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The Difficult Truth About TikTok’s Beauty Obsession

Forget the high street. TikTok is the new beauty shopping destination everyone's going wild for. So far, the #beauty hashtag has an enormous 88.2 billion views and counting with videos that bring together influencers, dermatologists, makeup artists and more. The right post has the power to propel certain products (think Dr Jart+'s Cicapair or MAC's MACSTACK Mascara) — and beauty enthusiasts (like Tinx and Mikayla Nogueira) — to viral status. Among the smart hacks, tips and tricks, TikTok has created an incredible beauty community. But it has a dark side, one that poses a real threat to the environment.
Without a doubt, certain TikTok beauty trends contribute to the tons of waste we produce each day. With 517.9 million views, the "I want it, I got it" hashtag is a popular video format among TikTokers, for example, who see an item online and feel compelled to buy it for the sake of a snappy video and a few hundred likes. A quick scroll proves that a vast majority of the featured items are beauty products, and everything from affordable eyeshadow palettes to expensive perfume makes the list.
"Things TikTok made me buy" is no different, with hundreds of beauty hauls occupying the hashtag. You'll spot multiple TikTok-viral products like Dior's universal blush, the Too Faced Lip Injection and Olaplex's No.7 Bonding Oil to name a few. Then, there are the videos titled: 'Beauty products you need to go viral on TikTok', a format which encourages viewers to buy things for hits. A quick scroll feels as though you're perusing the bursting beauty aisles in a large department store, rather than watching a video shot on a phone in someone's home.
It's also impossible to ignore the various — and arguably useless — beauty products with outlandish claims. Take the viral acai boob mask, for example. TikTokers claim it "lifts boobs" with one viral video amassing an enormous 16.5 million views and counting. Head to the comments section and you'll see that hundreds have bought a tub, hoping to reap the benefits.
Take another scroll and you'll spot live feeds awash with people peddling dupes of items like the Dyson Air Wrap (RRP £449.99) for as little as £26. In the comments section, it's not unusual to spot TikTokers blasting these buys — laden with plastic and non-recyclable small parts — for lasting all of 5 minutes before they've had to throw them in the trash. It feels as though the app is the new QVC channel, with lives featuring "price drops" and hosts who use aggressive language, which encourage viewers to "act fast" and "buy now".
And we are shopping. According to trend forecasters, The NPD Group, the US prestige beauty industry (by prestige, we mean luxury products) generated $22 billion in 2021, a 30% increase in sales compared to 2020. We're dropping the most money on perfume, skin care, nail care, and haircare as winners, while makeup also saw a pickup in sales. New data reports that TikTok saw the most quarterly consumer spend of any app or game at over $840 million in the first quarter of 2022. While it doesn't reveal how much of that is money spent on cosmetics, you only have to watch a TikTok live stream to realise that hundreds get caught up in the hype and end up dropping hard-earned cash on beauty products.
And the more we buy, the more we throw out. According to Zero Waste, a global organisation dedicated to environmental justice, more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry. Research says that only 50 percent of bathroom waste is recycled, and that women's health and beauty products make up a large proportion of this. It has been reported that the average woman produces 527 items of cosmetic and hygiene waste each year.
Sure, you might give any unwanted beauty purchases to a friend or family member. But many of the products we buy and decide we don't like? They go straight in the trash. As reported in Vogue Business, co-founder and CEO of Prose, Arnaud Plas, estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of beauty products (depending on the category) result in waste.
While there are myriad reasons for overconsumption in the beauty industry, "haul videos in general, whether they're bite-sized TikTok videos or longer-form YouTube types, are not doing the environment any favours," Ashlee Piper, sustainability expert and author of Give A Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet, tells R29. "Over consumption, even if many of those haul items are returned or offloaded to others, is the locus of environmental and over production issues."

The beauty products we own use up resources every step of the way. It starts with extracting the raw ingredients, then making the packaging, and it also includes the carbon footprint of shipping.

Piper believes that the haul mindset sets us up for failure. Constantly watching videos of new launches gives us a feeling of FOMO and suggests we can never have enough. "Social media has become a space where people literally press us to buy shit we don't need — or to compare our lives," Piper says. "Both are harmful not just for our souls, but for the planet. This leads to overconsumption, not to mention low self-worth and contentment." But what troubles Piper the most, is when she sees 'sustainable haul' videos, or clips promoting a bevy of new, supposedly sustainable products — of which there are a growing handful on TikTok. There are videos captioned: "Rating products from my most recent eco-friendly beauty haul", for example, while the hashtag #cleanbeautyhaul is also growing in numbers. "While I love that the market has become replete with more eco-leaning options, it's indisputable," says Piper. "The most sustainable things already exist; they're the items you already own."
You see, the beauty products we own use up resources every step of the way. It starts with extracting the raw ingredients, then making the packaging, and it also includes the carbon footprint of shipping. It would be remiss not to mention Refinery29's, Beauty In A Tik, where each week, we put TikTok's viral beauty hacks and innovative trends to the test. The series aims to sort the good from the bad, and while we recommend cosmetics to try (with the hope that every purchase is a considered one), we've discovered countless tools and products to be a waste of money, and therefore, resources. Interestingly, the best hacks (like 'hand slugging', cutting your own split ends and 'glasses concealer') tend to use products you probably have to hand.

As brands and TikTokers try and compete to be the next big viral sensation, are they forgetting that the environment is suffering under the sheer volume of beauty products?

