This article is written by Gitika Jain pursuing BBA.LLB(Hons) from Amity University, Kolkata. This article deals with the ugly and harsh truth of the insights of the global cosmetics industry and its hazardous impact on the environment.
Table of Contents
This is a story about people obsessed with stuff on a global level. It’s a story about a system in crisis, crashing the planet, trashing each other, and not even having fun. The good thing is that when we start to understand the system we start to see a lot of places to step in and turn these problems into solutions. None can deny the fact that we all have that one specific product in our cosmetics range which we love and cannot do without. For example, if someone loves using a particular shampoo because it makes their dull hair shine altogether, then a question must arise: how does it do that?
To answer this one can read the ingredients at the back of the products and find ingredients like sodium Laureth sulfate, tetrasodium EDTA, Methylisothiazolinone, etc. Now one can wonder what these things are? For the sake of satisfaction, he or she can take the list of ingredients to some scientist to find out what are the products which we use on daily basis and they will come back with the very shocking news, that is, the product they use on a daily basis contains ingredients that have a chemical linked to cancer and not only that particular product but from sunscreen to lipstick and even a baby shampoo also contain chemicals that are linked to cancer or other problems like learning disabilities, asthma, and even sperm damage.
In order to protect ourselves from such toxic products, we can attempt to remove such stuff from our vanity, but it is practically not possible because we are surrounded by such products all over and they have become an essential part of our lifestyle. Now, what are we supposed to do? To find out a solution to this we have to go back to one of the key features of our materials economy which is “ toxins in, toxins out”. We can have a closer look at this toxic outrage where it seeps into our lives everyday- “the bathroom”. Talking about the numbers on an average we can assume that a woman uses 12 products and a man uses 6 products daily and each product contains a dozen or more chemicals. A very less percent of all the chemicals included in cosmetics are assessed for safety by the industry’s safety panel, so we do not know what they do to us while we use them. Of course, not all the ingredients are dangerous but we know some are. If someone gets their body toxicity levels tested then he or she can find the body loaded with things like mercury, flame retardants, lead, etc. Not to ignore the fact that even babies are being born pre polluted.
Harmful effects on the environment
As individuals, it is impossible to live in a completely ethical and sustainable environment and lifestyle. It’s all about doing the best we can to make ethical decisions of purchase and then reuse and recycle to reduce the impacts on the environment. Therefore, we must look for cosmetic brands that do their best by implementing initiatives where they can to protect the environment. However, some of the bad impacts that cosmetics have on the environment are:
- Cosmetic packaging takes hundreds of years to break down in landfills.
- Toxic chemicals in cosmetics put down dreams and end up in oceans which damage the ecosystem and cause deaths to aquatic species.
- Brands that add one or two natural ingredients mask other toxic ingredients that are rapidly depleting our natural resources.
- Cosmetics that use palm oil contribute to rapid climate change and deforestation.
- Livestock affected by the toxins that end up in soil can make people suffer from reproductive genetic and other changes as well as many types of cancers.
Impact of cosmetics on the environment going down the sink
There is no denying the fact that toxins in cosmetics damage the environment after they are washed down our sinks. The chemicals in many cosmetic products do not break down and keep piling up in our ecosystems. The toxins then end up in our oceans, lakes, streams, rivers, and water supply. Sealife, however, is not the only one to suffer. It is when this water evaporates into the atmosphere that it takes the form of clouds, after which it re-liquefies as rain, contaminating the planet’s soil with toxic chemicals. Next time we wash cosmetics with chemical ingredients down the drain, we must consider the effects the toxins can cause to the environment and ecosystems:
- A decrease in the animal plankton population.
- Change of behaviour and death of aquatic species.
- Death of fish and shellfish is caused due to BHA and BHT.
- Genetic mutations in amphibians are caused by BHA and BHT.
- Mortality and behaviour of fishes are altered by Sodium Laureth Sulfate.
- The death of insects is due to Dioxane.
- Nitrosamines are formed when Diethanolamine (DEA) builds up in the environment and reacts with nitrates, which are highly carcinogenic to human and animal life.
- Amphibians, crustaceans, fish, nematodes, flatworms, and animal plankton all are affected in a harmful way by the DEA.
- Livestock exposed to chemicals in the soil can suffer from reproductive issues and cancer.
Cost of cosmetics pretending to be natural
The brands that claim a bunch of natural ingredients in their products and try to hide or cover other toxic ingredients dupe customers as well as damage the environment with the elimination of natural resources and unsustainable farming practices. The demand for natural ingredients has increased with the increase of such companies that claim to use natural ingredients to fool customers into thinking that they are buying something natural. In order to gain larger quantities of natural ingredients big beauty brands, without any eco-consciousness, want such ingredients cheap and quickly, regardless of the harmful impact on the environment. Due to these reasons, pesticides are used in more quantity in soil and also deplete non-renewable natural resources with unsustainable farming practices.
By adding just a few natural ingredients to cosmetics, beauty brands jump on the natural bandwagon, not only duping customers but are also damaging the environment with the eradication of natural resources and unsustainable farming practices by having contained a myriad of other toxic ingredients. The demand for natural ingredients has increased, with the increase of these companies seeking out natural ingredients in order to fool customers into thinking they are buying natural cosmetics but that is not the case.
