The dirty face of beauty

28th September 2023

Lorraine Dallmeier unmasks the environmental impact of the cosmetics industry

In the drive to make consumer products more sustainable, arguably no sector has been more overlooked or misunderstood than that of cosmetics. This oversight may result from the beauty industry being viewed as frivolous, but the reality is that the $500bn+ (£393bn) sector is one of the world’s most unsustainable industries.

Personal care uses vast amounts of agricultural, chemical and packaging resources to produce billions of products that may be designed to go on our bodies, but inevitably end up in waterways and landfills. Most of them have been created using the industry’s traditional ‘take, make, dispose’ model, meaning that our personal care habits pollute ecosystems with their non-biodegradable formulations and packaging.

Every single plastic lotion bottle you’ve ever owned is most likely still somewhere on our planet.

Beauty’s toxic tactics

Greenwashing dominates the narrative in cosmetics. The industry refuses to acknowledge what sits at the heart of its issues – that beauty’s very existence hinges on telling people they’re inadequate as human beings, which, in turn, drives mass consumption. The messaging is visible for all to see. We’re told that we’re not young enough, not smooth enough, not straight-haired enough, not fragrant enough, not attractive enough, not white enough. Inadvertently, all of us have internalised this messaging. The average woman now keeps around 40 makeup products on her bathroom shelf.

To make matters worse, the beauty industry has a tendency to invent issues to drive product sales. Cellulite is not an abnormality or disease but was instead framed by the cosmetics sector as an unsightly feminine condition that needs to be treated, despite a 2015 evidence-based review concluding that cellulite products do not work. Similarly, the shampoo sector told us we should be washing our hair every day. As recently as the 1950s, most people washed their hair once a week, despite modern liquid shampoos being invented decades before.

Most telling of all, Eugène Schueller, the founder of L’Oréal – the largest cosmetics company in the world – when asked about his marketing strategy in the 1930s is alleged to have said “tell people they’re disgusting, they don’t smell good and they’re not attractive”. These words still live on today in virtually every advertising campaign we see. If beauty is genuinely serious about becoming more sustainable, it needs to dramatically change its narrative. It also needs to embrace circularity.

Unpacking cosmetic waste

The personal care market is deliberately opaque when it comes to reporting its consumer waste streams but is said to create 120 billion units of plastic packaging per year. Very little of this is reused or recycled. Furthermore, some of the personal care packaging we’ve been using for years isn’t recyclable. Several cosmetic packaging suppliers are now undertaking research and development to catch up with sustainability demands but, even then, are confusing recyclability with circularity.

In response, a few pioneering entrepreneurs are rolling out return-and-refill schemes, which allow shoppers to drop off or post back their empties. Anecdotal evidence suggests that initial trials have been a success, although the first participants of such schemes will be self-selecting. It won’t be easy to change mass consumer habits around beauty waste, but regardless of how long it takes to change behaviour, the future norm will eventually need to be to return and refill.

Solid choices

Shoppers can go one step further by choosing personal care formulations that are designed with sustainability in mind. Many of the smaller, independent players (the so-called ‘indie’ beauty brands) are actively championing solid formulations, such as shampoo bars and lotion bars. As a result, the big players are starting to catch up and are now introducing these types of products to mainstream retail.

Solid formulations are longer lasting and can be multifunctional. The beauty sector heralds them as ‘waterless’ and claims that they are the solution to the industry’s sustainability problems. Most cosmetic formulations contain over 70% water, while solid alternatives do not. Whether they actually save a significant amount of water is debatable, given that they contain high percentages of butters, oils and surfactants, which are either lab synthesised or obtained from agriculture. Being ‘waterless’ inside the packaging doesn’t negate a product’s water footprint. Nonetheless, they could allow us to drastically reduce the number of products on our bathroom shelves and the impact of shipping high-water-content products.

Eco-design in cosmetics

Biotechnology is also gaining ground
in cosmetics, with certain chemical compounds being lab grown using yeast cultures. This technique shows great promise but currently focuses on active ingredients that are added in tiny quantities to formulations, although it may help prevent the overharvesting of certain cosmetic crops. Consider that it takes at least 3,000kg of rose blossoms to produce 1kg of rose oil (that’s 1.5 million petals), while the global rose-oil sector is forecast to grow by 6.8% year on year as a result of consumer demand.

But don’t expect biotech to generate all our cosmetic ingredients. The bulk of most mainstream cosmetics still consists of water and palm-oil-derived and fossil-fuel-derived ingredients, which all bring additional environmental challenges. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation NGO, the products we put on our skin and hair use more than 500 different microplastics, including liquid plastics.

Conversations around eco-design are growing though, with scientists increasingly talking about green chemistry, using upcycled ingredients from agro-waste, calculating the grey-water footprint of formulations and determining the levels of ecotoxicity caused by dispersing rinse-off products into waterways. Unfortunately, this burgeoning interest in eco-design doesn’t appear to extend to operational sustainability commitments. According to a recent report by the Carbon Trust, none of the world’s 10 largest cosmetics companies have set an independently validated net-zero target, while three of these companies have failed to commit publicly to a net-zero target at all.

As beauty consumers, the challenge we have is determining what constitutes greenwashing, which isn’t helped by the way the cosmetics industry enjoys blinding us with science at every turn. Through 120 years of successful marketing campaigns, the industry has led us to believe that only chemists can make skincare products. Their language and behaviour reflects this myth. Watch for the white lab coats next time you go to the beauty area of a department store or see a TV advertisement for a new high-performance serum that will magically erase our wrinkles. The ‘science-washing’ is ubiquitous and, together with insecurity-driven messaging, forms the basis for today’s cosmetic marketing campaigns.

The DIY beauty revolution

The good news is that we have at our fingertips the ability to step away from the madness of beauty. Humans have formulated their own cosmetics for millennia, with the oldest known skincare formulation found on a 5,000-year-old Egyptian scroll, titled ‘How to transform an old man into a youth’. The fundamental principles of cosmetic formulation haven’t changed dramatically in that time either – emulsification, gelling, warm blending, distillation, enfleurage and preservation are all techniques still used today by ingredient manufacturers and chemists making our cosmetics.

Picture households blending up a family-sized batch of lotion, pressing their own shampoo bars or whipping up a hand balm. Sound far-fetched? Home formulation has taken hold globally, as thousands of people now formulate their own skincare and haircare products. Google ‘DIY beauty’ to see how much this movement has grown. Arguably, the democratisation of formulation would allow consumers to take control of their personal care needs – or buy from local indie brands that reject the harmful beauty marketing narrative.

We need a better solution to continuing with business as usual. When we strip away the talk of recyclability and green production techniques, beauty’s sustainability initiatives often end at the factory gates or never materialise at all.

Last year, when asked how Unilever would achieve net zero from carbon emissions generated by consumers using its products, its CEO very honestly – and terrifyingly – answered: “I have no idea.” As environmental professionals, we should do more to scrutinise this sector and hold it to account, as well as change our own habits as consumers. The era for allowing beauty to be in the eye of the corporate beholder has passed.

Lorraine Dallmeier, MIEMA, CEnv, is the CEO of global formulation school Formula Botanica and the host of the Green Beauty Conversations podcast

Image credit: Shutterstock


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