TikTok isn't the first platform to make a quick buck from beauty, though, says Millie Kendall of the Sustainable Beauty Coalition, an organisation which aims to accelerate the beauty industry's climate positive-impact. "This has been around for a very long time, for example, bloggers trying to sell 25 products they're using on their skin," she tells R29, via platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. But with the average user reported to spend around 52 minutes on TikTok daily, there is no denying we've hit peak beauty on the app.
So how do we scale back? For one, change starts long before a TikTok video is made. The entire industry needs an overhaul. "Beauty brands need to think twice about making products every other day," says Kendall. When she started out in the industry in 1998, Kendall reports new launches took place every quarter to six months. Now, it seems there is a new breakthrough brand every other month. But are companies forgetting that the environment is suffering under the sheer volume of products? "It's overwhelming," says Kendall. "These products are consumed so fast on social media and thrown away very quickly. We don't need so many choices."
Secondly, we need to shop less. Piper says that one of the best and easiest strategies for lessening the burden on the planet (not to mention ourselves and our wallets) — is to buy fewer, better items. As Piper reminds us, much of the time, influencers on apps like TikTok are filtered. "We don't actually see their real day-to-day, their real skin and bodies, their real relationships, their real debt and financial situations."
Sustainability influencer Monika Poppy says, "In a world of influencers influencing, it's important to understand that their job is to test products. Do you really need six variations of red lipstick? I always think back to a great initiative in the early YouTube days, which beauty vloggers called 'Project 10 pan'. This meant finishing 10 products then buying new ones when you needed them."

We shouldn't shame beauty lovers, nor would it be right to place the blame entirely on TikTok users or those who buy into beauty trends. Consumerism is a problem for the environment, but it's not the consumer's fault.

But it's important not to shame beauty lovers, nor would it be right to place the blame entirely on TikTok users or those who buy into beauty trends. "Consumerism is a problem for the environment," says Kendall, "but it's not the consumer's fault." From washing out pots of lotion to dismantling finished serums to recycle the jars, living a sustainable lifestyle can be exhausting and sometimes feel like a burden — particularly when we are swayed to keep buying more. It's evident that plenty of us are doing our bit. Companies are the ones who must be held accountable, as they are the only people who can bring about deeper, systematic change.
Ben Grace, founder of plastic free solid skincare brand SBTRCT, says that brands should continually consider how to strike a balance. "We mustn't add to the overconsumption of products people don't need," he says. "In the beauty industry, brands claim to have created 'miracle cure' products or super cheap products, and more often than not, they aren't created sustainably." Kendall agrees: "There's always a supply and demand issue," she says. "It's very easy for the industry to constantly blame the consumer, but the industry needs to stop producing so much."
TikTok must also shoulder some responsibility, whether it's giving a bigger platform to beauty brands with better eco credentials, keeping tabs on Live streams selling environmentally questionable dupes, or introducing a banner reminding us to shop responsibly. After all, it's difficult not to get sucked in to the social media hype, and purchases can be made with a quick click. Poppy wishes it was as simple as asking social media platforms to give a subtle warning sign ahead of buying something — but we can't forget that companies profit from these purchases. She thinks brands can incorporate a sticker of some sort for products which are more mindfully made, whether that's sustainably derived ingredients or better and fairer workers rights.
Refinery29 contacted TikTok for their stance on sustainability and shopping on the app. It is supporting Earth Day on April 22nd to raise awareness and engage its community with environmental issues. While TikTok said it cares about sustainability, it suggested that it is up to brands to make the biggest moves.
@calistatee Reply to @msmarthamay sis you really did something here #glycolicacid #dryskintips #theordinary #dandruffsolution @theordinary ♬ primadonna girl - kylie!
Happily, TikTokers are becoming wise to fleeting beauty trends and brands, showing that they can be thrifty, smart and sustainable. Multipurpose hacks are trending, as beauty enthusiasts are taking viral products which aren't compatible with their facial skin (for instance, The Ordinary's Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution) and using them on other areas of their body, such as feet to prevent cracked soles, or as a bacne treatment.
On the app, brands like UpCircle (which harnesses leftover food ingredients), Fiils (refillable hair and body care) and Wild (refillable deodorant packaged in aluminium, which is recyclable on an infinite loop) are making a splash. Each brand uses its social media platform to talk openly about overconsumption, recycling and how to make eco-friendly choices. In many ways, influencer culture comes hand in hand with overconsumption. Kendall even calls for a ban on the #shelfie, referring to it as "toxic". But there are a select few content creators on TikTok who are sending the opposite message and turning the influencer label on its head. Take @acteevism, @thefairedit and @rebrandskincare for example, all of whom focus on conscious consumerism and beauty's environmental footprint.
While the onus is on the big companies to make the most impact, we can help kickstart change, too. Kendall encourages holding brands accountable but she doesn't believe in cancel culture. "As long as you're responsible and do the right thing, that's enough. If a lack of consumer consumption is a trend, then I'm all for it." Zero Waste suggests that "voting with your dollar" (choosing where you spend your money) is key. It helps to give more support to brands with transparent sustainable messaging, who are actively showing you what they're doing for the environment, such as pivoting to refills or omitting endangered ingredients. Poppy understands that sometimes, where you spend your money comes down to affordability. But she recommends investing in better quality products when you're able to.
Overall, even the slightest change to the way we consume beauty products via social media can contribute a difference to the environment. That might be questioning the eco achievements of your favourite brands, simplifying your routine, or using up what you already have before buying anything new. Progress — even a little bit — matters if we're all on board.
Refinery29's selection is purely editorial and independently chosen – we only feature items we love! As part of our business model we do work with affiliates; if you directly purchase something from a link on this article, we may earn a small amount of commission. Transparency is important to us at Refinery29, if you have any questions please reach out to us.

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