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Top 10 Chemicals Getting in the Way of Your Sustainable Beauty Routine (and how to swap em)

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

Pursuing a sustainable lifestyle can have many facets and we like to think it's great to get started one routine at a time. So, why not have some fun and make that first sustainable routine your beauty routine? But where to start?! Sustainable packaging is a great place to start- look for refillable or truly recyclable packaging. Packaging isn't the only side to sustainability though, we also have to look at what's inside the packaging itself.

There are many chemical ingredients in our personal care products that can not only be toxic to us but toxic to our environment as well. Once you apply those products they will eventually be washed down the drain, through the sewer system and in the wastewater treatment plant closest to you. These wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove cosmetic chemicals and especially not the microplastics found in some beauty products. After leaving the wastewater treatment plants, the water is released into local bodies of water, where the chemicals end up harming the wildlife in those waterways. We did a deep dive in a recent article, Are Your Skincare Products Killing Marine Life, but wanted to break it down in more detail to outline the top 10 chemicals to avoid in your beauty routine and how you can swap them for more eco friendly choices.

1. Parabens

Parabens are a chemical preservative found in most cosmetics to stifle the growth of bacteria and though they have been banned in the EU, zero parabens have been banned for beauty products in the US. What is particularly worrying about parabens is that there is a swelling stack of scientific evidence that parabens have been accumulating in the tissues of marine organisms, which is proof that this environmental contaminant actually works its way from our sink water into the bodies of animals.

Eco Friendly Swap: Look for products that are labeled paraben free. Many natural ingredients like coconut oil & essential oils act as natural preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria in beauty products.

2. Synthetic Fragrance

Many beauty and hair products that contain artificial fragrances have long-lasting effects past the drain. You may already know that fragrances are one of the most “sensitizing” ingredients in cosmetics, which mean they most often lead to reactions and irritation. They are made up of a cocktail of chemicals and manufacturers are not required to reveal them under “trade secret” laws. Many of you may have even had a reaction to synthetic fragrance at some point, especially if you have sensitive skin. What you may not have known is that these chemicals are toxic to both our sensitive skin and our environment. Research has shown that synthetic fragrances are increasingly appearing in waterways and causing long-term damage to marine animals.

Eco Friendly Swap: Avoid products without synthetic fragrance, these are labeled on ingredient lists as 'fragrance'. Instead, look for products scented with natural essential oils labeled by their name like lavender oil, jasmine essential oil, bergamont, etc.

3. Chemical Sunscreens

Most sunscreens on the market to day contain chemicals like oxybenzone which acts as a chemical shield for your skin that blocks UVA & UVB rays. Studies have reported that chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone are toxic to coral and are contributing to the decline of reefs around the world. In one recent study, for instance, researchers reported that “oxybenzone is an emerging contaminant of concern in marine environments.” They found high concentrations of the chemical around coral reefs in Hawaii and the Caribbean, where it alters coral DNA and acts as an endocrine disruptor, causing baby coral “to encase itself in its own skeleton and die,” according to an article in The Guardian about the study. The damage occurred even at low levels-equivalent to one drop of water in six-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools-yet between 6,000 and 14,000 metric tons of sunscreen lotions end up in coral reef areas each year.

Eco Friendly Swap: Always choose sunscreens labeled 'reef safe', which means they are free from reef destructive chemicals like oxybenzone. Reef safe sunscreens instead will typically contain only mineral UV-blocking ingredients like zinc.

4. Siloxanes (Silicones)

Silicones are a common beauty ingredient that add a nice silky texture to many of your favorite oils, creams, lotions, makeup, hair care products, and more. Siloxanes (like cyclomethicone and cyclotetrasiloxane) show up in a lot of beauty products but are also showing up in our environment. Studies have found that siloxanes accumulated in aquatic life in Nordic lakes and in Lake Erie in Canada and Lake Pepin in the U.S., even higher up in the food chain, raising risks of people consuming them. More recently in 2015, the American Chemical Society reported that scientists had found traces of these compounds in soil, plants, phytoplankton, and krill all the way down in Antarctica.

Eco Friendly Swap: Silicones are a really common ingredient in beauty products, anything that ends in -cone or -siloxane is a silicone. This is one ingredient that can be really hard to avoid but there are some great alternatives out there now that are made from natural sources like bamboo, coconut, and olive oil.

