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TOXIC TOILETRIES: DISTINGUISHING GREEN FROM GREENWASHED

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October, 19th 2020

The steady growth of the green beauty market is a positive development, but at the same time, it has brought about practices of greenwashing, leading to confusion among consumers.

Words By Marina Hoyer

Two decades ago, ecologically conscious alternatives to conventional cosmetics were offered only by a few certified providers on the market. Representing the minority in the industry, such brands catered only to a specific target group, whilst mainstream consumers often associated organic care products with peculiar ‘grassy’ or herbal scents. Fortunately, stereotypes like these are long gone. Society’s perception of green skincare has changed drastically and the market for sustainable toiletries has seen steady growth. What once started out as a niche market has now reached popularity with the masses. While this development is more than desirable, it has also brought about challenges. On the one hand, the scarcity of eco-options on drugstore shelves during the 90s and early 2000s meant less variety. On the other hand, it also most likely meant the few, select choices had a higher trustworthiness. During this time, when the mass market had little interest in green cosmetics, companies selling those were often founded from an intrinsic desire to provide alternative toiletries to the ones that were harming both humans and the planet. The values they used for marketing were the values they stood by, making them authentic and reliable.

Several of the labels that seemingly verify a product as harmless to the environment have stakeholders in trade associations and other groups that lobby for the interests of their own industry.

Over the last few years, however, so-called ‘clean beauty’ has become a trend. More and more consumers have become aware of the damaging effects that conventional make-up, skincare and hygiene products are having on the ecosystem and on their bodies. With the demand for natural, organic or green cosmetics rapidly increasing, an equal demand for appropriate certification has followed. The problem with the latter is this: quality and quantity do not always go hand in hand. Several of the labels that seemingly verify a product as harmless to the environment have stakeholders in trade associations and other groups that lobby for the interests of their own industry. This results in a decreased likelihood of independent and reliable certification, making it hard to decipher which labels can or cannot be trusted. Aside from certification, another challenge arises in the form of the unregulated use of words like “pure” or “eco”. These terms are commonly but often illegitimately employed by brands in order to be competitive in a market where emphasis is increasingly placed on sustainability. While the variety of terms used by companies to promote their products as environmentally friendly may seem endless, the regulations for adopting them are not. Instead, they are either too lenient or non-existent. Although some recognised organisations do provide reliable certification marks, most labels can be used without any legal requirements. Therefore, it is not unusual that products marketed as natural, eco-friendly or any of the likes are, in reality, full of toxins. This deception upsets consumers who seek to make conscious and sustainable buying decisions but instead fall victim to these untruthful marketing strategies. A positive development, however, can be found in the public’s growing knowledge and awareness around this issue. According to a study by The Innovation Group, 69% of the participants expressed scepticism towards the reliability of the term “natural”. 

Conventional hygiene and care products do more harm than simply clogging pores

Education about hazardous or merely ineffective additives in cosmetics is increasing. Most women know that deodorants with aluminium can cause breast cancer or that low-quality silicones clog their pores. But what about the consequences that certain chemicals have on our planet and its wildlife? Surprisingly, only a small fraction know that the most severe damage occurs the moment toiletries are washed down the sink. Toxic chemicals in face-wash, cleansers, shower gels or shampoos do not break down but instead accumulate in our ecosystems. Through wastewater, toxins find their way not only into public water systems but also into lakes, streams, rivers and the ocean, thus damaging flora and fauna. Especially perilous to aquatic wildlife are preservatives such as BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene), foaming agents like Sodium Laureth Sulfates (SLES) and the surfactant Diethanolamine (DEA/DEOA). As water from the sea and lakes evaporates into the atmosphere, it accumulates in clouds, contaminating the soil as it rains. Due to this water cycle, the chemicals of a pleasantly perfumed but seriously problematic bubble bath bomb may end up in the most unexpected places, such as on agricultural land or even in the particles of household dust.

Flickr @sapphirespringscemetery

How sunscreens can go against Staiy’s sustainability pillar of water

The sustainability evaluation performed for each new brand that wants to partner with Staiy is linked to five pillars: water, air, materials, work conditions and commitment. With cosmetics and toiletries, the pillar of water plays a central role. Apart from the toxins infiltrating the water cycle and ecosystems through wastewater, another major factor polluting our planet’s water reserves are chemicals acting as UV-filters. These do not measure up to Staiy’s water pillar. Used in sunscreen or SPF make-up, some UV-filters are known to diminish zooplankton populations, kill fish and shellfish, cause genetic mutations and behavioural changes, and are even related to the extinction of entire aquatic species. As a consequence, the US-American state of Hawaii has announced a ban on the sale of sunscreens containing such harmful ingredients. This ban, which will come into force in 2021, is a direct response to the level of toxic chemicals that are being found in Hawaii’s beautiful and unique coral reefs. The concentration of toxins measured there exceeded a predetermined lethal concentration threshold twelve-fold, that is, the level of toxicity was twelve times above the concentration at which point juvenile corals become incapacitated. While the chemicals in question, oxybenzone and octinoxate, are already proven to be toxic to corals and other marine life, recent findings also suggest they are harmful to humans. UV-filters containing these two ingredients can cause a variety of health problems once they enter the bloodstream, including breast cancer, birth defects and DNA damage. Consumers should therefore look out for these dangerous compounds when shopping for their next beach holiday and replace their conventional sunscreen with a more eco-friendly alternative. Wearing light cotton shirts or sitting out in the shade can also help reduce the overall amount of sunscreen needed.

