How to Spot Sustainable Eco Beauty Products
Have you ever thought about the sustainability of your beauty products? It's not just about whether they're cruelty-free or have recyclable packaging. The ingredients themselves also matter. Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's sustainable. Everything about the ingredients needs to be considered, including the plant species, how they were grown and processed, and who was involved. If your product is a liquid, water is an important consideration too. All these factors determine whether a beauty product is truly sustainable.
We'll discuss what makes beauty products sustainable and environmentally friendly. We'll dive into the ingredients, product labels, and accuracy of the online information. It's time to make informed choices to ensure your beauty routine is as sustainable as possible.
What makes beauty products sustainable?
When we look at the sustainability of beauty products, we need to go through all stages of the product lifecycle, not only a couple of buzzwords on the package. Here are some of the topics that are rarely discussed.
Water in liquid products
Liquid products typically have up to 80% water. Water can help spread potent ingredients such as Retinol and Salicylic Acid at an ideal concentration. However, adding water makes product formulation complicated. Many active ingredients, especially natural ones become unstable once diluted in water. Retinol will lose effectiveness in 3 to 6 months unless it is an encapsulated version. Vitamin C serum will last up to 12 months from the manufactured date. After you open the package, Vitamin C will lose its efficacy in a month.
Another issue is the need for additional ingredients such as stabilizers, solvents, and preservatives. Many ingredients are unnecessary for waterless products. Did you know about 40% of unused cosmetic products end up in landfills? We can make a big difference by removing water from products because we can reduce preservatives, stabilizers, and other ingredients from the wasted 40%.
Raw materials for ingredients
Natural vs synthetic, more specifically, derived from plants vs petroleum is the most discussed topic about ingredients. What is missing from the discussion is what exactly “natural ingredients” are, the benefits of synthetic ingredients, and how they were produced.
Did you know that Crude Oil is a natural resource because it came from plants and marine organisms that were once alive? In the beauty industry, only ingredients made from natural raw materials with physical processing methods are considered "Natural" ingredients. Physical processing methods are, for example, pressing, drying, heating, filtering, and grinding. We can call plant oils, butter, extracts, essential oils, and meals of nuts and grains "Natural ingredients".
Do you think “Natural soaps are safer and eco-friendlier than sulfates”? Did you know both can be naturally derived? Naturally derived ingredients are made of natural raw materials processed with permitted chemical processing methods such as saponification and sulphation. Soaps and sulfates need synthetic chemicals input during the production process. Therefore, both soaps and sulfates are not natural ingredients.
Natural identical ingredients are synthetic but chemically identical to natural substances. Natural ingredients sound good because they often contain beneficial nutrients for our skin or hair. But they also contain undesirable substances that can cause irritation and other issues. The benefit of synthetic ingredients is we can make only the desirable chemical synthetically. And producing them synthetically is more sustainable. For example, Potassium Sorbate, a commonly used preservative, is a natural identical ingredient that is manufactured by reacting Sorbic Acid with Potassium Hydroxide. If we want to make it from natural raw materials only, we need a lot of trees and long purifying processes. In addition, synthetic ingredients are not always made from petroleum chemicals and are unsustainable. Synthetic ingredients made ethically can conserve nature and save you money.
Safe for the environment
You will often see these statements such as “Non-toxic” and “Free from sulfate, paraben, silicone, palm oil, animal testing” on beauty products.
What is non-toxic? Paraben is one of the ingredients always on “Free from” claims. But why? Did you know paraben is contained in many fresh foods like barley, strawberries, carrots, and onions? Parabens used in cosmetic products are produced synthetically. If you consume parabens at high concentrations, there is a health concern. But this is not how paraben is used in cosmetic products. Unfortunately, the study conducted with the high concentration of paraben reported some health risks and many people didn't understand the difference in lower concentrations. Because of the bad reputation, many studies have been conducted, and they found no effect on human health related to parabens used in cosmetics. AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) on the other hand is very popular although it is probably the most dangerous cosmetic product on the market. Using it incorrectly (and it is easy to use incorrectly), increases the risks of skin cancer.
