Inside The Beauty Industry's Environmental Awakening
The oceans are in crisis, thanks in part to the beauty industry, but brands are slow to reduce pollution and regulations are sparse — so what now?
“We're all being experimented on,” Diana Felton, MD, says. “We have so much more to learn about what some of these chemicals do to both the environment and to human health; it’s this great human experiment.” Dr. Felton is sitting on a park bench in Honolulu, Hawaii, on a balmy day in December, telling us something you definitely don’t want to hear while overlooking an island paradise: Your favorite beauty and skin-care products, from shampoo to sunscreen, are poisoning the ocean.
Dr. Felton’s a physician and expert in human and environmental toxicology. She’s seen all kinds of poisoning while working in emergency rooms over the last 15 years and, like many in the scientific and medical communities, is concerned about the under-researched impact of the ingredients in our everyday products. But it wasn’t until she relocated to Honolulu three years ago and took on the role of Hawaii’s state toxicologist did she see firsthand what’s happening beyond our shores — and it doesn’t look like the movies. It isn’t broken pipelines of fluorescent green chemical waste that worries her most; it’s the incremental damage we’re all a part of.
That’s because both product residue washed down drains and packaging tossed into the trash is making its way out to sea at astounding rates, and the first warning signs that the ocean is in peril have already surfaced. Dead whales are washing up on shore with bellies full of plastic, the coral reefs are dying, and a researcher just found trash at the furthest depths of the ocean ever reached by humans. Then there’s the patch of trash three times the size of France floating in the middle of the Pacific ocean right now.
Recent disturbing headlines and shocking images of ocean devastation have driven many to adopt metal straws and proudly tote reusable bags, so why haven’t more of us greened our self-care routines? It turns out, it’s not so easy.
A reckoning over the beauty world’s environmental impact has been looming for years, and there’s finally a slew of possible solutions on the horizon. Spurred by consumer outrage over the industry’s role in the climate crisis and widespread plastic devastation, some brands are stepping up with real, meaningful solutions that could revolutionize what our products look like in the next few years, but there’s a catch: Brands consider this beta mode, which means it’s only going to catch on if consumers both genuinely embrace environmentalism in beauty, and also continue to pressure for brand transparency. It’s a tall order, but one that’s never been more important. Here’s what you need to know.
The Pretty Packaging Problem
Decades ago, things like glass shampoo bottles and refillable compacts were the norm, so while the beauty industry has never been particularly eco-friendly, it wasn’t a glaring environmental problem either. But that all changed around the 1950s, when plastic manufacturing became widespread. Easy to produce, durable, and most importantly, cheap, it became the “it” material in the packaging world. Since then, humans have created more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics — and 91% of it hasn’t been recycled. What’s more, 70% of plastic waste is estimated to end up in the ocean or in landfills, where it takes over 400 years to decompose. That all means that by 2050, there will be more pounds of plastic in the ocean than fish.
We have so much more to learn about what some of these chemicals do to both the environment and to human health; it’s this great human experiment...
Diana Felton, Hawaii State Toxicologist
Part of this can be attributed to its growth: Deemed recession-proof, the beauty industry has steadily grown into a $500 billion dollar business, and is set to chart an additional 7% expansion to reach a $863 billion dollar valuation in just the next four years. Because of this, it’s become harder and harder to stand out, so brands often wrap, ship, and display products with unnecessary materials like paper, plastic, glitter, stickers, and bags. The industry also manufactures bottles in bright and dark colors, knowing full well they will never be recycled simply because of the color, all in the name of branding.
That’s right: Even if you toss your colorful or black cosmetics containers into the recycling bin, they have a negligible chance to end up anywhere except the ocean or a landfill.
“It all comes down to economics,” says Sarah Teeter, global project manager of recycling company TerraCycle. “Recyclers can only sustain themselves by recovering and recycling the things that are profitable.” That means that, ultimately, recycling is a business and, as of now, only clear and white plastic sells.
This is the heart of greenwashing: Cleverly disguising the real eco footprint of a product to sell to consumers who are interested in being more environmental, but are not yet educated on the ins and outs.
