By Naume Guveya
Sustainable beauty has become big. It’s become mainstream. People are getting excited and switching up their beauty routines.
But things are a bit complicated.
Detoxing your beauty cupboard and upping your sustainable beauty game is not so simple.
For starters, reading labels and picking products that are ‘good’ is a mission. What with all the terms floating around. From sustainable beauty to clean, organic, natural and even botanical beauty – it’s a jungle of buzzwords out there.
What do all these terms mean? What do they entail? And does switching to a sustainable routine really make an impact?
Before getting into all the details let’s begin by answering the big question…
What is Sustainable Beauty?
Sustainable beauty is an umbrella term for skincare, cosmetics, and hair products that are made with clean, sustainably sourced ingredients. Sustainable beauty is built on the idea that we don’t have to sacrifice our health and that of the planet to look good.
The focus of sustainable beauty is ensuring that beauty is non-toxic and sustainable. So yeah…now you know that.
Unfortunately, the beauty industry remains largely lightly overseen. Yes, the cosmetic industry has some stringent regulation but this doesn’t equate to full approval authority.
For instance, the FDA can regulate cosmetics but it doesn’t have the legal authority to approve them before they go to market. Colour additives are the exception.
This means that brands have loopholes. They can use great marketing to sell products that are not truly sustainable. When you consider that the global organic beauty market is forecast to exceed $54 billion by 2027, this is huge.
This is where sustainable beauty comes in, seeking to address the ugly side of the industry and to ensure that beauty products are truly safe.
Why Practice Sustainable Beauty?
Just like with ethical fashion or sustainable food, sustainable beauty takes a holistic approach to beauty products. It accounts for everything including what happens long before a product hits the shelves.
From the sourcing of good ingredients to protecting workers and the environment and everything in between, sustainable beauty aims to achieve quite a lot.
The following is a quick rundown of why we should practice sustainable beauty.
- To promote human health and wellbeing
- To protect the environment
- To promote the sustainable sourcing of raw ingredients and ethical treatment of workers
- To protect animal welfare
- To support sustainable production processes
- To promote sustainable packaging processes
- To promote sustainable product distribution
- To promote sustainable product use and disposal
Let’s have look at each of these factors in more detail
1. Promoting human health and wellbeing
You’ve probably heard that skin is the largest organ on the human body. You may also have come across statistics like:
- The skin absorbs up to 70% of anything we apply topically.
- What you put on your skin absorbs into the bloodstream in just 26 seconds.
While these statistics get thrown around a lot, is there any truth to them?
Here’s a fact. It’s possible to absorb substances into your bloodstream through your skin.
One study found linalool and linalyl acetate in the bloodstream of people who use lavender essential oil topically. However, this is not as simple as saying that what you apply onto the skin ends up in the bloodstream.
You have to consider the type of compound you’re dealing with. For instance, one study which found an average of 64% skin absorption only focused on solvents. Solvents are more likely to disrupt the skin barrier, hence the higher absorption rate. But what about other compounds?
Different chemicals have different absorption rates. Some chemicals are too large to absorb into the body. Additionally, some chemicals affect the absorption ability of other chemical compounds.
For example, in addition to breaking down the skin’s barrier, ethanol also tends to disintegrate chemicals. This increases the chemicals’ absorption rate. On the other hand, dimethicone, a silicone additive, sits on the skin surface and blocks chemicals from absorbing into the skin.
You also have to think about how the body handles different substances once they enter into the body. Sometimes your body will simply break them down. For example, in the case of the lavender essential oil, researchers found that the body eliminated the oil within 90 minutes.
How does sustainable beauty promote health and wellbeing?
If your skin doesn’t absorb everything you put onto it, what’s the big deal? If most of the chemicals in your beauty products likely pose little risk to your health, what’s the big deal?
The big deal is your toxic body burden. The toxic body burden refers to the amount of toxic chemicals present in the body at any given time.
The fact is that there are toxic chemicals lurking in some beauty products. For example, the Environmental Working Group detected 16 hormone-altering cosmetic chemicals in teenage girls. You can choose to either apply anything onto your skin blindly and hope that nothing is toxic, or you can actively search for safe options.
