Brains in Fashion
Natural Beauty Products are Eco-Friendly, Right?
1st February 2019
There has been a huge increase in the number of natural beauty products available for sale in recent years. Buyers are becoming more aware of the potential impacts of their products on their health and the environment and wanting to make better choices. But are natural products eco-friendly?
Organisms on earth have had millions of years to develop alongside “natural” chemicals – the chemicals that exist in their surrounding environment. It has allowed plants and animals to evolve ways to reduce any detrimental impacts of day-to-day exposure to these chemicals, making them safer to live with. These chemicals are usually the ones contained in beauty products marketed as natural. However, when they are used at levels that exceed a typical day-to-day exposure, they can overwhelm the defence mechanisms that plants and animals have evolved. As a result, when they are washed down the drain and enter the environment, they can still be harmful.
d-Limonene is a good example. This chemical occurs naturally in many plants that grow on land (especially citrus plants – it smells like an orange!). It can be extracted from these plants and concentrated and then used in natural beauty products as a fragrance or to help to dissolve other substances. But a small amount of this chemical can have environmental impacts. Scientific tests have shown that, in waterways, this chemical is very toxic to fish, water fleas and algae. These plants and animals simply have not evolved ways to deal with high levels of a chemical that is normally found on land.
Naturally-derived ingredients can also be difficult to source, and as a result, they may have to be transported long distances to the place where the product is formulated. When looking at the greenhouse gas emissions associated with beauty products, it is important to think about how far the ingredients must travel. A beauty product containing a few simple synthetic chemicals can require far fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to a product containing many exotic natural ingredients.
Similarly, it is also important to think about where the final product is made, and how far it must travel to get to the buyer. A locally made product could be a better choice over something shipped around the world. Shipping one tonne of beauty products from China to the United Kingdom, for instance, produces an average of around 300 kilograms of carbon dioxide – equivalent to driving a passenger car for about 30 hours.
The packaging can have an environmental impact too. A product that has light, minimal packaging takes up less room and contributes less weight during transport, meaning more product can be moved per unit of greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, the material of the packaging itself is important too. Cardboard, hard plastics and glass are easier to reuse or recycle, so these can be better choices. Some brands, like Lush, are also creating beauty products that do not require packaging, or are allowing buyers to refill their own reusable containers, which is a great way to reduce the environmental impacts of packaging.
The key thing to remember is that all beauty products, whether natural or not, will have an impact on the environment; be it during manufacture, packaging, transport or after they are washed down the drain. In many situations the natural beauty product will be the better choice – but we can’t just assume it is. Careful purchasing is necessary to reduce the environmental impact of beauty product choices. This isn’t always easy but being aware of where the potential impacts are can help! For more information on the environmental impacts of beauty products, visit www.thegoodonesco.com.
European Chemical Agency (2019). Brief Profile on (R)-p-mentha-1,8-diene. Accessed 16 January 2019 at https://echa.europa.eu/brief-profile/-/briefprofile/100.025.284
European Commission (2018). Reducing CO2 emissions from passenger cars. Accessed 20 January 2019 at https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/transport/vehicles/cars_en
Nielsen Research (2018). The future of beauty. Accessed 16 January 2019 at https://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/nielsenglobal/de/images/WP-CH/Nielsen_2018_the-future-of-beauty-report.pdf
The European Chemical Industry Council (2011). Guidelines for measuring and managing CO2 emissions from freight transport operations. Accessed 20 January 2019 at http://www.cefic.org/industry-support/responsible-care-tools-smes/5-environment/guidelines-for-managing-co2-emissions-from-transport-operations
The Waste and Resource Action Programme (2018). Recycling guidelines. Accessed 16 January 2019 at http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/Recycling%20guidelines%201.9.pdf
United Nations (2017). Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals: Seventh revised edition.