Chemical attraction: how cosmetics can damage the planet

The damaging effect of cosmetics on the environment was brought into the public eye by the UK ban on microbeads. But what about those less visible, chemical ingredients? Kate Dickinson explores the steps being taken to regulate the European cosmetics industry

Cosmetics are integral to our everyday lives – and whether we like it or not, so are their ingredients. The average adult uses nine personal care products every day, according to the Environmental Working Group, an American organisation researching and advocating around toxic chemicals, amounting to 126 unique chemical ingredients in leave-on and rinse-off products including face and body washes, shower gels, cleansers, moisturisers, deodorants… and that’s before we mention makeup.

The effect of some of these ingredients on the human body – be that as hormone disruptors affecting reproductive development, or as potentially cancer-causing carcinogens – is becoming better known, but many can have an equally worrying effect on the natural environment, finding their way into the water system and accumulating in oceans and the food chain.

The campaign against plastic microbeads in cosmetics has been a major success story, with the UK ban on the material in rinse-off cosmetics in force since January 2018. This has come at a time of unprecedented public awareness of the effect of plastic on the natural environment, with evidence that the tiny pieces of plastic wash down our drains and into our oceans, where they can enter the food chain. Manufacturers are now banned from adding the beads to cosmetics and personal care products and, from July, shops will no longer be allowed to sell products containing them.


Though EU legislation is lagging behind, a survey by CTPA (the UK cosmetics trade association) shows that voluntary actions by retailers have gone a long way to addressing the problem: since a recommendation was issued by Cosmetics Europe in 2015, the use of plastic microbeads has fallen by 70 per cent, even before the UK ban. Companies, including the biggest global cosmetic groups like Procter & Gamble and Unilever, are replacing plastic beads with biodegradable alternatives derived from waxes, starches and ground nutshells, to name a few.

But the microbead ban is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential dangers in cosmetics. Glitter, for instance, can be added to face creams, body washes, or just used straight on the skin as part of the festival-ready look, and is a further source of microplastic pollution. And then there are those chemical ingredients less visible than plastics but equally insidious and damaging to the environment. Consumers are becoming ever more aware of the dangers chemicals can pose to our health, with information spreading about the carcinogenic potential of some ingredients. High-profile court cases have contributed to this, as in 2016, when Johnson & Johnson was forced to pay $72 million (£52.5 million) to the family of an American woman who died from ovarian cancer after using the company’s talcum powder for 35 years.

However, when shopping for a new product and faced with an ingredients list containing upwards of 25 chemical names, it can be easier just to hope that regulators and producers will make sure we are shielded from harm. In the EU, producers must comply with the EC Regulation 1223/2009, which sets out binding standards for cosmetics available on the market, and, indeed, it is widely acknowledged that European regulations are some of the strictest in the world, with the European Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) system controlling which chemicals are authorised for use in cosmetics and elsewhere.

In 2014, five parabens – a type of chemical used as a preservative – were added to the European Commission list of prohibited substances due to potential endocrine disrupting activity, interfering with the body’s hormonal and reproductive systems. Also in 2014, the use of the chemical triclosan as a preservative and antibacterial agent was limited to 0.3 per cent. Meanwhile, phthalates, a group of chemicals used as plasticisers in various products, for instance to make nail polish less brittle or hair spray less stiff, have come under increasing attack for their effect as endocrine disruptors. In 2017, four phthalates were recognised by REACH as endocrine disruptors and placed on the list of substances of very high concern. Substances on this list can only be used if the European Commission has authorised a specific application.

Janet Nudelman, Director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), an offshoot of the American organisation Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, says: “The UK is light years ahead of the US in terms of regulating cosmetic safety. Over 1,300 chemicals are banned from cosmetics in the EU, in contrast to the US where only 11 ingredients are banned or restricted”.

Movement on these ingredients has naturally come from their effect on the human body, but many have also been shown to have lingering effects in the environment. A 2011 report by John M. Brausch and Gary M. Rand identified triclosan and parabens as some of the most dangerous substances evident in aquatic environments; a separate study found triclosan exceeding safe concentrations at over 800 sites in the Elbe River in Central Europe, and predicted that this situation would be reflected worldwide.

Yet the onus often falls on consumers to research and boycott products containing damaging ingredients. Ingredients lists can be vast, and the amount of information available on the internet is even more so – and no easier to decipher. And some of the ingredients remain veiled in ambiguity. ‘Fragrance’, for example, is not one single ingredient but a catch-all term for any number of different combinations of natural and man-made chemicals used to add scent to a product. ‘Trade secret’ laws mean producers are not legally obliged to reveal the contents of the fragrance, creating a loophole that can lead to the nondisclosure of potentially harmful substances.

Pelle Moos, Project Officer on Chemicals at BEUC (an organisation representing European consumers), tells me that a fragrance can be: “A mix of up to 100 different chemicals, with more than 2,500 ingredients used today in perfumes and other cosmetic products. Nonetheless, only 26 specific substances need to be identified on products to inform consumers – that is about one per cent! So in most cases a consumer suffering an allergic reaction cannot identify which fragrance ingredient may have caused it. The consumer can only identify ‘fragrance’ as the problem.”

This article was taken from Issue 92

Moreover, Moos tells me that the producer obligation to declare ingredients is not being sufficiently policed in other areas, namely nanotechnology, which is used, for instance, to add radiation-absorbing nanoparticles to suncreams. French consumer group and BEUC member UFC-Que Choisir “recently found through laboratory testing that five in nine cosmetics products do not comply with the obligation to label products containing nanomaterials… Obviously, this situation is unacceptable: it misleads consumers, and there are also significant uncertainties about the long-term health effects of these materials.”

The Commission has repeatedly delayed its review of the Cosmetics Regulation, which was due no later than January 2015. Moos says. “As a consumer, this means that you are probably better protected against endocrine disruptors in pesticides than you are in cosmetics that you apply directly on your skin every day.”

So what can consumers do themselves in the face of what can feel like an overwhelming amount of information? There are a number of sites aiming to help consumers make educated choices: the EWG’s Skin Deep database, for instance, is a catalogue of over 70,000 products showing their ingredients and a score based on the EWG’s own system of hazards. The CSC has its own list of chemicals to look out for, and Nudelman also recommends downloading the Think Dirty app: “A great example of a resource that allows people to decipher all of the confusing and unpronounceable chemical names so that they can assess the safety of their favorite cosmetic products.”

While progress on regulation is slow, it is happening – and, as the UK microbeads ban shows, regulation can come all the faster when backed by strong public support.