Beauty Products & Their Impact on Health and the Environment

Did you know that your beauty habits might be hurting the environment – and your health? From face scrubs to lipstick, personal care products and cosmetics are laced with dangerous ingredients that can cause pollution, kill plants and animals, and impact your health. 

As the public becomes more aware of the health and environmental dangers associated with the cosmetic industry, states and government agencies have stepped in to help regulate sales. Keep reading to learn more.


Also called “microspheres,” microbeads are tiny (less than 5mm in diameter) plastic balls used in personal care products like face scrubs and toothpaste. They are also used in biomedical research, fluid visualization and analysis, microscopy techniques, and of course exfoliation of the skin.

Microbeads are typically made of polyethylene, but are sometimes constructed of other petrochemical plastics like polystyrene and polypropylene. These tiny, seemingly harmless particles are having a giant impact on the environment – so much so that they are now regulated by the US government.

Microplastic Pollution

Microplastics_NOAA_photo-360x270Ever used a refreshing exfoliating face wash containing microbeads? When you rinse your face, these tiny plastics are washed down the drain. But the particles are so small that they are not caught in sewage treatment plants.

Instead, the microspheres wash into canals and rivers, causing plastic particle water pollution (like the image at left).

Able to stay in any given environment for up to 50 years, microbeads have reached concentrations big enough to pollute the Great Lakes, Lake Erie in particular. Microplastics also threaten marine biodiversity and the health of the world’s oceans.

Passed in late 2015, the Microbead-Free Waters Act was a giant step forward in reducing microplastic pollution. Illinois was the first state to begin regulating the manufacture and sale of products containing microspheres. Currently, every state except California continues to allow biodegradable microbeads.

Alternative Methods

You don’t have to give up your dream of smooth skin to save the environment. When purchasing facial scrub, check the ingredients. You can trust the following companies to use natural, biodegradable exfoliants like sea salt, crushed shells, sugar, sand, and ground bark:

  • Freeman
  • Ives
  • Burt’s Bees
  • Bioré

These big name brands, however, can’t seem to give up the plastic habit:

  • Neutrogena
  • Olay
  • Clean & Clear
  • Aveeno
  • Dove

If a cheap exfoliating scrub just isn’t doing it for you, check out microdermabrasion, a popular procedure available at spas and dermatology offices that purports to eliminate signs of aging, reduce the appearance of wrinkles, and rejuvenate dull, sun-damaged skin.

A single treatment will cost between $75-$200, but the best home diamond microdermabrasion systems (, 2016) available for purchase can pay for themselves within 3 to 4 treatments.

You can think of microdermabrasion like power washing your face. The topmost layer of dry/dead skin cells is blasted off to reveal smoother, younger-looking skin beneath. There are two main types of microdermabrasion:

  • Crystal: Original method that involves blasting the face with tiny aluminum oxide crystals to effectively remove the topmost layer of the skin.
  • Diamond: Newer version that utilizes a diamond-tipped wand to “scratch” off the topmost layer of skin.

While both methods produce similar results, there is a higher price tag (plus increased risk of injury) associated with crystal microdermabrasion.

Environmental Risk

The production of cosmetics and personal care products has a disastrous effect on the environment. Main concerns are the “natural” label, packaging, and pollution.


go-green-makeupAdding a few natural substances to a product laden with other chemicals does not make it natural. But this is exactly what companies do.

As manufacturers take advantage of the “going green” sentiment as a way to increase sales, the demand for natural ingredients increases. Companies want these ingredients fast, cheap, and in huge quantities. This demand in turn increases the amount of mining and farming, which leads to more pesticides and questionable labor practices.

When unsustainable methods are used, non-renewable natural resources are depleted and ecosystems are disrupted. Be careful when you shop. Seek out smaller brands whose labels read “100% Natural.” These companies generally utilize sustainable practices that do minimal damage to the environment.