Photography by Phebe Schmidt

Which other ingredients should be avoided?

Among the most commonly used, but also highly disputed ingredients in cosmetics, are parabens. Parabens work as preservatives, meaning they keep creams and make-up free from yeast, mould or bacteria, providing them with a longer shelf-life. They are highly effective and relatively cheap, making them a popular additive within the industry. However, the impact they have on both humans and wildlife can be highly detrimental. Parabens are endocrine disruptors, which means that they affect an organism’s hormone levels. Traces of parabens have been found in the most remote marine locations and their inhabitants, including in Alaskan polar bears. 

In light of the continuing spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, another highly questionable ingredient is on the rise due to the current strict hygiene measures. While frequently washing and disinfecting hands is highly recommended, choosing antibacterial hand gels containing triclosan is not. This antimicrobial and antibacterial agent accumulates in the cells of algae and marine mammals, restricting their growth, impairing vital functions or even killing them. It can also be traced back to our drinking water and is thought to carry a similar threat to humans. According to a study performed by Dodson et al. in 2012, triclosan can also be found in 76% of liquid soaps and 29% of bar soaps. It is undoubtedly one of the chemicals to look out for when examining product labels.

Photography by Linda Prebreza from Pexels

Strategies to forego harmful substances in cosmetics

The public’s growing awareness and desire to go green has planted the seeds for positive change within the mass market. An important development in the industry has come in the form of customers’ refusal to accept greenwashing marketing claims, stemming from their growing knowledge about the damage that conventional cosmetics do. According to the Kari Gran Green Beauty Barometer Survey, more than 6 in 10 women now read beauty product labels prior to purchase. The next goal on the journey towards a more sustainable future can be divided into two steps. Firstly, thorough education on harmful ingredients should become more widespread. Secondly, customers need to act on that knowledge. By boycotting products with problematic chemicals and thus decreasing the demand, such conscious buying choices have the power to force companies to reduce the use of compounds that damage our planet’s ecosystems — with the ultimate goal of banning them completely in the future. Change needs time, but the good news is that each customer can actively propagate this change.

“A study performed by the Environmental Working Group showed that the average woman uses twelve different care and beauty products every day, containing 168 different chemicals.”

An efficient way to avoid toxic toiletries is to simply use less of them in general. A study performed by the Environmental Working Group showed that the average woman uses twelve different care and beauty products every day, containing 168 different chemicals. While men do not use nearly as many cosmetics, they still expose their bodies to ~85 chemicals. By limiting skincare routines to fewer but higher quality serums, creams and cleansers, women as well as men also decrease the risk of unpleasant skin breakouts, rashes and allergies. At the drugstore, customers should take their time to read labels carefully and look up unfamiliar compounds. To help consumers determine whether or not a product contains harmful chemicals, several apps have been developed for this purpose. These can be downloaded on smartphones where innovative barcode scanning technologies are used to identify products, accompanied by insightful background knowledge. Further information can be found online and in various printed sources, ranging from easy-to-read blogs and practical guides to more in-depth magazine articles, books or even scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals. A helpful and enjoyable way to continuously expand one’s knowledge is to take a pretty notebook or journal and take individual notes. By summarising the information found online or in books, one can create a list of specific additives to avoid. This list can be built up over time so that a comprehensive understanding of these different chemicals is acquired.

Educating oneself takes time, especially given the complex names of synthetic chemicals that can be a struggle to get your head around. Consumers are not left helpless though. In order to differentiate the green from the greenwashed, shoppers can look out for the EWG Verified stamp on labels, launched by the Environmental Working Group in 2015 as a follow-up to their work with the Skin Deep database. Smarter choices can also be made by implementing simple habits, such as favouring a soap bar over a liquid hand wash. The same goes for cleansers, shower gels, shampoos or other liquid hair products, all of which are often available in a solid form. Additionally, a general rule of thumb for beginners is to opt for products with fewer ingredients, as these tend to be more natural. Another enjoyable practice to implement is to make face masks or body scrubs at home from truly natural ingredients like yoghurt, locally grown fruits and vegetables, honey, sea salt or 100% pure plant oils. Relying on mother nature’s lush variety of ingredients is a fabulous way to create cosmetics without all the toxic chemicals, but instead packing them with a wealth of healthy vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.