For example, to capitalize on the green beauty trend, a brand might create a nature-inspired formulation of shampoo by simply adding a few drops of an organic extract so it can add the words ‘natural origin’ or ‘botanical’ to the label. Then, it might make the bottle blue and add pictures of crashing waves or flowers to drive home the “natural” message, when in reality it very well may end up further littering the very environment it was inspired by.
Then there are the caps and pumps, often conveniently ignored when discussing how green a product is, because they’re rarely recyclable if they feature mixed materials, like a plastic pump with a metal spring. The recycling industry is largely confusing, and changes from one municipality to the next, so many brands thrive off this lack of public understanding to sell product.
But it’s not just these bottles that end up out at sea that are dangerous to large marine life like whales and turtles; they cause just as much damage when they break down. According to Jonathan Whitney, PhD, a researcher with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration on Pearl Harbor military base, tiny plastic fragments often invisible to the naked eye, called microplastics, are showing up in dead larval fish.
“They’re outnumbering the fish we’re finding in some of these samples,” Dr. Whitney says. “It’s been shocking.” Whether or not it’s this last meal of plastic shards that kills the baby fish, we don’t yet know, but he and his team have learned one odd fact: fish gobble up blue plastic the most. “About 75% of the ones that we're finding are blue, which is consistent with what other [researchers] are finding in other species,” he says. “We think that it's because that's what a lot of their prey look like.”
But perhaps the most shocking discovery Dr. Whitney and his team has made is even closer to the beauty industry: perfectly spherical plastic microbeads in the bellies of dead baby fish. It allowed his team to finally confirm what they’d long suspected: The plastic microbeads that the beauty industry added to products for years are collecting in the oceans and killing fish. Microbeads were officially banned from sale in the U.S. last year after public uproar, but the marine science community is now left to determine their long-term damage. The wake of this has left many to question why glitter, which is often made from plastic and washed down the drain, hasn’t followed, but it’s just one more category for an EPA neglecting the beauty industry.
While Dr. Felton is understandably worried about plastic and microplastics polluting Hawaii’s beaches and the ocean at large, it’s the 14,000 tons of sunscreen that collect in the world’s reefs each year that trouble her most. That’s just a fraction of the chemical waste from the beauty industry that’s washed out to the ocean, but it’s proving thus far to be the most dangerous.
Mineral vs Chemical
There are two types of sunscreens, mineral and chemical, and they work a little differently. Mineral reflects rays and is generally thought to be safer for both humans and the environment — but they’re less user-friendly, because they often leave a white cast on the skin and feel more like, well, sunscreen. These active ingredients include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Then there’s chemical sunscreen, which includes a laundry list of ingredients that, experts fear, may prove to be harmful to both humans and the planet. (Although nothing is as dangerous as skipping sunscreen thanks to steadily-rising melanoma skin cancer rates .)
Recyclers can only sustain themselves by recovering and recycling the things that are profitable.
Sarah Tetter, TerraCycle
Chemical ingredients absorb rays instead of deflecting them, and are much lighter on the skin, so they’ve become the more popular pick for brands to formulate around in an effort to make sunscreen people will actually wear. The only problem is that now, years after they were introduced, we’re realizing they might not be so safe.
The main concern is on oxybenzone and octinoxate, two of the most common sunscreen ingredients that are also toxic for corals. We need the world’s reefs for coastal protection, food, ocean habitats, medicine, and so much more, but experts estimate that 90% of all reefs will be dead by 2050, and sunscreen could play a huge part in that on top of climate change and other stressors. But simply cutting back on chemical sunscreen won’t help — we must completely remove it from the market to see real change. That’s because one study found oxybenzone had a toxic effect on coral at a concentration equivalent to one drop in six and a half olympic-sized swimming pools.
Hawaii governor David Ige responded to these startling facts last year by signing a bill banning the sale of oxybenzone and octinoxate, but Felton notes that others, like avobenzone, could be just as dangerous. “We don’t know,” she says. Key West in Florida and the island nation of Palau have followed, and more states, especially California, are likely soon ban the sale of oxybenzone and octinoxate as well.
But it’s not just the oceans that are vulnerable: A recent study showed that many active chemical sunscreens were absorbed into the bloodstream and temporarily stored by the human body — with as-yet unknown effects — so the FDA announced that it will be reevaluating the ingredients soon, too. Until then, experts recommend simply picking all-mineral options — and not just for beach days. Even wearing a chemical SPF at the pool in the middle of the country could have negative impacts on the oceans. Dr. Felton explains that most chemicals are not eliminated in treatment plants after they’re washed down the drain, so they end up joining waterways or in field irrigation — and, again, we don’t yet know the long-term ramifications.