Sustainable beauty prioritises health. It focuses on using only safe ingredients, whether they are natural or man-made. Sustainable beauty products may be more expensive, but how much is your health worth? You’re better off using sustainable products and paying less for medical bills in the future.
Top Tip: When you’re looking into sustainable beauty, don’t get sucked into the “natural” products craze. Do some due diligence. The fact is that not all natural ingredients are good the same way not all synthetic ingredients are bad. It’s a matter of conducting some research to find out what’s safe.
2. Protecting the environment
Some conventional beauty products sacrifice the health of the environment for longer shelf life. The challenge with the chemicals used to achieve this is that they rarely break down. Instead, they usually accumulate in water systems and ecosystems, damaging wildlife and flora and fauna.
For instance, dimethicone is good at blocking absorption. However, it is problematic to aquatic animals that breathe and absorb their nutrients topically. It’s not only aquatic life that’s affected. The toxic chemicals that get into water systems also accumulate in agricultural soil and affect the health of produce.
Sustainable beauty considers environment health
The following are some things you become a proponent of when you switch to sustainable beauty:
- Products that cause less environmental damage. For example, those that produce less waste and pollution.
- The efficient use of renewable energy such as wind or solar.
- Using raw materials that are not at risk of extinction. Certain plant species, including orchids and cacti, are classified as threatened by the IUCN. Sustainable beauty promotes not using any of these plants as raw materials.
The issue of using the right raw materials brings us to the next reason why you should practice sustainable beauty.
3. Promoting the sustainable sourcing of raw ingredients and ethical treatment of workers
When it comes to acquiring raw ingredients, a lot of brands are struggling with the two big Ts – transparency and traceability.
Why are these two important?
The two Ts give consumers a link to the very beginning of a product’s lifecycle; providing a clearer picture of where it all begins.
This is especially important when it comes to purchasing ingredients like palm oil and cocoa. These ingredients are linked to several social, ethical, and environmental issues.
Behind the scenes: Cocoa butter and palm oil
Cocoa production relies heavily on child labour, deplorable wages, and unsustainable farming practices.
70% of the world’s cocoa comes from four West African countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon, and Nigeria. In fact, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are by far the biggest producers, cultivating over 50% of the world’s cocoa.
A lot of these children, some as young as 5 years old, engage in hazardous work. The work includes carrying heavy loads, using sharp tools, and working with agricultural chemicals. Although the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) is working on putting children at the heart of sustainable cocoa farming, there’s still a long way to go.
Additionally, sustainable cocoa farming practices are not widespread.
Up to 40% of all the cocoa crop is lost annually due to poor maintenance. Unsustainable farming is leading to soil erosion. This, in turn, is leading to further deforestation as more land is cleared for new plantations.
Similarly, palm oil production is characterised by worker exploitation and unsustainable farming practices. These farming practices are leading to deforestation on a large scale. It’s even been suggested that up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour for palm oil plantations.
Sustainable beauty: raw ingredient sourcing and ethics
Sustainable beauty is essentially beauty with a good social and environmental impact. This means that only ingredients that fulfil both the social and environmental criteria are used.
For instance, sustainable beauty promotes sustainable farming and harvesting practices with good traceability. This makes it easier to know things such as:
- the source of products
- who harvests them
- worker’s working conditions
- whether the workers receive fair compensation
Note: Ensuring positive social and environmental impact while maintaining profitability isn’t always easy. This is why sustainable beauty products may be more expensive than conventional products.
4. Protecting animals
Each year, hundreds of thousands of animals are removed from their natural habitats to be used for testing in the beauty industry.
For example, in China, all makeup and skincare products are subject to mandatory animal testing. The only exception are direct-to-consumer products. Even brands that don’t test on animals themselves still have to undergo third-party animal testing if they are to sell in the Chinese market.
Unfortunately, thigs don’t get better. About 80% of all countries have little or no laws around animal testing. As a result, many beauty brands that mislead people with their “cruelty-free” and “not tested on animals” labels.