5. Triclosan

Another ingredient to be aware of is triclosan. It's an anti-microbial agent used in makeup powders and skin care products. The ingredient is commonly found in shampoos, face washes, toothpastes, and more. It’s been linked to toxicity toward aquatic bacteria and has been deemed harmful to algae and dolphins. It also happens to be an endocrine disruptor that has been found in alarming quantities in the Great Lakes and reduces the lifespan of freshwater organisms.

Eco Friendly Swap: Triclosan serves a similar function in beauty products as parabens. Look for products without triclosan in the ingredient list and that use natural preservatives (or no preservatives) instead. Not all beauty products actually need preservatives.

6. Synthetic Sulfates

This one is tricky because not all sulfates are created equally and many products really are much better with a sulfate. It's what makes products like toothpaste, shampoo, facial cleansers, and shower gels foam up and get all sudsy. Some sulfates are synthetic, others are obtained from natural sources like coconut or palm oils. Yet others may be derived from sulfur- and petroleum-based products. They've been shown to be irritating to the eyes and skin of some people and can dry out your skin as well. Like many of these ingredients, these ingredients are showing up in our waterways in alarmingly high amounts and have been shown to be toxic to aquatic organisms.

Eco Friendly Swaps: Avoid products with traditional sulfates, often labeled as sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulfate. Some safer alternatives you can look for in your products include SLSA (sodium lauryl sulfoacetate), Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate, Disodium / Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate, Decyl glucoside, and Lauryl glucoside.

7. Titanium dioxide (TiO2)

Titanium dioxide usually comes in the form of nanoparticles; you'll find this chemical in skin tints, mineral-based makeups and a wide range of other cosmetic products like sunscreens. Titanium dioxide causes DNA damage to freshwater snails and stops phytoplankton from growing. Given that phytoplankton is responsible for producing roughly two-thirds of the Earth's atmospheric oxygen, the decreased growth of phytoplankton means many fish -- and other ocean life -- will suffocate and die. And it's not just marine wildlife that will suffer, either. Humans and animals, too, will find it more difficult to breathe as atmospheric oxygen levels are depleted.

Eco Friendly Swaps: Avoid any product with Titanium Dioxide or TiO2 on the ingredients list. This ingredient is most often found in tinted moisturizers, foundations, bronzers and sunless tanners so when shopping for these products take extra care to read the ingredients list and look for natural alternatives at reputable clean beauty shops like Credo or the Detox Market.

8. BHA and BHT

These are popular preservatives often used in moisturizers and makeup. In addition to being suspected hormone disruptors, they are both linked to potential environmental harm. BHA is listed as a chemical of potential concern by the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, because of its tendency to bioaccumulate and because it’s toxic to aquatic organisms. Studies have found that it causes genetic mutations in amphibians. BHT also has a moderate to high potential for bioaccumulation in aquatic species. Eco Friendly Swap: Look for products without BHA & BHT in the ingredient list and that use natural preservatives (or no preservatives) instead. Not all beauty products actually need preservatives.

9. Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

One of the plasticizing chemicals called “phthalates,” DBP is often found in nail polishes to prevent them from becoming brittle. In addition to being a potential hormone disruptor, it’s very toxic to aquatic life. It accumulates in the environment and has been linked to problems in fish, including altered behavior, genetics, growth and development.

Eco Friendly Swap: Since this is found in most nail polishes you'll have to search out nail polish brands that are billed as 'non-toxic' but still look at the ingredient list because this is not a regulated term.

10. Microplastics

While microplastics are more of a physical substance than a chemical, they still deserve a mention in this list because of how damaging they are. Currently, 15 countries have taken the steps to ban microbeads (including the United States!). Unfortunately, there are still many countries to go. When you use a product with microbeads, they end up down the drain and into the ecosystem because water treatment facilities cannot remove these little bits of plastic. Fish and birds often mistake these tiny plastic beads for food, and eating them can kill them.

Eco Friendly Swap: Microplastics are most often found in exfoliating products, so make sure to only use exfoliating masks & scrubs with natural exfoliants like rice powder, oat powder, ground seeds, coffee grounds, etc.

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