As you can imagine, there is a huge buildup of plastic bottles and tubs in our landfills. The plastics that house personal care products are extra strong so as not to be degraded by the chemicals they contain. It takes hundreds of years for this sort of container to break down.

Instead, purchase products sold in glass bottles or recycled jars that use minimal packaging.


The chemical substances used in makeup and other cosmetics do not break down. They accumulate in the world’s ecosystems, slowly poisoning the planet. When washed down our drains, personal care products get recycled into rivers, lakes, and public water systems. Here are a few of the cosmetic industry’s most damaging chemicals:

  • P-phenylenediamine is a dangerous chemical derived from coal tar.
    • Found in lipsticks and hair dye
    • Kills animal plankton and other aquatic species
  • BHA and BHT are synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives.
    • Found in moisturizers and lipsticks
    • Kills fish and shellfish
    • Causes mutations in amphibians
  • Dioxane is an endocrine disruptive chemical that contaminates other ingredients. There are ways to remove this carcinogenic chemical, but companies typically avoid doing so due to time and cost.
    • Found in creamy products like shampoo and bubble bath
    • Kills insects and animal plankton
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is a plasticizer used in nail polish and PVC pipe.
    • Affects a variety of aquatic species
    • Causes mutations in amphibians
    • Alters fish behavior and reproductive cycle
    • In large amounts, can decimate an entire ecosystem
  • Triclocan is an antibacterial chemical found in deodorant, hand-sanitizers, and laundry detergent.
    • Alters biochemistry of amphibians, aquatic plants, and fish
    • Causes mutations in amphibians
    • Alters fish behavior and reproductive cycle
    • In large amounts, can decimate an entire ecosystem
  • Diethanolamine (DEA) is a ph adjuster found in nearly every personal care product.
    • Reacts with nitrates to create nitrosamines (which are highly carcinogenic to animals and humans)
    • Toxic to fish, amphibians, and other aquatic life

When these and other chemicals entire Earth’s water cycle, everything and everyone is affected. Chemicals from cosmetics have been found not only in rivers, oceans, and public water supplies, but in agricultural soil and household dust as well.

When exposed to these chemicals, livestock can suffer genetic, reproductive, and developmental problems as well as cancer.

As consumers, we can take steps to keep these harmful chemicals out of the environment. Wide ranging demand has already convinced some companies to remove dangerous substances from their products.

Consumers should consult online ingredients/products lists as well as educate themselves about sustainability and ingredients. Products like aloe vera and coconut oil are easily renewable.

Consider the type of products you buy. Do they use excess packaging? Look for simple paper wrapping, recyclable containers, and reusable glass to minimize waste.

With responsible habits and education, consumers have the power to minimize the pollution caused by the cosmetics industry.

Personal Health Risk

MATH_100512_hdrThere are a dizzying amount of ingredients on the back of products like sunscreen, shampoo, and makeup – many of which the average person hasn’t heard of or can’t pronounce.

Additional warnings about toxic ingredients would deter sales, so companies are happy to settle for a list of long words that few people will read. On top of that, the cosmetic industry is shockingly unregulated.

Our skin is like one big sponge, absorbing about 60% of what we put on it (children absorb even more). That’s why it’s so important to stick with organic products.

In addition to the list above, avoid these ingredients:

  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • MEA and TEA
  • Sunscreen chemicals
  • FD&C color
  • PEG
  • Phthalates
  • Dioxin
  • DMDM Hydantoin and Urea
  • Parabens
  • Propylene Glycol & Butylene Glycol
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate & Sodium Laureth Sulfate

These words even sound nasty! Combinations of the above chemicals have been linked to cancer, skin dermatitis, ADD, asthma, behavioral issues including autism, type II diabetes, birth defects, altered reproductive development, infertility, and other problems.


As I mentioned above, the power to protect the environment lies with the consumer. If you’re ready to make the switch and replace your personal care items with organic brands, we urge you to dispose of your current products at a hazardous waste facility.

You’ll be happy to learn that organic products can be thrown out or washed down the drain without threatening the environment – and they usually work better!


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