In some cases, animal testing occurs at the ingredient level. Since there’s no regulation of this, brands get away with using the “not tested on animals” label. Other times, companies get around not testing on animals by contracting other companies to do the testing for them.
Sustainable beauty promotes:
- Replacing procedures that use animals with procedures that don’t. The ideal situation is when there is never any product testing on animals.
- Reducing the number of animals used in any single testing procedure.
- Ensuring that the testing procedures alleviate or minimise potential animal pain.
Accountability among beauty brands
We’re now in the age of ‘woke consumers’. People are not impressed with quick fixes and all things glittery. As such, there’s pressure on brands to be transparent and accountable. This is pushing companies to operate in a way that protects animals. Various agencies like PETA and Leaping Bunny are independently auditing brands. They are helping to ensure that brands comply with cruelty-free and vegan standards.
Top Tip: It’s prudent to exercise due diligence when it comes to product labelling. Some brands are jumping onto the cruelty-free trend with deceptive marketing strategies and labels.
5. Promoting sustainable production processes
Cosmetic manufacturing plants have a lot going on.
- They have high energy consumption.
- They generate lots of waste
- They leave a big carbon footprint.
- The toxic chemicals in cosmetics that get washed down drains end up in water systems and damage the ecosystem.
This is why the manufacturing of sustainable beauty products is increasingly oriented towards efficient technologies. These technologies are helping to reduce emissions, waste, and energy and water consumption.
For example, some factories are using solar and wind energy to cut carbon emissions. Others are recycling their wastewater to reuse in their factories. In general, the beauty industry is taking measures to enhance the sustainability of production processes.
6. Promoting sustainable packaging processes
The beauty industry generates a lot of packaging. According to Zero Waste Week, over 120 billion packaging units are produced annually worldwide.
A lot of this packaging is made from plastic or wood. The packaging made from wood is contributing to the loss of 18 million acres of forest every year. On the other hand, a lot of plastic packaging is only partly recyclable or very hard to recycle. Most of it ends up in landfills. Worse still, the industry’s plastic footprint continues to balloon as demand for beauty products increases.
Enter sustainable beauty.
Sustainable beauty brands are opting for recyclable and refillable packaging. For instance, Olay is trying out reusable packaging. This effort alone is projected to keep over 1 million kilos of waste from ending up in landfills.
The LCA Centre, which specialises in the forensic Life Cycle Assessment of disposable products and packaging, has found that using refillable cosmetic containers can eliminate as much as 70% of all the carbon emissions associated with the beauty industry. Even if the actual percentage isn’t that high, any effort that reduces emissions is good. It beats inaction any day.
7. Promoting sustainable product distribution
The distribution chain includes transporting products. However, much of this transportation results in the emission of greenhouse gas emissions.
With sustainable beauty practices, brands are adapting their product distribution to reduce energy consumption and emissions. Some of the ways brands are doing this include:
- Consolidating distribution networks. This cuts the distance between their distribution centres and retailers.
- Using larger distribution centres. This cuts the number of journeys required to transport consignments to the centres.
- Creating compact products. More compact products can be transported at any given time compared to larger products.
Note: Compact products also require less packaging.
Shifting from road transport to rail transport. Rail transport has a lower carbon footprint. Also, similarly switching from air to sea transport which has an even lower carbon footprint compared to rail. Some companies are even stepping up their efforts and switching to hybrid or electrical vehicles.
8. Promoting sustainable product use and disposal
Cosmetics Europe identified that only 5% to 20% of a shampoo’s total environmental impact is attributable to its raw materials, production, packaging, and distribution.
This means that up to 95% of the impact shampoo has on the environment is attributable to its use and subsequent disposal.
For instance, many people use too much water when shampooing their hair. The unsustainable water consumption adds up significantly over time. It’s especially significant if a person washes their hair regularly.
The average showerhead uses about 9.5 litres of water every minute. Imagine how much water you use to shampoo your hair before you even take your regular bath.
