The True Cost of Beauty: The Environmental and Ethical Impact of the Beauty Industry

The true cost of beauty

At a Glance

From moisturiser to shower gel, most of us use multiple beauty and personal care products on a daily basis. It is no wonder therefore, that the beauty industry is now worth a whopping 523 billion dollars globally. But all those products come with a cost – from plastic packaging to dangerous chemicals, there are hidden issues with many conventional beauty products that make them less than ideal for anyone looking to minimise their impact on the planet.

So, what are the issues that you need to be aware of when shopping for a new lipstick or face cream? And how can you choose beauty products that are made with people and the planet in mind? Let’s take a closer look at the true cost of beauty and personal care products and the labelling schemes that can help us to shop more ethically and sustainably.

Harmful Chemicals

One of the more publicised issues with beauty products is the chemicals they often contain. Far from being good for us, ingredients found in many beauty and personal care items actually have a negative impact on both the environment and human health.

You may have heard before about the risk of parabens to human health. This group of chemicals is commonly used as a preservative in skin care, cosmetics, and deodorants. But it has been linked with disruptions to our endocrine systems (the system of glands in our bodies which produce hormones). This could have a knock-on effect on our reproductive systems, our metabolism, and our risk of hormone-related cancers, such as breast cancer.

Parabens aren’t just dangerous to human health though – they can also contaminate rivers and lakes when wastewater from the manufacturing process is released into local waterways. Just as they can disrupt human hormones and reproduction, parabens can impact on the health and fertility of fish and other aquatic life.

Parabens have grabbed many headlines in the past few years, but they are far from the only common chemicals used in beauty products that are thought to impact human health. Other potentially harmful chemicals and ingredients include:

  • Phthalates: phthalates are another group of chemicals that are found in many cosmetics and bath products as a binding agent. There are a lot of different chemicals that fall under this heading – BPA is likely a familiar one because of the publicity around its impact on human health as an endocrine disruptor. BPA is often replaced with BPS or BPF, but both substitutes have also been linked to hormone disruption, as have many other phthalates. They can also pollute water systems and impact the reproductive systems of fish and other aquatic organisms. Some, but not all, phthalates are banned by the EU.
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS): this chemical is commonly found in foaming products such as toothpaste, shower gel, and shampoo. But it has the potential to irritate our eyes and skin if products are not properly formulated. It can also contaminate waterways and is moderately toxic to aquatic life.
  • BHA: this synthetic chemical is used as a preservative in many moisturisers and lipsticks. It has been labelled as a possible carcinogen, an endocrine disruptor, and is toxic to aquatic life, as is the closely related chemical BHT.
  • Synthetic fragrances: Since the exact formula used in their fragrances is a trade secret, many brands won’t list the full ingredients used in perfumes and other scented products. But synthetic fragrances as a group can irritate skin and eyes. They are also toxic to aquatic organisms when they contaminate waterways.


How Can You Avoid Harmful Chemicals in Beauty Products?

Knowing what is in your beauty products is a good first step in avoiding those that contain chemicals that are harmful to our health and damaging to the environment. But the different chemical names can be confusing, and companies don’t always have to list all the ingredients they use by name.

To help us out here, there are two useful labelling schemes: Natrue and COSMOS. Both of these can only be used by products that are certified free from phthalates, parabens, and synthetic fragrances, as well as other synthetic ingredients and GMOs.


A lot of attention has been paid to wasteful packaging in recent years, especially when it comes to our groceries. But the beauty industry is a huge contributor to plastic waste too – recycling body Terracycle estimate that 120 billion units of packaging from beauty products are discarded every year. And much of this can’t be easily recycled.

From the outer packaging to the tubes, lids, and tubs of the products themselves, plastic is everywhere in beauty and cosmetic products. This isn’t only an issue for the environment – phthalates are often found in plastic tubes and bottles because they are used to make the plastic more flexible (useful for squeezing out those last few drops). So even if your skincare products themselves are free from phthalates, the packaging might still contain these harmful chemicals.

How Can You Avoid Plastic Packaging?

In line with the age-old mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, the principles of avoiding plastic packaging in beauty products follows the core tenets of these rules, making this philosophy a great place to start if you’re looking to steer clear of excess tubes, cartons, bags, and bottles.

Some manufacturers are trying to move away from plastic packaging altogether – you can now find skincare, deodorants, and solid shampoos packaged in cardboard tubes, glass jars, or metal tins instead. Often these products are only available through specialist online retailers, but high street staple Lush are also making progress with their Naked Shops, which are packaging free.

Recycled plastics also have a role to play in closing the loop, since recycling only works if we also make use of the products created from recycled waste. Some beauty brands are experimenting with using recycled plastics to make their packaging. There are limits on the percentage of recycled plastic that can be used currently, but it is a step in the right direction. Brands want to shout about their efforts in this area, so you’ll usually find a label on any products packaged with recycled plastics. If you can, check the percentage of recycled plastic used – the rest of the packaging may still be made with new plastic.

