These are just some of the many things women apply to their faces each day. But how much time do you spend checking what ingredients each of them contains when the average person uses up to 15 cosmetic products each day[sc:1]?
Many ingredients of cosmetics can create adverse reactions to our health. But they can also impact our natural environment and its resources in several very important ways.
Firstly, a number of chemicals used in cosmetics are released into the air and water during and after use. For example, deodorants are sprayed in the air whereas shampoos, lotions and creams are washed off when we shower. Once they come into contact with our environment, these chemicals react in different ways. Some chemicals may degrade into harmless substances whereas others may break down into other products which can be more harmful.
Spray deodorants used to emit chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which are ozone-depleting chemicals. These were removed from the market by the industry in the 1970’s and then restricted by the US Environmental Protection Agency and globally by the Montreal Protocol[sc:2]. But even CFC-free deodorants and spray cans emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which contribute to ground-level ozone levels. Ground-level ozone pollution is associated with increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease, but it can also lead to reduced agricultural and commercial forest yields, impede the growth of tree seedlings, make plants more susceptible to different diseases, pests, and other environmental stresses such as harsh weather[sc:3]. VOCs are not only found in sprays but also in nail polish, perfumes and mouthwashes.
Secondly, when released into the water stream, some chemicals stay in the water and are transferred into a variety of aquatic organisms and from there accumulate further up the food chain. When they do so they can pose a threat to the animals higher up in the food chain as they are exposed to higher concentrations of these chemicals. For example, silicone chemicals which are commonly found in cosmetics as well as detergents and other household products, have been detected in increasing concentrations in different samples from lakes; they have also been found in fish[sc:4]. In addition, in many cases, chemicals such as fragrances cannot be effectively removed from our waters during waste water treatments and so they end up being released to the aquatic ecosystem.
Other chemicals have toxic properties even though they may not be accumulated up the food chain. More specifically, some of these chemicals have endocrine disrupting properties which means that they can alter the genetic make-up of the organisms found in the ecosystems to which they are exposed. This is for example the case of triclosan which also reacts with other chemicals to form dioxins[sc:4]. Similarly, chemicals in sunscreens such as oxybenzone, are considered toxic and contributing to the decline of reefs around the world.
Thirdly, cosmetics can also be harmful to our environment because many of them include microbeads. Microbeads are primarily found in exfoliating face and body washes; polyethylene which is a plastic substance is used to create the scrubbing beads. Unlike natural and organic compounds such as sea salts, these synthetic substitutes emulate the exfoliating action of natural compounds but pollute our rivers and lakes. It is estimated that one facial cleanser tube can contain up to 350,000 beads[sc:4]. Plastic microbeads are small enough to escape from wastewater treatment and so they end up in the water where they contribute to marine pollution and can be eaten by fish and other wildlife which is damaging for their digestive tracts. Because of their size and the fact that they are not biodegradable, it is practically impossible to remove them from the marine environment when they are exposed to it[sc:5].
From toxic and bioaccumulative chemicals to marine litter, it is clear that many chemicals in cosmetics have a negative impact to our environment, in addition to our health. So next time you are picking up a cosmetic product, check its label to see if you recognise any of the ingredients identified as potentially harmful or seek the help of a mobile application such as “Think Dirty” to learn about potentially toxic ingredients they contain by scanning the product’s barcode[sc:6].