Besides the water consumption, you also use more energy the longer you shampoo your hair with heated water. This brings us to the issue of higher carbon emissions associated with long hot showers. Yes, showering can contribute to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Hot water is heated by an energy source which is likely fuelled by the burning of fossil fuels. On average, a five-minute shower creates about a kilo of CO2 and a 10-minute shower doubles the CO2 created. Consequently, long hot showers are linked to higher CO2 emissions.
Sustainable beauty and the sustainable use and disposal of beauty products
The research by Cosmetics Europe highlights the importance of taking a holistic approach to beauty. This is one of the aims of sustainable beauty – looking at the entire lifecycle of beauty products.
Already, Cosmetics Europe is helping consumers understand how they can use shampoo more sustainably. For example, by reducing their water and energy use.
Instead of only focusing on how sustainable a brand’s operations are, it’s also important to check how sustainable our actions are.
Is Sustainable Beauty the Same as Natural and Organic Beauty?
What is Natural Beauty?
Natural beauty focuses on natural beauty products. These are products made from pure ingredients sourced from nature (land or sea). Natural ingredients include sea salts, natural resins, and plant oils.
However, natural products don’t have to be 100% natural. They can have a low percentage of synthetic ingredients. But some brands take advantage of the lack of robust regulation. A product with just one natural ingredient along with several synthetic ones can still be labelled “natural.”
What is organic beauty?
Organic beauty is all about organic beauty products. These products are made with natural and organic ingredients that are produced without the use:
- synthetic pesticides
- fertilisers or preservatives
- genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Organic beauty products can contain a low percentage of non-toxic synthetic ingredients. However, unlike natural products, there is some regulation surrounding organic beauty products. For instance, USDA certification means that an organic product is made with ingredients that are produced and processed in a regulated environment.
Another notable certification is the ECOCERT certification. The certification requires that for a product to be labelled as “natural” and “organic”:
- The formula must have a minimum of 95% plant-based ingredients.
- At least 10% of all ingredients by weight must be from organic farming.
- The product must not contain “GMOs, parabens, phenoxyethanol, nanoparticles, synthetic perfumes and dyes, silicon, PEGs. It must also not contain animal-derived ingredients such as milk and honey (unless the animal-derived ingredients are naturally produced by the brand that makes the product)
Sustainable beauty vs. Natural Beauty vs. Organic Beauty
Natural and organic beauty products mainly consist of natural and organic ingredients respectively. But while sustainable beauty can include natural and organic products, it also incorporates practices that are socially responsible and environmentally sustainable.
Sustainable beauty doesn’t just look at the ingredients and the finished product. It also considers the entire product life cycle with a focus on the product’s impact on human, animal, and planet health.
Is Sustainable Beauty the same as Clean Beauty?
Clean beauty is all about non-toxic ingredients. For instance, clean beauty products don’t contain carcinogenic ingredients. It also doesn’t contain ingredients that are harmful to the environment. Simply put, clean beauty products are made with human and planet health in mind.
Clean beauty products don’t necessarily have to be natural or sustainable because the emphasis is on the safety of the products. The idea here is that there can never be “chemical-free” beauty products. As such, the main thing is to ensure the safety of the ingredients that end up in the products.
The general concept with clean beauty is that not all synthetic ingredients are toxic. However, sustainable beauty accounts for everything. In addition to ensuring that ingredients are non-toxic, sustainable beauty also ensures that the ingredients are from renewable sources and they have no negative impact on the environment.
Note: Clean beauty products don’t have to be sustainable. However, depending on the products you opt for, they can easily become part of your sustainable beauty regime.
Is Sustainable Beauty the Same as Indie Beauty?
Although some people use the terms “sustainable beauty” and “indie beauty” interchangeably, these two terms are not the same. Some indie beauty brands may be disrupting the sustainable beauty space, but not all indie beauty brands are sustainable.
So what exactly is indie beauty?
At its core, indie beauty refers to beauty that focuses on doing something unconventional. Some of the things indie brands can do include:
- offering a new product category
- adding a new spin to an existing product
- introducing a disruptive way of reaching customers
- focusing on specific elements like clean ingredients, community, quality, opulence, or artisanal products for people with a particular preference
In all this, indie beauty brands can choose to focus on sustainable beauty products but they don’t necessarily have to.