The usage of all ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products sold commercially are safe for humans. The quality, usage, and concentration of ingredients are tested and regulated well across the world.
We should be asking more about the impact of ingredients on the environment because reducing the impact on the environment will improve our long-term well-being. For example, paraben at low concentrations is safe in cosmetics and is a very effective preservative. However, it does persist in the environment and could be chlorinated to become toxic. It could affect our health in the long term through circulating in the environment. The issue is not whether it is safe to apply on the skin but is about the long-term effect on the environment we live in.
Another widely used ingredient, Silica, is a natural mineral and is in many cosmetic products. It is safe and not harmful to animals. However, it is very toxic to fish and other aquatic animals. Soap nuts from Soapwort trees are 100% natural soap. Even though it is natural, it is also harmful to aquatic ecosystems. Although research about the environmental impact of ingredients is still at an early stage, we need to pay attention to the findings and switch to better solutions.
Disposability of product and package
Post-purchase disposal of products and packages is very important because the responsibility is on you as a consumer. Shampoo plastic bottles are recyclable, but most of them don’t get recycled. Refill pouches can be reused, but they will not be reused without you sending them to the right place. The leftover products can be toxic in the environment where products are exposed to sunlight and other chemicals to react. Therefore, the design of products and packages needs to adapt to the available system.
Ideally, the product itself is readily degradable and the package is compostable in the natural environment so that there is no harm even in landfills.
Myths about Commonly Suggested Solutions for Eco Beauty Products
Chose Natural Product – As we looked at earlier, natural ingredients are not necessarily safer or more sustainable. Many wild species have been pushed to become endangered because of the demands for cosmetic use. Only 7% of wild medicinal plants have conservation status, and the rest are not protected. Argan, Sandalwoods, and Bakuchiol… those popular plants are getting closer to being extinct. We need to change our perception of synthetic ingredients and use them wisely to reduce the pressure on nature.
Avoid ingredients associated with child labor – Mica is one of the well-known ingredients produced in the area where children are participating in production. If you are in a developed country, it is easy to think boycotting mica will stop the child labor issue. Or you feel better by not being involved in the issue. However, the real situation is not so simple. The people in the mica mining region totally rely on income from mica. If they cannot sell mica anymore, they have no other options to put food on the table.
Palm oil free – Palm oil is associated with deforestation in tropical countries. Again, boycotting palm oil will not stop deforestation. Far from solving the issue or will make the situation even worse. If we want to replace palm oil with other plants' oil, we need at least 10 times more land and water. Oil palm is the most efficient plant per land area to produce oil. For now, the solution is to support RSPO certified palm oil.
Refillable products – The concept of a reusable bottle/jar sounds good. But how much difference they can make depends on the design of the product and the system to support the concept. For example, an eyeshadow palette case can be reused for a long time and the individual color palette could be delivered in a cardboard box. This will work well to reduce waste. However, liquid shampoo refill pouches are still made of plastic, and they will not be recycled due to product residue. The bottle may last for years, but the pump may need to be replaced sometimes. You also need to reuse the same bottle at least 50 times to make the refill solution to be more sustainable than single-use bottles. If you do reuse the same bottle for years, make sure to clean the bottle inside out, disassemble the pump, clean thoroughly, sanitize, and dry all parts before pouring a new batch. Don’t mix different products or different batches. You have probably never seen instructions for refill bottles, but it is important to protect the preservation system of the product and avoid potential infection from microbial contamination.
Glass package – Municipalities and businesses are suspending or completely folding glass recycling programs around the world. In many countries, there is only one “co-mingled” recycle bin. Different types of recyclable materials go into the same bin. The problem is glass breaks under pressure and is heavy. Collecting and transporting glass uses more energy and produces carbon emissions, and shattered glass contaminates other materials in the same bin. Glass is infinitely recyclable. But there needs to be a system to recycle.
Aluminum package – Aluminum is infinitely recyclable as well, and currently is recycled 70%. However, switching from plastic to aluminum can pay off for the planet only if recycled aluminum can replace products made with new aluminum and plastics. Mining and producing new aluminum have twice as much impact as new plastic production. Also, there is a greater risk of a declining recycling rate when aluminum is used for single-use packaging.
