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Learn about the wider environmental impact of skincare on the oceans and wildlife.

Words By Varnika Srivastava


Skincare and the beauty industry has had a huge part to play in the ongoing ocean crisis. Most of us are not aware about this aspect, and do not think twice before spending a load of money on skincare products. But as the concept of sustainable spending and conscious buying has become more and more prevalent, it is important to understand the ramifications of our buying habits. Skincare waste washing down drains and packaging thrown in the landfill is reaching the oceans at alarming rates, and the first signs that the ocean is in danger have already emerged. The coral reefs are dying, dead whales are washed up on shore with bellies full of garbage, and an explorer recently discovered waste at the deepest depths of the ocean ever visited by humans. Then there’s the garbage patch floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which is three times the size of France. Many of the compounds used in sunscreen and other personal health materials have already been discovered to be harmful to coral reefs, according to scientists. The impact of these and other compounds on coral reefs is still being studied. As part of a National Academy of Sciences report due to be completed in 2021, researchers are looking at the environmental effects of sunscreen ingredients. 

Direct Pollution

Not just that, all of the ingredients that go into making the skincare products, like pesticides, contaminants, and additives are destroying our oceans and planet, damaging coral reefs, turtles, rainforests, animal habitat, and more, regardless of whether the substance is washed down the drain or thrown away in the trash. Skincare packaging can take hundreds of years to degrade in landfills, while still releasing chemicals into the soil and waterways. Toxic chemicals are used in most mainstream cosmetics, and these chemicals inevitably find their way into our soil and waters, damaging natural habitat and biodiversity. Pesticides sprayed on raw materials as they are being farmed poison our environment as they seep into the soil and end up in bodies of water. Palm oil is used in many things, and it is one of the leading causes of erosion, species destruction, and climate change. Mini beads, wet wipes, and disposable packaging are ingested by turtles and aquatic mammals, clogging their digestive tracts and causing death. Corals and aquatic eco communities are being decimated at an unprecedented pace as a result of the poisonous chemicals used in mainstream sunscreens. 

“Natural” is destroying the planet

Companies are capitalizing on the term “natural,” as if putting a few natural ingredients in a food makes it “natural” – even if the product is brimming with other artificial and poisonous ingredients. However, as more marketers look for natural ingredients (so they can add natural on their bottles), demand for natural ingredients has risen to unrealistic levels. In order to meet the increasing demand, more farming and mining would be needed. Now, if anything could be achieved in a sustainable manner, it would be fantastic. Large corporations, on the other hand, want to buy it in bulk, and they want it cheap and quick. So talk about organic agriculture and mining; more pesticides are dumped on the planet, and more human rights are violated. Mining minerals and oils for natural foods, when undertaken carelessly, disrupts habitat and depletes non-renewable natural resources.

Sunscreen and coral reefs

Oxybenzone, also known as Benzophenone-3, is a natural chemical element used in almost all sunscreens. This is a compound that absorbs UVA and UVB rays and thereby protects the skin from the light. Although this ingredient is good at preserving your face, it has a significant negative influence on the world’s coral reefs. According to research, sunscreens containing oxybenzone have been contributing to coral reef bleaching. We are damaging the coral reef every time we use sunscreen so it will either wash off in the ocean, pool, or lake when we go swimming or will run down the drain when we shower. Oxybenzone destroys coral DNA and interferes with the survival and development of young coral, according to reports. Coral reefs are home to a variety of species that provide shelter and food for a variety of aquatic animals, as well as generating billions of dollars in tourism revenue for local economies. 


Microbeads are found in cleansers, toothpaste, scrubs, bath salts, shampoos and soaps. Microbeads are too small to be captured in sewage treatment plants, so they penetrate rivers by domestic drainage systems and are then exported to seas and oceans. The per capita use of microplastics used in personal care goods in the United States is projected to be 2.4 mg per human per day, implying that the US population emits 263 tons of polyethylene microplastic per year. According to a 2012 report, 4360 tons of plastic microbeads were used in the European Union industry, including Norway and Switzerland. 

What can we do?

Choose brands that use a high percentage of organic or wild-crafted ingredients in their products. If you do purchase a product that does not use organic ingredients, do some homework into how the manufacturer sources its goods – look into Fair Trade Practices and give-back programs. Look for products that are easily renewable, such as coconut oil, hemp oil, and aloe vera, as these are perfect eco-friendly options. For sunscreens, look for additives that contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. The sun’s rays are reflected by these molecules, which serve like a mirror. They are not only healthier for us, but they are also less harmful to the climate. Avoid using wet wipes in the first place, then if you just can’t survive without them, pick a non-toxic brand and toss it in the trash. Buy from brands that use packaging made of glass or recycled paper to avoid using plastic. Much further, more businesses are dropping packaging in favor of upcycling bottles or using minimal packaging. Check all logos on toothpastes, exfoliators, and body/face scrubs; if they contain plastic microbeads, find a different brand or substance. 

To get a headstart, check out Staiy’s list of sustainable beauty and skincare brands

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