How to Make Your Beauty Sustainable
True sustainable beauty goes beyond just throwing words like “sustainable,” “natural,” and “clean.” around. You need to create a truly sustainable beauty routine and actually stick to it. While some people are concerned with grand gestures and actions, even the small actions count.
- You can choose to only buy new shampoo when the one you have is completely finished.
- You can skip the plastic and only go for products with biodegradable packaging.
What’s important is to start taking action. The following are some tips to remember when starting your journey towards more sustainable beauty.
1. Be conscious about protecting the environment
When picking and using your beauty products, always have the environment in mind. For instance, sunscreen is great, but not if it’s going to run off your skin and into the water.
Again, your face scrub may work wonders, but if it contains microplastics, you have to rethink your exfoliation routine. These microplastics can get washed down the drain and end up being consumed by fish.
For example, the United Nations says that over 50 trillion microplastics currently litter the seas. This number exceeds the stars in the galaxy 500x. Additionally, plastic costs upwards of $8 billion annually in damage to marine ecosystems. It’s been said that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 if we don’t do anything to change the current state of affairs.
Be conscious of what’s in your beauty products and think about what it means for the environment.
Top Tip: Only a handful of countries have banned microbeads, but you can make a difference by looking out for and avoiding the common materials used to make microbeads. These include polyethylene, polypropylene (PP), terephthalate (PET) and polystyrene.
2. Become a wise consumer
Become a proactive consumer when it comes to choosing and using your beauty products.
- Ask yourself if you really need to buy a product or you are simply overbuying. Do you already have the same product that’s not yet completely used up? Will you actually use the product or it will spend its entire life sitting untouched in a cabinet.
- Take a good look at ingredient lists (forget the pretty label at the front) and choose products thoughtfully. Only go for those brands you have done sufficient research on and trust.
- Look out for greenwashing. There are brands interested in being truly sustainable. But there are also some brands using the sustainable beauty movement as a marketing ploy.
Greenwashing is when a company claims that their products are non-toxic and eco-friendly when in fact, they are not. A product label may read “high-quality, natural ingredients sourced sustainably,” but how far true is the assertion?
One good ingredient doesn’t make the whole product good. Ask questions. Which company makes this product? Are the ingredients safe? Where and how are ingredients sourced? Is there transparency and accountability?
3. Be realistic
We still have limited options when it comes to getting totally sustainable and zero-waste beauty products. In an ideal world, we’d go with zero-plastic, zero-pollution, and zero waste. But our world is far from ideal.
However, instead of just giving up completely, be realistic. Acknowledge that it may be quite hard to find the perfect products but make an effort to find products that come close.
4. Become efficient at reducing, reusing, and recycling
The principle of reducing, reusing, and recycling can be applied to sustainable beauty 100% in that order.
- Reduce. Adopt a less is more approach. Fancy voluminous packaging is unnecessary. For example, some lipstick cases are weighed down so that they feel more expensive and elite. But this move also makes the cases unrecyclable. When it comes to making your beauty more sustainable, it’s best to just KISS (keep it simple, stupid).
- Reuse. After reducing, reuse whatever you can. Can you turn your shampoo bottle into a flower pot or your empty body scrub bottle into a makeup brush holder? How about keeping the small items that can easily get lost in a lipstick bullet? What about keeping your smaller empty bottles for when you travel? Better yet, you can opt for brands with refillable packaging.
Note: Reusing plastic bottles can leach toxic chemicals. Be careful about this and try to avoid plastic whenever you can.
- Recycle. In the end, recycle everything you can. Go for beauty products with the right packaging. Although plastic recycling requires knowing your different plastics, it’s generally easier to recycle cardboard, glass and metal.
These three elements remain some of the best ways of becoming more sustainable and limiting what ends up in landfills.
Note: If you’re going to recycle, it’s best to do it right. Simply tossing products into recycling bins isn’t enough. Also, just because something is in a recycling bin doesn’t mean it will end up being recycled. On that note, let’s take a look at how you can recycle the right way.