Personal Care Product Ingredients Example
The following is a full ingredient list of a natural day cream product packaged in a plastic pump bottle. The claims on the product are “cruelty-free” “natural ingredients” “ recyclable packaging” and “vegan product”. There is also a list of “free from” ingredients. Here are some issues with the claim.
- It does not say 100% or all-natural. However, it gives the impression that the product contains all-natural ingredients. Some ingredients such as Cetyl Alcohol and Sodium Stearoyl Glutamate are made from natural and synthetic materials. Phenoxyethanol, Benzyl Alcohol, Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, Vanillin, and Eghylhexylglycerin are synthetic.
- Natural doesn’t mean safer.
- Animal testing is no longer conducted anywhere since most countries have banned it. So, there is no need to say “cruelty-free” about the finished products. However, most ingredients that have been around for many years were already tested on animals in the past. We cannot change what has already happened.
- The “Free from” ingredients list includes synthetic fragrances. Vanillin in the product ingredient list is a synthetic fragrance. It also includes chemicals that are proven to be safe for humans. Many of them are also safe for the environment within normal usage. The European Commission, the leading cosmetic regulator in the world, banned “Free from” claims. It is misleading to give a negative impression of ingredients that safety is scientifically proven. If the ingredient is not safe, it is prohibited for use in cosmetics in the first place.
- Pretty much everything is recyclable if we have a system to recycle. A recyclable package does not mean it will be recycled. Cosmetic packaging has a track record of a very low recycling rate and it is one of the most difficult items to recycle.
How to Read Cosmetic Product Labels
We have another article HERE to explain how to read cosmetic product labels.
How to Research Cosmetic Ingredients?
You may wonder where the place is to find correct information about ingredients. There is so much information from many online sources. When you see multiple articles providing the same information about the ingredient, it is easy to believe it. But you should check whether the content has any evidence. For example, EWG (Environmental Working Group) is one of the well-known places for consumers to search for personal care products or cosmetic ingredients. It gives a score from 1 (considered non-toxic) to 5 (the worst) on each ingredient. You shouldn’t fully trust EWG because it often doesn’t reflect data on chemical composition correctly. This database also provides no data and published scientific studies on many ingredients. It could be just an opinion from one group of people.
The ingredients share the same chemical name (INCI name) can be made from different raw materials, and have different grades. For example, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) can be made from crude oil or plant natural raw material. Some SLS products are derived from coconut oil, readily biodegradable, and ECOCERT certified.
The most reliable place to check about ingredients is the regulator’s website:
- CosIng Database on European Commission
- Cosmetic Ingredients information on U.S. FDA website
Reading technical documents and scientific study reports is not easy, and applying the information to cosmetic usage is even more difficult. It is easier to read articles in magazines and blogs but make sure to cross-check with reliable sources.
Understanding sustainability and environmental impacts is an ongoing challenge. Switching packaging material or boycotting particular ingredients may sound like a solution but may not solve issues in the real world. Blindly following the trend is risky because it can lead to no improvement.
What can you do to choose sustainable beauty products?
- Get accurate information, always check the evidence.
- Consider the safety of ingredients for the environment as well as for humans. Because they will go around the environment and come back to you eventually.
- If you cannot compost, recycle, or reuse the package yourself or the supplier does not collect it, don’t expect that it will always be recycled.
- Once you purchase a product, use it. It is tempting to keep trying new products but commit to finishing what you have.
Plant Complexity and Cosmetic Innovation - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7394851/
Everyday foods and cosmetics that use wild plants may be harming the environment - https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/everyday-foods-and-cosmetics-that-use-wild-plants-may-be-harming-the-environment
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species - https://www.iucnredlist.org/
Replacing Synthetic Ingredients by Sustainable Natural Alternatives - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7660047/
Parabens in Cosmetics - https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/parabens-cosmetics
Why You Should Use AHAs in Your Skin-Care Routine - https://www.allure.com/story/should-you-throw-out-your-ahas