You might not spot them immediately when you glance down the ingredients list of your favourite skincare or makeup, but chemicals derived from petroleum are common inclusions in many cosmetics, beauty and personal care items.
The beauty industry loves these petrochemicals for their ability to extend the shelf-life of products. They are also used as an emollient, a texture enhancer, and as a barrier against water loss.
But many of the common petrochemicals found in skincare, makeup, and other personal care products have also been linked with health issues which make them worthy of further consideration.
These ingredients also have a more obvious environmental impact. Petrochemicals are energy-intensive to produce and the process can cause pollution and the loss of vital habitats.
In this article, we’ll look more closely at the petrochemicals that are regularly used in beauty products, what the major concerns are, and what we can do about it to make things better for us and for the rest of the planet.
What are petrochemicals?
Let’s start with the basics – petrochemicals are chemicals that are derived from hydrocarbons, such as natural gas, coal, or petroleum.
These fossil fuels formed over the course of millions of years from the remains of marine organisms such as algae, bacteria, and plants. But despite these natural beginnings they are a long way from what most of us would consider a ‘natural’ ingredient.
Most of the petrochemicals used in the beauty industry come from petroleum, which is also called crude oil. After being extracted from beneath the ground or under the seabed, the petroleum is refined in an oil distillery. This process separates the oil it into its various components, which can then in turn be used to make a wide range of products – anything from plastics to fuel to the chemicals found in our everyday beauty products.
How are petrochemicals used by the beauty industry?
As well as the plastic packaging that is often used as containers, bottles and tubes for beauty items, petrochemicals are also found in the products themselves.
But you will rarely see the word petroleum appearing on labels. Instead, petrochemicals will usually appear under their chemical names, such as polyethylene glycols, diethanolamine, or toluene. You might also spot mineral oil, paraffin wax, or petrolatum.
There are many different petrochemicals used by the beauty industry. Here are some of the most common:
- Parabens, g. methyl-, propyl-, butyl- and ethyl-paraben. Parabens are preservatives and are found in many products, including moisturisers, shampoo, sun-cream, and makeup. But parabens are thought to act as endocrine disruptors and have been linked to breast cancer. They can also contaminate waterways and are toxic to aquatic life.
- Isopropanol is also known as rubbing alcohol and acts as a solvent. It is often found in aftershave and hand lotion. It can be used to make acetone, which is found in nail polishes and nail polish removers, bath products, and fragrances. Isopropanol is thought to increase the risk of respiratory cancers such as lung cancer. In animals, it has been found to cause liver disease.
- Mineral oil is also called liquid paraffin or paraffin oil. This is a common ingredient in lip salves, face creams, lotions, and baby oils. It is used to lock moisture into the skin, due to its water-repellent properties. But mineral oil is not itself a moisturiser and can clog pores. It can also act as an irritant and may trigger an autoimmune response in some people.
- Petrolatum (also known as petroleum wax) is a derivative of mineral oil and is also used in many skincare products and makeup, including lipsticks. It can cause similar issues to mineral oil.
- Toluene is a solvent and is found in nail polish, dyes, soaps, perfumes, and moisturisers. It is also used in leather making. It can contaminate the air, waterways, and soil where it causes health issues in animals and birds.
- Propylene glycol (PEG) is common in deodorants, soaps, moisturisers, and makeup. It is used to help other ingredients penetrate our skin, as well as to prevent the product from drying out. It can cause irritation and is a common allergen. It can also be toxic at high levels.
- Ethanolamines g. diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA). DEA acts as an emulsifier and a foaming agent. It is often found in soaps, shampoos, and shaving cream. TEA is used in fragrances and as a pH adjuster.
Both TEA and DEA have been linked with cancer and toxicity in animals. DEA may also act as an endocrine disruptor. It can react with nitrites in other ingredients to form nitrosamines, which are thought to be carcinogenic.
Petrochemicals may also be present as a hidden ingredient in skincare and bath products. This is because manufacturers don’t have to reveal the full ingredient list for the fragrances they use. Instead, you’ll often simply see the word ‘parfum’ used on the label.
Unfortunately, around 95% of the ingredients typically used to make synthetic fragrances (parfum) are actually derived from petrochemicals. So, unless your product is labelled as being petrochemical-free, you’ll need to keep an eye out for parfum as an ingredient as well as for named petrochemicals.
Why do petrochemicals matter?
As you can see from the list above, most of these ingredients are linked with health complications in both humans and other living beings.
Most personal care and beauty products end up washed down our sinks, meaning they can easily pollute our waterways. Once there, the toxic chemicals can cause issues for aquatic and marine life.
And the contaminated water can easily spread pollutants into the soil surrounding nearby bodies of water.
The issues don’t stop there though and petrochemicals can have serious consequences for our health and the health of the planet.
Contamination with carcinogens
One major area of concern is a contaminant called 1,4-dioxane. This chemical forms as a by-product of PEG manufacture. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1,4-dioxane is a known carcinogen, can irritate our eyes and throats, and may even cause liver or kidney damage.
1,4-dioxane isn’t used as an ingredient in beauty products but can often end up in those that include petrochemicals such as propylene glycol.
An investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found 1,4-dioxane in 22% of beauty products, including 57% of baby soaps and 97% of hair relaxers. Facial moisturisers and body lotions were also commonly contaminated, with over a third of each category containing the harmful chemical.
Although 1,4-dioxane is the most damaging contaminant, the same research by the EWG found a host of other dangerous chemicals in both skincare products and makeup. The most common include hydroquinone, ethylene dioxide, formaldehyde, nitrosamines, PAHs, and acrylamide.
