Manfacturing a Clean Conscience: An Environmental Outlook on the Cosmetic Industry

Awareness on the environment and our carbon footprints has grown in leaps and bounds over the last two decades. But when you're thinking about ways to clean up your day to day lifestyles, how many people think about cosmetics?

In my experience, we largely undervalue the role that cosmetics have in our society. Whoever you are, I can almost guarantee, if you live in a western society,  cosmetics have a bigger role in your day to day than you think. When you woke up this morning, what was the first thing you did? You probably brushed your teeth, maybe washed your face and if you went to the bathroom, you may have washed your hands. That’s at least 3 separate cosmetic products that are probably essential to just your morning routine. If your skin’s irritated or inflamed, do you have a favorite lotion that you like to use? Do you use sunscreens when you're out in the sun? Lip balms when your lips get chapped? Shampoo when your hair is ready for a wash? All of this is in addition to things most people equate to cosmetics… makeup, something millions of us women refuse to leave the house without. Cosmetics have and will always be an integral part of our human society.

Okay so cosmetics are huge, but how big of an environmental impact do they really make?

The environmental impacts of the cosmetic industry is far reaching… the whole supply chain can have pretty significant effects. From initial sourcing of raw material all the way to how we as consumers use the final products and dispose of them. Considering how many cosmetic products we use daily, they can have an enormous effect on our carbon footprint, And to that end it's important to remember that this is a multi-billion dollar industry. it's far more common for manufacturers to sacrifice using cleaner (more expensive) ingredients and packaging to cut costs and make more money. As consumers, we’re generally largely unaware of the broader issues of the industry but I think it’s important, especially with our growing concern for the environment, to arm ourselves with evidence based information. Has any of this made you reevaluate any of the products sitting around your household? Or are you wondering if this is just a sales ploy? Well read on and let me see if I cant at least make you consider the impact of the industry and the key things to be aware of.


When we generally think of “clean beauty”, the first thing that comes to mind is probably ingredients. Are they synthetic or natural and how will they affect our health? Although we usually think about our health with respect to ingredients, the environment is a big part of the picture.

Once washed down our sinks, the ingredients in our cosmetic products can, depending on if our water treatment systems can filter them, be recycled into our lakes, streams, rivers and eventually oceans. Depending on the ingredient, they can have big effects on the environment. Think about sourcing, Even before the product hits the shelf. Does the ingredient being used come from an unsustainable crop? What is the harvesting situation like? Here I have to make the point, just because an ingredient is natural does not mean it’s eco-friendly.

Okay to the first point there, certain ingredients can be detrimental to aquatic ecosystems. I have a few examples for you to think about.

  • Example 1, microbeads, those tiny little plastic balls that you’ll often see in exfoliants and toothpastes. Since microbeads aren’t effectively removed by our  sewage systems, they have caused devastating plastic particle pollution and biodiversity loss in many of our great lakes, particularly Lake Erie. Keep in mind, they’re able to stay in the environment for up to 50 years. Even with the recent passing, in late 2015, of the Microbead-Free Water Act, they will continue to be an environmental threat for years to come.
  • Example two, antibacterial agents commonly found in our soaps and cleansers. In addition to being bad for aquatic ecosystems as well as bioaccumulative, the continued use of antibacterial agents (e.g. Triclosan, in pretty much everything nowadays) is linked with antibacterial resistance, a huge problem that we really need to be paying attention to. Click here for more on antibacterial agents.

To the second point, natural does not mean eco-friendly.

  • Example, many essential oils. "Gaph! I thought essential oils where the eco-friendly and healthy pick?" Yes and no, it really depends on which oils you’re using and where you’re getting them from. Let’s start from the beginning with how they’re made. The process of producing essential oils involves steaming or cold-pressing plant material to extract their elusive “essence”, i.e. natural chemicals or in scientific terms, phytochemicals. It often takes hundreds of pounds of a given plant to make a single pound of its essential oils. For example, it takes 50-60 lbs of eucalyptus, 200-250 lbs of lavender, 2000lbs of cypress and as many as 10000 lbs of rose blossoms to get one pound of their essential oils. You’re probably already starting to get an idea of why essential oils aren’t always better bets. First off, since you need such substantial quantities of plant material, this can often mean that monoculture styles of farming are the ideal. Some species of plants used for essential oils, which are unfortunately favorites to many businesses and aromatherapists, are also species at risk, especially ones that are in marginal habitats such as tropical forests or those with slower re-growth. CropWatch does an excellent job keeping tabs on wild species that are currently threatened by the fast-growing essential oil trade, for example rosewood, sandalwood and frankincense. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to avoid using products that have essential oils from over-harvested plants that are at risk of becoming endangered.

Did you know, according to a study in 2009 by Terrachoice Environmental Marketing, 98% of the products with eco-friendly claims are making untrue claims? Many manufacturers will plaster things like “natural” and “eco-friendly” on the front of their packages to make their products seem like a clean choice. Unfortunately, when we see those words, more often than not, we’re more likely to just trust the manufacturer and less likely to flip the package over and check out the ingredients. I’m am genuinely not trying to fear monger and a few not-so-great ingredients aren’t the end of the world. With that said, we should be holding manufacturers (including The Eco Well) accountable for the claims that they’re making. Check the ingredients and learn more about the manufacturers you by your cosmetics from.

Just so I don’t end up writing a book here, I’ll be brief on the rest of this.


Is the packaging recyclable? Is it excessive (i.e. already packaged and sealed products put in little cardboard boxes afterwards)? Since cosmetic packaging needs to generally be thicker and stronger, so it won’t be degraded by the products they contain, this can be bad news when they hit the landfills. Many manufacturer who are more eco-conscious opt to use recycled packaging, including The Eco Well, which is of course a more environmentally-friendly way to go. If your favorite product only comes in plastic then at the very least make sure it is recyclable. Just so you know, if you decide to order from us, we give $1 discounts if you just return the packaging so we can further recycle it.

Is the product Local?

A great way to lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle, in addition to eating locally, is sourcing your products from local suppliers. Not only will you be supporting the small businesses in your region, think of how much carbon emissions are reduced when the products (and ingredients) aren’t being shipped from around the world. A tiny note on certified organic, which many people seem to equate to being more eco-friendly, certifications are quite expensive. As a result, local small farmers, who often have organic practices anyway, are often pushed out of the industry so that today, most of the organic products we see are by bigger corporations. I’m not going to breach the topic of “is organic better than conventional farming”, but the impacts on small local farmers is worth considering. At the end of the day, I think it’s a good idea to, instead of demanding totally arbitrary organic certificates, shift to a more eco-friendly and sustainable model of agroecology that supports our local farmers and suppliers. #Supportlocal!

What do you think? Do you have any additional ideas that we didn’t cover in this post that you’d like to share? Did something we say strike a chord or do you have any comments you disagree with? Chime in on the conversation below or on any of our social media feeds or feel free to send us an email. Thanks for reading!


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