Beauty products

Environmental impact of harmful chemicals in beauty products

While beliefs in self-esteem and body positivity are undoubtedly on the rise, the beauty industry remains plagued by unrealistic standards and harmful chemicals, which not only harm people but also harm them. to the whole planet. These are some of the worst offenders and the impact they can have on the environment.

The chemical sunscreen dilemma

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Chemical sunscreens, in particular, have become a source of concern from a health and environmental perspective. The Food and Drug Administration, which recommends wearing an SPF of 15 or more per day, has named six common active ingredients in chemical sunscreens that absorb into the bloodstream at levels that could be damaging. They include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. Three of these chemicals, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate, can harm marine life and cause coral reefs to bleach.

In 2019, the FDA proposed a new set of sunscreen regulations to make the market safer, noting that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide were the only two sunscreen ingredients generally recognized as safe and effective. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also considers all versions of these ingredients, except nano, to be safe for reefs.

Parabens in skin care

According to the EWG rating, the skin care categories with the lowest potential risk were body oils, body washes, bar soaps and moisturizers. About 75% of facial moisturizers and treatments had moderate or high potential risks, as were over 80% of face powders, about 75% of eye shadows, and 100% of concealers.

Most of the foundations and concealers analyzed, along with a host of other cosmetics included in the investigation, contained parabens, a family of notoriously harmful chemicals that are frequently used as preservatives.

EWG found six types of parabens in their analysis, each present in about 10% of the products tested. In addition to their apparent negative effects on human health, parabens have also been linked to declines in populations of wild animals. When washed down the drain, they enter waterways, bleach coral reefs and eventually wreak havoc on the reproductive systems of animals, causing “abnormal formations and decreased fertility of species.” indicates a 2021 study.

This family of estrogen-like preservatives has been detected not only in fish and aquatic organisms, but also in polar bears, dolphins, sea otters, bears and birds such as bald eagles and albatrosses which eat Fish. In 2015, scientists visited coastal waters in Florida, California, Washington state and Alaska to measure parabens in marine mammals. Of the six parabens studied, methylparaben was the predominant type found in mammalian tissue, with the highest concentration found in the livers of bottlenose dolphins.

Although methylparaben can also come from plants, the concentrations found by the study suggest that synthetic sources are mainly at play. The fact that the compound has been detected as far away as the Beaufort Sea – in the liver of polar bears – is proof of its wide distribution.

Hair care ranked among the worst

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While hair straighteners are among the most chemically loaded beauty products available (with an overall rating of 8.1 out of 10 on the EWG Skin Deep Risk Scale), data shows that shampoos and conditioners aren’t exactly harmless.

Relaxants and dyes, even those labeled as lye-free (and therefore supposedly more natural), are known to be rich in parabens, fragrances, and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Likewise, however, 170 conditioners and 89 shampoos EWG analyzed also contained disturbing and often mysterious scent blends.

Here are some of the harmful compounds found in hair care products and the environmental impacts of these ingredients.


More than half of the hair products in the EWG report contained a “fragrance,” which the organization says is just a generic term that can encompass thousands of ingredients. Many of them are synthetic and none of them are required by the FDA for individual disclosure to the consumer. The Safe Cosmetics Campaign says “ingredients in perfumes may be derived from petroleum or natural raw materials,” noting that some have been linked to major health problems.

The FDA itself claims that phthalates, a type of plasticizer that people generally try to avoid in skin care and cosmetics, are commonly used in perfume blends. These, like parabens, can cause infertility and other reproductive problems in wildlife when released into the environment. Exposure to phthalates can cause oxidative stress, metabolic and endocrine disorders, and immunosuppression in aquatic animals, studies show.


EWG discovered the preservative methylisothiazolinone in 118 products, all shampoos, conditioners or styling gels and lotions. It is commonly used in place of parabens now that parabens have become very unpleasant, although it is not much safer. The chemical also serves as a pesticide that the Environmental Protection Agency has historically considered “moderately to highly toxic to freshwater and estuarine / marine organisms.”

In 2013, methylisothiazolinone was the American Contact Dermatitis Society’s Contact Allergen of the Year. Cosmetic use of the chemical is widely banned throughout the European Union and in Canada.

Preservatives releasing formaldehyde

Other nasty preservatives that can be labeled as paraben free are those that periodically release traces of formaldehyde, a type of gas that can be toxic in high concentrations. In nature, formaldehyde is emitted by fire or volcanic activity. It biodegrades rapidly when released into the atmosphere, breaking down into formic acid and carbon monoxide (not exactly to clean substances); therefore, an excess of it, especially indoors, can seriously degrade air quality.

What do we do ?

For decades, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938 and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967 were the only laws to protect consumers from toxic ingredients. oversees cosmetics.

In 2017, two U.S. senators introduced a personal care product safety law that would amend the federal food, drug, and cosmetic law “to require cosmetic companies to register their facilities with the FDA and submit cosmetic ingredient declarations to the FDA that include the amounts of a cosmetic’s ingredients. ”Around the same time, the House of Representatives introduced the FDA’s Cosmetics Safety and Modernization Act with a almost identical mission, but still, in 2021, neither had been adopted.

On a positive note, there has been more movement at the state level. In 2020, California became the first US state to ban certain chemicals in beauty and personal care products. The Toxic Free Cosmetic Products Act, which came into effect on January 1, 2025, will ban the use of 12 ingredients, including formaldehyde, mercury, and several types of parabens and phthalates.

Various groups, including the aforementioned Environmental Task Force and Safe Cosmetics Campaign, are dedicated to exposing these harmful ingredients and pushing for safer and more environmentally friendly cosmetics. Until the FDA tightens restrictions on chemicals and contaminants, consumers should do their own research using resources such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics Red List and EWG’s Skin Deep Database.