These contaminants are an obvious health concern for the end-user. But they are also worrying for the people who manufacture our beauty products and who are likely to experience higher levels of exposure as a result. As mentioned earlier, these can also cause environmental problems once they make their way into the wider environment when they wash into the water system and pollute the soil.
The environmental impact of manufacturing petrochemicals
The petroleum from which petrochemicals are usually derived is associated with a host of environmental issues.
When it comes to fossil fuels, a lot of attention is focused on the problem of burning them to make energy and of course, on the issue of plastics. There is no doubt that both of these have a serious environmental impact. But the extraction and processing of petroleum comes with its own set of considerable problems even before we get to the harm caused by the end products.
As a fossil fuel, petroleum, or crude oil, is a finite natural resource. As our hunger for the products derived from these resources has continued to grow since the Industrial Revolution, more and more have inevitably been extracted from the Earth. Apart from the simple fact that they will eventually run out, the demand for hydrocarbons means that most easily accessible sources of petroleum have already been depleted.
Deep drilling for oil can have severe consequences for the environment. At sea, oil leaks during extraction or transportation can cause devastation for marine life and birds, as well as affecting the local fishing industry. Oil leaks can also occur on land, contaminating the soil and killing wildlife.
Even when no issues such as these occur however, drilling disrupts the local environment, whether on land or at sea. Both the drilling itself and the associated infrastructure, such as roads, pipes, and stations can lead to the loss of habitats and displacement of wildlife.
Once extracted and transported, petroleum must be refined to remove impurities and break it down into its component parts. This involves a range of energy-intensive processes, including fractionation, cracking, and treating. Further chemical processing then combines different hydrocarbons to make the desired final product.
The manufacturing process for petrochemicals therefore uses a lot of energy and has a large carbon footprint.
Even though the final petrochemicals that are used to make beauty products aren’t burnt to release greenhouse gases in the way we might typically associate with the problems of oil, oil refineries themselves emit carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and methane – all of which contribute to and exacerbate negative impacts on the climate.
Oil refineries also cause pollution. In addition to greenhouse gases, they emit a range of toxic air pollutants, such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. These can be harmful to human health as well as to the natural environment.
A lot of water is also used during the manufacture of petrochemicals. This water can easily become contaminated with harmful chemicals. Although regulations are in place that make refineries responsible for treating and cleaning water before it is released back into the waterways, it is still possible for accidents to happen and the contaminated water to end up in nearby streams, rivers, and underground water sources – particularly in areas where legislation and regulations are less strictly monitored or adhered to.
Should you avoid petrochemicals in beauty products?
Although they have many unique and useful applications for the beauty industry, the environmental and health impacts of petrochemicals mean that many people understandably want to avoid using cosmetics or skincare that contain them.
Regulators currently say that the levels of these petrochemicals found in beauty products aren’t harmful to human health. Therefore, conventional beauty products are still allowed to contain many of the chemicals we’ve looked at here.
Some people also argue that these ingredients are effective at treating skin conditions, such as dry skin. Mineral oil and petrolatum are often recommended for skincare – Vaseline, for example, is used for everything from dry lips to diaper rash.
The water-repellent qualities of mineral oil can indeed help to lock moisture into your skin. But this means it can lock moisture out of your skin too. And it blocks your pores, which is bad news for your skin’s natural breathability, as well as for anyone prone to acne.
Cosmetics and skincare made without petrochemicals may have a shorter shelf-life. Mascaras, body lotions, and moisturisers are the ones most likely to go off within a few months. But it will depend on their specific ingredients and how you store them.
Ultimately, how comfortable you are using beauty products that contain petrochemicals is down to each individual to decide.
How to avoid petrochemicals
If you do want to avoid petrochemicals, becoming familiar with the various names that can appear on beauty labels makes it easier to identify which products contain them.
You’ll need to steer clear of anything that contains synthetic fragrances too since the ubiquitous ‘parfum’ label can mean a product contains hidden petrochemicals that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Some brands specifically label their products as being free of petrochemicals, which definitely helps in identifying ones that are safe to use if you’re looking to steer clear of petrochemicals.
But it is worth noting that even these products may not be entirely petrochemical free – the COSMOS-standard, for example, allows the use of small amounts of petrochemical solvents in manufacturing products where no suitable natural alternative exists.
Just because a product doesn’t carry an organic or natural label, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will contain petrochemicals. Smaller brands may be free of petrochemicals but may also be unable to afford the certification fee to join one of the labelling schemes which can entail a significant ‘fee’ for allowing brands to be certified.
As consumers, taking the time to read the ingredients list before purchasing new products is the best way to ensure they are free of the substances we are trying to avoid.
This can be time-consuming but has been made much easier by the internet. Now, instead of spending hours standing in the aisle of a store analysing every ingredient, you can check products on the screen and carry out additional research as and when those questionable ingredient names come up.
For the eco-conscious beauty enthusiast, petrochemicals certainly come with many drawbacks. As derivatives of petroleum, they are associated with a number of environmentally damaging extraction and refining processes. They can cause harm to animals and aquatic life when they enter our waterways and wider ecosystems. And beyond this, their potential impact on human health is also a cause for concern.
Fortunately, more and more brands are emerging that actively avoid these harmful chemicals and opt instead to use natural and organic ingredients in their products. Choosing skincare, cosmetics, and personal care products that are free from petrochemicals will encourage more companies to do the same and is an excellent way to ensure better results for yourself and for the environment.