Cost of plastics in cosmetics
Discarded plastics are ending up in our oceans along with 70% of cosmetics ending up in landfills unfinished. Even the micro bacteria attach to plastics and create their own ecosystem because of this. Not only this but it also causes death and harm to sea life.
It basically turns out that important decisions don’t happen when we choose to take a product off the shelf, it happens when companies and governments decide what should be put on the shelves for the customers. There are companies that provide herbal or organic products to customers and the terms like “herbal”, “natural” and even “organic” have no legal definition. This means that anybody can put anything in the bottle and name it natural.
As such there are no laws to get rid of them. However, there is a body set responsible for protecting public health by ensuring the safety and security of humans which is the Food & Drug Administration(FDA). But does the FDA even assess the safety of personal care products or their ingredients? Since 1930, they have banned just 11 ingredients used in cosmetics. But this in no way means that we are helpless. There are resources online that we can use to protect ourselves and identify the best possible choices in the store. Many responsible cosmetic companies are already putting safe products in the market like Green Chemists that are developing substances that are designed to receive non-toxic in the first place. European governments have required the removal of many toxic chemicals and companies to figure out how to comply. We can only feel comfortable with the choices available at the store when the cosmetic is formulated to be safe and labelled honestly. It is very important for us to pay close attention to the environmental impact of the beauty brands we choose and think what if the real cost of makeup isn’t actually the price tag.
Reality check: Exploitation of underprivileged kids
In the remote villages of Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan children risk their lives every day to extract mica flakes. Mica is a shimmery ingredient used globally in makeup products such as eyeshadow palettes, blush, highlighter, lipsticks, etc. India is one of its largest producers but most mica mines function illegally. Children are often hired to rummage the crumbling mines through their nimble hands. Around 22000 children work in the illegal mines of Jharkhand and Bihar. These rat-hole mines are guarded by local vigilantes. Strangers are not allowed to enter the area. They earn up to rupees 30 per day. The poverty-stricken parents have no choice but to send their children to work. These children do dangerous work without any protection.
Occupational hazards such as head injuries, cuts, and abrasions come along with this work. Many are vulnerable to long term respiratory infections as well. A 2016 investigation by Reuters found that children regularly died in these mines. But many of the deaths were covered up by the local officials making it difficult to nail down an actual fatality count. Most cosmetic brands including Loreal, Estée lauder, have now joined groups like Responsible Mica Initiatives (AMI). It aims to create an ethical and transparent supply of Mica by 2022. But the progress is slow. In 2019 India conducted a survey of children working in the mines Jharkhand and parts of Bihar. The Kailash Satyarthi children’s foundation has rescued over 3400 children from the mines since 2005. Though the problem of child labour is not resolved yet nothing is impossible to achieve.
Solutions or sustainable options
Though we all can’t completely eliminate plastics, what we all can do is that we can recycle and reuse them to reduce the impact on the environment. Reusing our empty cosmetic containers for some other purposes, ensuring they are not being dumped up in oceans, and recycling them according to our local council’s guidelines will be the best initiative for all of us.
- Customers can consider choosing cosmetics that are made from 100% natural ingredients and from such beauty brands that are eco-conscious.
- Cosmetics can be preferred that have certifications to back their claims.
- Such brands must be chosen that have sustainability initiatives such as eco refill programs, minimal packaging, biodegradable wrapping, etc.
- Such brands must be chosen that use sustainable cosmetic ingredients.
- We can avoid putting our empty cosmetic containers or packaging in a plastic bag. We can place them into the recycling bins loose as some sorting machines can’t always sort them and they will end up in landfills.
- There’s no need to waste water washing our containers. Just giving them a good scrape clean or using our leftover washing-up water.
- Some councils will accept our cosmetic containers with lids whilst others won’t. It all depends on what Material Recovery Facility provides as equipment and processes for the same. Contacting our local council to find out what is right for our area will help.
Our environment has become more and more contaminated globally during the course of time primarily due to the destruction caused by human activities. This tendency can only be stopped by means of international cooperation or on a global level in which local initiations have a great role similar to the individual level as all of us must do something to protect the environment starting from avoiding littering in the forest to selective cosmetics collection. Everybody is responsible for the environment so we must not forget about it. Many of us think that one or two pieces of paper will not damage the environment but if we consider that more than 7 billion people live on Earth and let us assume everybody does the same thing where would it lead?
Our planet would become a junkyard. And this is only one problem, in addition, there are industrial problems and disasters deriving from inadequate transportation such as sinking ships while transporting oil. Large international cosmetics like L’oreal, P&G, Estee Lauder, etc, have started marching on the ’green’ road. They are committed to using natural and organic materials, work processes, and technologies on the international market under the umbrella of sustainable development by showing examples for the smaller ones. The consumers’ way of thinking has also been transformed significantly. People are eager to live in a more healthy and environmentally conscious way which is why they opt for natural care instead of cosmetics of high chemical content.
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