Recycling the right way
- Clean the containers
While this may seem tedious, it’s necessary. Recycling facilities only accept container contamination to a certain extent. If your containers are not very clean, they may still end up in the landfill. Once in the landfill, they can leach toxic chemicals into the ground and water supplies.
Top Tip: If in doubt about whether a container will contaminate the entire load, it’s best not to put it into your recycling bin. This way, you avoid the risk of the entire load ending up in a landfill.
- Differentiate the plastics
Not all plastics are created equal. It’s best to sort through the different types. For example, PP, the most commonly used plastic in cosmetic packaging, is normally recyclable. However, other plastics such as low-density polyethylene (LDPE) are not readily recyclable. It’s best to keep them out of your kerbside recycling bin.
This means that while rigid plastics like your shampoo or lotion bottles, can be recycled easily, the same isn’t true for soft plastic like bubble wrap and cling film. If you can’t avoid the soft plastics, you can try out niche recycling companies that specialise in hard-to-recycle products. If such companies are unavailable, the thin plastics will just have to go into the non-recyclable waste bin.
- Think size
If it’s too small, it may end up falling through the spaces. Worse still, if a small bit ends up logged in the recycling equipment it can cause mechanical problems. Make sure that small pieces such as caps and nozzles stay on bottles so that they don’t get lost.
- Have an idea of what can and can’t be recycled
Knowing what can and can’t be recycled will help you choose products wisely and step up your recycling efforts. Metal tubes and cans, e.g. aluminium, can be recycled and so can glass containers. Hard-to-recycle beauty products include nail polish bottles and lip gloss tubes. These are best left to specialised recycling companies.
You will find that a lot of makeup products cannot be recycled because they contain elements that are not recyclable. Such elements include applicators, magnets, pumps, brushes, and mirrors. Consequently, it’s best to go for products with reusable or refillable packaging.
- Makeup applicators and brushes are made from a combination of multiple materials which makes recycling hard. It’s best to take the best care of applicators and brushes so that they don’t require regular replacing.
- Magnets cannot be recycled.
- Plastic pumps contain a metal spring that makes recycling difficult. If you have a bottle with a pump, it’s best to remove the pump so that the rest of the bottle is recyclable.
- The reflective coating on mirrors is considered a contaminant and it makes glass non-recyclable.
- Find out about recycling programs
An increasing number of beauty brands are offering recycling programs. For instance, some brands allow consumers to bring back their empty product containers. In some cases, the consumers get a free gift. In others, the brand donates some of the proceeds from their recycling efforts to charity. It’s great to familiarise yourself with such programs to streamline your recycling efforts.
The Future of Sustainable Beauty
The future of sustainable beauty will likely involve the younger generations taking a stand and more robust regulation coming into effect.
Younger generations pushing for change
Millennials and Gen Zers are pushing for positive change in the beauty industry. A report by the Soil Association shows that many young consumers expect beauty brands to offer products that reflect their efforts to live more sustainably.
The report also highlights that 65% of consumers expect brands to share their ingredient sources. As sustainable beauty continues to grow, there will be more scrutiny on brands. Consumers are no longer accepting of anything they are told. Brands will have to show that they are truly sustainable beyond the marketing.
To date, there’s no regulation of terms such as ‘organic’ and ‘natural’. This has led to many companies capitalising on the terms without providing actual value. However, going forward, we will likely see some form of robust regulation start to take shape. Consumers will also likely expect brands to become certified.
Transparency and accountability in the beauty industry are the future. Brands will need to have both to gain credibility and consumer confidence.
This is especially important due to greenwashing eroding consumer trust. Certification and regulation will provide clarity and a consistency that’s still lacking in the industry.
What else are we likely to see?
We’re also likely to see growth in the number of people making their beauty more sustainable. The benefits of sustainability are becoming more apparent every day. The repercussions of climate change and toxic beauty products are opening our eyes.
More people are also appreciating the role of sustainable beauty in promoting equality and animal welfare. It won’t be surprising if sometime in the near future, sustainable beauty becomes the norm. For now, the important thing is for everyone to come together and go sustainable, one step at a time, nomatter how small each step is.