is important.

Therefore, regulated cosmetic products are generally safe to use unless you have got sensitivities or allergies which then you should use these products with care. However, every year, new studies on different compounds used in cosmetics see the day light and we should be aware that in essence we, as a Society, learn as we walk, and some substances have restricted used or ban following by thoroughly examination and assessments.

At Pangea Green, we encourage you to do further research on any substance used in your daily beauty products that might be of your concern. However, use always reliable sources and not just exchange of opinions in Social Media.

The environmental impact of the cosmetic industry

Had put your health concerns to bed, let’s talk about the environmental impact that the use of these cosmetics can produce. What is the environmental impact of cosmetics? Let’s bring to light the regulated ones but also the unregulated impacts that we should also be aware.


The most controversial one is the cosmetics product or any of its ingredients testing on animals. Certain regulatory bodies have put partial or total bans on animal testing. As an example, the European Commission put the animal testing ban on finished cosmetic products in September 2004 and testing of cosmetic ingredients on animals in July 2009. A marketing ban to prohibit marketing finished cosmetic products and ingredients in the EU which were tested on animals also come into force on the 11 March 2013, irrespective of the availability of alternative non-animal tests. The European Commission is also currently working on a new revision of Cosmetic Products Regulation to meet the objectives of the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.


Some of the common ingredients in beauty products that are petrochemical-derived include parafin wax, mineral oils, toluene, benzene, polyethylene glycol (PEG), diethanolamine (DEA) or ethanolamine (MEA), butanol and derivates (butyl alcohol, butylparaben, butylene glycol), ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), isopropyl alcohol, propylene glycol, propyl alcohol, cocamidopropyl betaine, micro-plastics and fragrance. 

Petrochemicals are toxic pollutants and degrade in the environment producing chemical, biological and physical changes that can affect habitats, ecosystems and its continuity. Examples of the environmental impact of the petrochemical cosmetics are:

  • Oxybenzone used in sunscreens is toxic for coral reefs and marine life contributing to the coral reef bleaching phenomenon
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in fragrances, hairsprays, and hand sanitizers contribute to smog and air pollution

Many of these chemical substances used in the cosmetic composition are typically persistent and when washed down the sink or disposed of in the bin, they accumulate in the environment, pollute our waters and land, leading to continuously gradual degradation of the natural environment and the decline of its capability to provide valuable ecosystems services.

The environmental impact of these chemical cosmetics in the marine life is reaching the complete destruction of this ecosystem and the elimination of all of the invaluable ecosystem services that the marine ecosystem provides. Examples of harmful chemicals used in the cosmetic industry (that are seriously impacting the marine life in general, fishes, amphibians, crustaceans, plankton, insects, aquatic plants and its ecosystems in many diverse ways including behaviour, biochemistry, reproduction and growth, genetic modifications, mutations, population decline and death) are:

  • P-phenylenediamine, often found in dark hair colouring and lipsticks
  • BHA and BHT preservatives, found in many lipsticks and moisturizers
  • Dioxane, found in cream based cosmetics, shampoos, moisturizers, soaps and bubble baths
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), added to nail polish
  • Triclocan, antibacterial used in cleansers, hand-sanitizers, deodorant, and laundry detergent
  • Diethanolamine (DEA), ph adjuster present in almost every cosmetic and personal care product

Botanical ingredients harvested to manufacture “natural” cosmetics have also their share in the environmental impact of the cosmetic industry. From the moment raw ingredients are farmed, pesticides are sprayed in the fields polluting the soil and impacting the different biodiversity that depends on the agriculture fields. Those same pesticides sweep into the ground making their way to water bodies. Genetic modifications are implemented in these plants to benefit the production of the raw ingredient. Deforestation and loss of habitat for fauna and indigenous communities will also be affected by land use change. Because no matter how natural the product is, production is led by economic interests, and the more demand is there for “natural” the more requirements for land. Deforestation also leads to less carbon capture and subsequently, more CO2 in our atmosphere adding to the problem of global warming. Such is the case of palm oil that is responsible of over 5% of tropical deforestation. 

Mining practices to obtain the natural minerals of mother Earth are also suffering similar productivity requirements with a considerable impact related to land use transformation and the complete elimination of any kind of habitat. Moreover, enormous amounts of water are required to mine the minerals, but also emissions of Green House Gases (GHG) due to heavy equipment and transportation. 