The third option is reusable packaging and some brands now encourage consumers to return their packaging so that it can be reused or recycled. In particular, TerraCycle’s Loop inititative is aiming to reduce single-use plastics by partnering with beauty brands to create durable, reusable packaging. It is early days yet, but as more brands adopt the scheme, it should become easier for us shoppers to find zero-waste beauty products.

Other Plastics

Packaging isn’t the only place where plastic can be found hiding in our cosmetics and beauty products. Plastic microbeads were found in many products, including exfoliators, soaps, shower gels, and toothpaste. These tiny pieces of plastic wash down our drains and into rivers and ocean, where they cause serious issues for aquatic and marine life.

Fortunately, many countries have now banned the use of plastic microbeads in rinse-off beauty products, including the UK, France, Ireland, the USA, New Zealand, and Canada.  The EU also announced intentions to ban microbeads as part of its crack down on single-use plastics, although this is not yet in force at time of writing.

Plastic based glitters are another concern. Used in nail polishes, cosmetics, and body creams to give our skin some sparkle, these tiny pieces of plastic have the same issue as microbeads, easily contaminating waterways and causing issues for marine life.

How Can You Avoid Plastic Glitter?

Some retailers are already taking steps to eliminate plastic glitters from their shelves – Selfridges, for example, made headlines at the beginning of 2020 when they pledged to remove all plastic-based glitter products from their stores by 2021. But it is currently still down to individual retailers and beauty brands to make this commitment.

As consumers, we can help by avoiding any products that contain plastic-based glitters. Plastic-free alternatives are increasingly becoming available – some of these are plant-based, but others are based on mica, which can have its own issues (discussed below).

Water Usage

Water is a precious resource, although it can sometimes be hard to remember that during rainier seasons. Worldwide though, water supplies are becoming increasingly unpredictable as climate change leads to more frequent droughts. So, being mindful of our water use is a concern for every ethical consumer.

It’s also not only when we shower or bathe that we use water in our beauty routines – the products themselves often contain a high percentage of water. The beauty industry itself is linked to extensive water use and this can also pose a challenge if we’re consciously looking to be more holistically aware and active in the water we use.

How Can You Avoid Excess Water Use In Your Beauty Regime?

There are two ways we can tackle water usage in the beauty industry. First, some brands are looking to reduce the amount they use in their products. Choosing solid soaps and shampoos over liquid ones can help to avoid excess water usage at the production level. And we can also be careful of how much we use ourselves, by taking shorter showers, turning off the tap while we brush our teeth, and making those super-relaxing baths a special treat instead of a daily indulgence.

Air Pollution

We’ve already seen how harmful chemicals and microplastics found in beauty products can get into our water systems and result in issues for marine and aquatic life. But some beauty items can also cause air pollution. This is because they contain VOCs (volatile organic compounds). VOCs have long been known to be a problem for human health, causing irritation to our eyes, throats, and noses. Some also cause cancer. A 2018 study into the air pollution caused by personal care products found that the emissions were comparable to those produced by rush-hour traffic.

How Can You Reduce Air Pollution?

The good news is that you can avoid many VOCs by choosing natural cosmetics over those that contain artificial chemicals. Look out for the Natrue or COSMOS labels to help you identify products that don’t contain synthetic chemicals. Some VOCs may be present even in natural products, however – natural scents like pinene, limonene, camphor, and menthenol are also VOCs. It is hard to avoid VOCs altogether, but we can at least cut down.

Palm Oil

The environmental impact of palm oil has been well documented, with its links to deforestation and the associated loss of biodiversity and soil stability. Losing forests and woodland areas also contributes to global warming, releasing the carbon dioxide stored by trees into the atmosphere.

Palm oil is found in loads of food products, but it is also a common ingredient in cosmetics and personal care items like deodorants, shampoos, and toothpaste. If it isn’t responsibly harvested, the palm oil in your beauty products could have a devastating impact on the environment.

How Can You Avoid Unsustainable Palm Oil?

There are two options here for environmentally conscious shoppers. We can either avoid palm oil altogether or look for products that use palm oil that has been certified by the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil).


Petrochemicals derived from petroleum are common ingredients in many beauty products, such as lip balms, lotions, balms, and oils. A by-product of the crude oil industry, you might see these on labels as:

  • Petrolatum
  • Mineral oil
  • Liquid paraffin
  • Paraffin oil

As well as being associated with the environmentally damaging fossil fuel industry, it is worth avoiding petrochemicals for their impact on overall human health. They are often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which is a potential carcinogen.

How Can You Avoid Petrochemicals?

Unfortunately, even products labelled under the COSMOS or Natrue schemes can contain small amounts of certain permitted petrochemicals, although some are banned, and they can’t make up more than 2% of the final product. To avoid petrochemicals altogether, you may need to look closely at the ingredients list on your favourite beauty products. Some brands helpfully label products that are petrochemical free, but this isn’t enforced so there is no clear standard across the industry.