“A lot of these chemicals are fairly biologically persistent,” she says, which means they are slow to break down. “They will eventually end up in the rivers.” She reminds us that there are tons of chemicals in our products that we don’t yet fully understand. For reference, the European Union has banned over 1,400 chemicals from cosmetics due to safety concerns, while the U.S. has only banned about 30. Dr. Felton notes that may be totally safe, but we just don’t know. So why isn’t anyone course-correcting the beauty industry? In short, the cosmetics industry in the United States has long operated with few health restrictions, let alone environmental ones.
“Technically, it's regulated, but in reality, it's not,” says Judith Enck, former regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency appointed under President Barack Obama. She echoes the sentiment you may have heard in the news: “The EPA is definitely underfunded and under attack by special interest,” she says. She’s talking about President Trump’s sweeping go at deregulation and appointment of senator Scott Pruitt to run the EPA, a climate change skeptic who sparked numerous controversies before resigning to reportedly become a coal lobbyist. He’s since been replaced by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist. Enck notes that while regulators could step in to police beauty closer, most remain hands off.
“A small number of lawmakers care about the impact that the beauty industry has on the environment, but it's a very small number,” she says. “It doesn't seem to be a priority, because there are so many other really pressing issues.”
That, for a rapidly growing industry, is a problem: “The whole reason why we have laws and regulation in this country is so that brands don't make decisions simply based on what's cheapest for them,” Enck says. “If that was the case, they'd be dumping toxic chemicals in their backyard every day, because it's cheaper to do that than to pay to get it disposed of properly.”
Here’s where the consumers come in. Properly recycling your products is the first step, but embracing brands that are changing the game is just as important. Take Australian haircare brand Kevin Murphy, which announced last year that it will close the loop on its plastic consumption by partnering with a Dutch packaging brand called Pack Tech. Starting this August, the brand’s entire line will be packaged in recycled plastic recovered from the ocean — and it’s totally recyclable, too.
“Making the switch to Ocean Waste Plastic (OWP) packaging is one of the most important initiatives we have implemented as a brand, and sharing our passion around this change is something we are deeply committed to,” says Kevin Murphy, founder and owner. “We believe that every great movement starts with one small step. If every beauty brand took some kind of initiative to be more sustainable, it would make an enormous impact.” Other brands, Like REN, and Herbal Essences have also joined in to use ocean plastic — at 20 and 25%, respectively — but Kevin Murphy’s been the first to implement it at 100% of its packaging.
But perhaps the biggest move forward is Loop, a new innovation from TerraCycle. The idea is simple: Durable, reusable packaging that you return through a milk man-inspired delivery and pick-up system. Corporations like P&G, Unilever, and The Body Shop have all signed onto the pilot program which launched just this week in New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, and Maryland. “This is a huge step for brands to take towards more sustainable packaging,” TerraCycle's Teeter says, noting that she believes that this will be the future of consumption. It’s clear that the beauty industry needs to reform, and the sooner programs like this find success, the sooner it can, but it prompts a bigger question: how much time do we really have to figure this out before it’s too late to save the oceans?
“I would never say that it's too late,” Dr. Whitney says. “But the impacts are significant, and we need to figure out ways to reduce this problem.” What the long-term solution will look like is still unknown, but that’s not for a lack of trying. Scientists have attempted to break up gyres of plastic out at sea using nets and ships and more corals are being planted by advocacy groups in hopes of offsetting die out. Meanwhile, researchers are trying to solve this issue in a lab by creating enzymes that safety dissolve common plastics as well as creating new plastics that are easier to recycle.
It’s one step forward and two steps back, but the next few years will undoubtedly bring innovation. And until then, using less and embracing low-waste options will show the industry that we want change within beauty for the oceans, the next generations, and ourselves.
The author of this piece learned about Herbal Essences’ ocean plastics initiative via a P&G-sponsored press trip to explore its ethical ingredients sourcing. She conducted further research on its ocean plastics initiative via a separate, unpaid trip to the Herbal Essences facility.