The recent demand of these natural products has also made this alternative to become unsustainable. “Sustainable” cosmetics are those using natural ingredients produced from renewable properly managed raw materials.


Many of the cosmetic products typically contain between 60% to 85% of water content. Yet, there are some other specific products that the content of water can reach and surpass 90%, such as lotions, shower-gels or shampoos. These figures are for the finished product alone. 

However, the environmental impact of cosmetics due to the real consumption of water to deliver you the final product starts in the exploitation of raw materials, whether they are petrochemicals, botanical ingredients or mineral compounds, huge amounts of water are necessary to harvest the precious resources. Moreover, during the manufacturing process, water is used to wash and clean raw ingredients from impurities, to blend substances in a mixture soup, and even water is used to run the HVAC machines or walking refrigerators. 

Once the cosmetic product reach the end user, different quantities of water are also needed for the correct application of the product such is the case of shampoos. Finally, some other cosmetic products will require water to remove and rinse the product from your skin, such is the case of face mascaras.


The environmental impact of cosmetic products transcend the final cosmetic product composition. Containers, packaging and its embodied carbons are also of great concern. The global use of beauty products produces over 120 billion units of packaging each year. However, all these packaging and containers normally made of plastic end up in endless landfills occupying thousands of square metres, or even worse, in the oceans, where it takes hundreds of years to decompose and degrade. The microplastics, which are carbon and hydrogen atoms bound together in polymer chains, is only one of the toxic pollutants that the decomposition process goes though.  Other chemicals, such as phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), are typically also present in plastics, which leach out of the plastic compound in the decomposition process after entering the environment.


Finally, but not less important, is the environmental impact of cosmetics related to the energy use that mostly relies on fossil fuels from cradle to grave. Fuel is used to power the agriculture engines, mining equipment and crude oil extraction. Energy is used during the primary transformation processes to turn those raw materials into ingredients for the cosmetic mixture. Energy is used during the manufacturing process of the cosmetic. Fuel is used to transport materials from one step of the process to the next one until it arrives to the end user. Some cosmetic products even need energy during the application process, such is the case of Keratin treatments that requires heat for product activation.

Alternatives to tradicional cosmetics

As we have learnt, carbon emissions, resource depletion, water pollution, marine life endangerment, deforestation, smog, and air pollution are some of the detrimental impacts of the cosmetics industry, in which we all contribute. 

The most radical solution is to stop using cosmetic products, eliminating the problem from source will extract you from the contribution to the environmental impact from cosmetics. However, as pointed out at the beginning of this post, nobody wants to be alienated due to a bad smell, or weak appearance when it can be solved that easily, right? 

Our 10 Golden Rules to reduce the environmental impact of the cosmetic consumption are:

  1. Eliminate the use of unnecessary cosmetic products. Asses whether your daily make-up, your laca hair spray, or your nail polish are really essential. 
  2. Try to minimize the amount of different cosmetic products. Many products packed in different formats for different functions actually contain the same ingredients. Try to identify them and combine them in one.  Try to enhance your natural beauty with beauty tech or beauty tools.
  3. Choose formats that contain more product in one container. They are normally more cost-effective and reduce the container-product ratio spent. 
  4. Choose cosmetic products that eliminate or substitute harmful ingredients for natural and sustainable ingredients. Eliminate fragrant as much as possible from your cosmetics. Substitute  petrochemicals or palm or vegetable oil for organic ingredients, coconut, hemp, or aloe vera oils. Substitute Oxybenzone used in sunscreens for alternatives containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Look for upcycled ingredients. 
  5. Choose waterless alternatives such as shampoo bars or mouth-wash tabs.
  6. Choose brands that have redesigned their packaging to minimize the related impact as much as possible. Look for recyclable, compostable minimal packaging boxes. Go plastic-free and select product containers made with glass. Choose brands that accepts used containers and/or allow the refilling options. 
  7. Look for the locally manufactured cosmetic which would had involved  less fuel consumption and carbon emissions. 
  8. Choose brands that use renewable energy sources during the manufacturing process. 
  9. Support brands that run or assist recycling programs, “give-back initiatives” and comply with fair trade practices.
  10. Finally, drop single use wipes, cotton discs and pads. Switch to reusable alternatives. 

Our final recommendation, always do your research. An informed customer is a smart consumer. 

Did you find this post useful? What do you do to reduce your impact of cosmetics consumption on the environment? Leave us your comments below! we would love to hear from you and your actions to make this a better planet!