Mica is a naturally occurring mineral which is found in many cosmetics and personal care products. It is often used to give a shiny finish and some glitters are derived from mica too.

So, if mica is a natural material and can replace plastic glitter, what is the issue? Unfortunately, mica is not well regulated and various investigations have traced mica used in the beauty industry to illegal mines using child labour, especially in India, where 60% of the mica used worldwide is mined.

The conditions in these illegal mines are highly dangerous and both child and adult workers are underpaid. The 2017 ITV investigation found that many mines are in forests that are designated conservation areas, impacting the environment as well as human rights.

How Can You Avoid Illegal Mica?

As a result of the investigations into illegal mica mining, a group of concerned organisations came together in 2017 to form the Responsible Mica Initiative. This collaboration aims to create a sustainable mica supply chain in India that is free of child labour. They are also working with beauty brands to trace mica through the supply chain, so that companies can have more certainty that the mica in their products is not associated with illegal mining. You can find current members here.

The other option is to avoid products that contain mica altogether. There are synthetic alternatives available, used by brands like Lush, if you want the shiny effect without the cost to human rights.

Cocoa, Shea butter, and Coffee

Illegally mined mica is not the only cosmetic ingredient that has been linked with human rights issues. Ingredients like cocoa butter, shea butter, and coffee are found in many skincare products and are sourced from developing countries where workers are often living in poverty.

Oils, such as argan, coconut, apricot, and brazil nut oil are also common ingredients in beauty products and are produced in developing countries.

How Can You Avoid Exploitative Ingredients?

While Fairtrade chocolate and coffee are common sights in our supermarkets, it can be less obvious how the cocoa, shea butter, or oils in our personal care products are actually sourced. Having said that, Fairtrade accreditation is available for all the ingredients listed above, ensuring a fair price and protection from exploitation for small farmers.

Animal Testing

It isn’t just human workers who are impacted by the beauty industry. Testing of products on animals has long been a divisive issue, with animals kept in laboratories and subjected to painful experiments to test whether cosmetics and personal care items are safe for human use.

Although the EU has banned animal testing of both end products and raw ingredients used in cosmetics, testing on animals is still legal in many countries, including the USA, which began the process to ban animal testing in 2015, but has not yet implemented the legislation.

At time of writing, the UK’s legislation on animal testing remains the same as the EU, banning it on both ingredients and the end products. There don’t appear to be plans to change that anytime soon.

It is worth noting however, that there is one occasion where animal testing for ingredients used in cosmetics is allowed under both EU and UK law, which is when chemicals have to be tested for toxicity under the REACH regulation. This is aimed at protecting workers from harmful chemicals. Testing on animals is only allowed under these circumstances if no alternative test is available.

How Can You Choose Products That Haven’t Been Tested On Animals?

Fortunately, animal testing has had a lot of attention, which means there are a number of certification schemes that can indicate that a product is cruelty-free. These include:


Animal Products

Vegans will want to avoid beauty products that contain ingredients derived from animals, but this can be a concern for the rest of us too – animal welfare is an important consideration, and it is not always clear how the animals used to make cosmetics are treated.

Commonly used animal-based ingredients found in beauty products include:

  • Honey, beeswax, propolis (glue made by bees), bee pollen, royal jelly
  • Lanolin (which comes from sheep wool)
  • Carmine (red dye made from insects)
  • Shellac (secreted by insects)
  • Keratin (made from horns, hooves, nails, and feathers)
  • Collagen (made from cartilage, sinew, and skin)
  • Elastin (from connective tissue)
  • Milk products
  • Guanine (from fish scales)
  • Glucosamine (from shellfish)

Many of these will be waste products from the food industry and others don’t require the death of the animal itself. However, if you are avoiding animal products altogether or want to cut down on your use of them, you will want to avoid beauty items that contain ingredients like these when checking out labels.

How Can You Avoid Animal Products?

Vegan labelling schemes are available for beauty brands that make their products without using any animal derived ingredients. In the UK, the Vegan Society have a Vegan Trademark which can be used on cosmetics and personal care products. In the USA, Vegan Action’s Certified Vegan label plays the same role.

In addition, PETA offer an enhanced version of their Beauty without Bunnies label that certifies products which are vegan as well as cruelty-free.


There is a lot to consider when it comes to buying ethical beauty products. From environmental concerns, to human rights, to animal exploitation, the beauty industry can have a huge impact across a whole range of issues. But ethically conscious brands and labelling schemes are making it easier for concerned consumers to make better choices when it comes to consciously considered beauty and personal care.

The more that we shop with the health of the planet in mind, the more companies that will see the benefits of making ethical beauty products resulting in beauty and cosmetics that not only, make us look our best, but look to do better by the planet and those that live here at the same time.

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