The United States cosmetics industry is valued at $49.2 billion, so it’s no secret: we love getting pampered, and we love using tons of cosmetics products to do it with. Between makeup, skincare, bath foams and body washes, the typical American bathroom is filled to the brim with beautifying self-care products. But the irony of all those conventional cosmetics, soaps, and shampoos? They may not be so clean after all.
A Deep Dive Into Our Cosmetics Ingredients
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of all food, drug, cosmetics, and dietary supplements. The agency has existed for roughly 80 years, but in that time, it’s only banned 11 additives for use in cosmetics. That means that cosmetics companies, unburdened by pesky federal oversight, can sneak suboptimal, potentially dangerous ingredients into their products and face little to zero consequences for it.
Long-term exposure to toxins found in cosmetics can pose significant threats to human health. It’s no wonder “clean beauty” has become a trending buzzword in recent years — now more than ever, consumers are demanding products that won’t cause cancer, disrupt their endocrine system, or give them mercury poisoning. (That’s not too much to ask for, is it?)
It’s not just our bodies that are threatened by synthetic chemicals. The runoff caused by cosmetic product use, especially those used in the shower, is sending those toxins straight into our waterways and oceans. That toxic runoff wreaks havoc on entire marine ecosystems, devastating coral reefs and disrupting the essential functions of aquatic life. And what ends up in our oceans finds its way back to land, too — some chemicals accumulate in the muscles of fish and crustaceans, which eventually end up in the human food chain. It’s a vicious cycle of toxicity, but we can nip that cycle in the bud by paying careful attention to the ingredients lists on our cosmetic products.
These seven ingredients found in some cosmetics are some of the biggest culprits behind polluted waterways. Before purchasing new products, check the label to ensure they’re free of the offenders below.
Microbeads are tiny plastic granules typically found in skin scrubs and other exfoliating products. Although they’re banned in the U.S. and parts of Europe, they’re legal in most other parts of the world, posing a huge threat to oceans and marine life.
Microbeads enter our oceans after they’re washed off in the shower or sink, where they’re gobbled up by fish and other sea creatures. Microbeads only contribute to the world’s plastic pollution problem; over 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year, and that number is set to triple by 2040 if we don’t correct our course soon.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to exfoliate the skin that don’t include using plastic. Instead of using products that contain microbeads, opt for products that contain natural exfoliators, like sugar granules, coffee grinds, or apricot kernels.
Hand sanitizer has recently become an essential aspect of our daily lives. Unfortunately, many hand sanitizers, as well as detergents, deodorants, shaving creams, and soaps contain triclosan, an antimicrobial agent that’s linked to severe thyroid and reproductive hormone disruption. It’s also known to cause significant damage in marine ecosystems, where it accumulates in ocean sediment and water. From there, it enters algae, mussels, snails, fish, and marine mammals, causing impairment of their vital functions or otherwise killing them.
Foamy, frothy bath and body products are fun — but not if they include saponins, a toxic compound found in many of those foaming products. Saponins are actually so effective at harming marine life that sea cucumbers release them as a natural, chemical response to predators. However, saponins that enter the waterways due to human activity disrupt natural ecosystems and poison various forms of aquatic life.
Parabens are a common yet controversial preservative found in many skincare ingredients. Recent studies have found parabens accumulated in the tissues of dolphins, polar bears, and sea otters, where they could potentially contribute to hormone disruption and other harmful side effects.
UV Shields: Oxybenzone and Octinoxate
Found in many chemical sunscreens, oxybenzone and octinoxate are known to be toxic to coral, plankton, and algae, as well as the fish and crustaceans that end up back in the human food chain. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are known endocrine disruptors; they’ve also been linked to various health concerns, such as breast cancer, birth defects, and damage to DNA.
This shouldn’t discourage you from applying sunscreen, however. Skin cancer is one of the most common skin malignancies in the United States, so it’s important to protect yourself from harmful UV rays. Just do it with a sunscreen that won’t leach toxins into the water while you’re taking a swim. Mineral sunscreens made with zinc are a popular, safer alternative to those that consist of oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Siloxanes are part of the silicone family, found in many moisturizers, primers, and serums for smoothing and softening the skin. While research is still ongoing on its effects on aquatic life, it’s known that siloxanes accumulate in aquatic food chains, which could potentially be toxic to fish and other organisms.
The words “synthetic fragrances” — or simply “fragrance” or “aroma” listed on a cosmetic bottle — are intentionally vague. Manufacturers don’t want you to know that synthetic fragrances are often created from a cocktail of nasty chemicals, including solvents, stabilizers, UV-absorbers, preservatives, and dyes. It goes without saying that these toxins definitely don’t want to be found in marine ecosystems, much less on or in the human body.
As consumers, we have the power to keep these harmful toxins from entering our bodies and our waterways. Scrutinizing every ingredient on your product labels might sound exhausting, but the effort is worth it. Our oceans will thank you for it!