Society is becoming increasingly aware of the ingredients they expose themselves to in their home. With this realization, many of us are starting to opt for more natural ingredients and formulations in our cosmetics.
This is because most of us assume that natural ingredients are safer to use, better for our health, and better for the planet. Yet, some natural ingredients used in the cosmetics industry have been found to be extremely toxic. Not only that, but as the population and demand grows, we are also facing a shortage of natural resources.
In this article I’ll talk about the misconception that natural ingredients are always safer; I’ll discuss how health awareness is driving overconsumption of natural ingredients; and I’ll highlight some ways we, as consumers, can shop more responsibly through supporting brands that operate sustainably.
Our Overconsumption Problem
Scientists have been saying it for decades; if we don’t implement strategies today to counteract our global overconsumption problem, we’re eventually going to run out of resources (1,2). Many experts have also been warning us of climate change for years. Yet, despite this being cause for concern for some time, corporations and government bodies have failed to do anything about it until now.
The growing human population is putting a strain on earth’s ecosystems. According to one study, even if the world imposed a one-child policy on everyone, and we were hit by a number of catastrophic mortalities, we’d still likely have between 5-10 billion people on earth by 2100 (3).
Our environment is continuously being threatened by human-driven operations, such as agricultural practices, fishing, species introductions, and pollution (3). It’s become apparent that without progressive steps—particularly from affluent citizens, according to this study (1)—our future on Earth is looking rather bleak.
Health Awareness is Driving Overconsumption
Since consumers have become more conscious of ingredients they’re exposing themselves to, we’re seeing a trend where natural ingredients are preferred over synthetics. This is because most of us tend to believe that natural ingredients are safer for our health, and synthetic ingredients should be avoided. As stated in my opening paragraph, this is a common misconception. Not all natural ingredients are safe for humans, and not all synthetic ingredients are bad.
Many natural ingredients possess elements that are toxic to humans. One study found that toxic components exist equally—if not higher—in natural ingredients than they do in synthetics (5).
Let’s use botulinum toxin (BTX) as an example. Botulinum toxin—the main ingredient used in Botox®—is a protein naturally found in bacteria spores. It is the most toxic ingredient known to man, and over a million times more toxic than the most toxic synthetic ingredients—except for dioxin (5). Bone loss has been reported in certain medical cases where higher doses of Botox® was injected into jaw muscle (known as TMJD) to reduce pain and tension (14)—yikes! Still down for that Botox® injection?
Another naturally-derived ingredient that you may have heard of is carbon black. This resource is made from petroleum, which is a natural resource extracted from the earth. Petroleum is put through a combustion method, and further refined, where it eventually becomes a fluffy, pure black powder, which is why it’s so popular in certain makeup products, like mascara and eyeshadows.
The issue with black carbon is it’s usually contaminated with heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury, among other things. Although these are all natural ingredients, they can also be very toxic to humans, with known carcinogenic properties. The nanoparticles of carbon black are also often small enough to be absorbed by the skin, which is another cause for concern (5).
Carbon black is not always labelled as such. It can also be labelled as D & C Black No. 2, acetylene black, channel black, furnace black, lamp black, and thermal black. My suggestion is to avoid it at all costs.
Here are some top eye makeup products that contain carbon black (7):
Thrive Causmetics eyeliner
Estée Lauder Sumptuous Extreme Lash Multiplying Volume mascara
Too Faced Better Than Sex Volumizing mascara
Huda Beauty Legit Lashes Double-Ended Volumizing and Lengthening mascara
Kat Von D Vegan Beauty Tattoo eyeliner
Tarte Tarteist Double Take eyeliner
L'Oréal Infallible Flash Cat Eye waterproof liquid eyeliner
Urban Decay Cosmetics 24/7 Glide-On eyeliner pencil
Many brands are using safer alternatives to carbon black in their makeup. Can you guess what many of them are using instead? Yep! Synthetic-made minerals. Why? Because they don’t contain heavy metals, and the quality can be controlled in a lab.
Another study done on the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) for “inventory... of ingredients employed in cosmetic products” enrolled 655 natural substances in a database for classification and labelling, and classified 365 of them as hazardous substances (6).
Some other natural ingredients to avoid in your beauty products include:
- Animal-derived musk - added as fragrance (13)
- Mercury - used as a skin lightening agent and a preservative.
- Mineral oil - used as a conditioning agent in many products.
- Formaldehyde - used as a preservative in products like nail polish.
Safety aside, natural ingredients are also not always as sustainable as synthetics. Think about palm oil, for example. This resource is one of the most commonly used ingredients in cosmetics and food. In Borneo, where most of the world's palm oil comes from, the demand for palm oil has been responsible for entire rainforests being burnt down and desecrated in order to make way for palm oil plantations. You can watch a digital timelapse infographic that shows the progression of the rainforests' destruction over the years here.
But it isn't only the environment that suffers. Orangutans have also become endangered, as their home in those rainforests have been destroyed (15). Many workers are exploited for cheap or child labor. And the fertilizers and pesticides used on the palm trees cause air pollution for the neighboring towns (16).
With the advancement of technology, scientists have now created a palm oil alternative, made from fermented microbes (17). Could this be the solution?
Mica is another example. This resource is found predominantly in mines in India. These mines face the same exploitations as many developing countries do, and just like carbon black, mica can contain natural impurities (18).
Bakuchiol, a botanical that grows native to parts of India became popular a few years ago when scientists discovered it’s retinol-like qualities, minus the irritation. Sensitive-skinned people flocked to buy serums and creams that contained this wonder-plant. But sadly, bakuchiol has been overharvested and unsustainably sourced, and the plant is now an endangered species (8).
There are many synthetic ingredients that we should definitely avoid, and the awareness of these chemicals are becoming more widespread and available. But don’t let a few rotten apples spoil the whole barrel.
With advancements in technology, scientists can mimic a natural ingredient’s molecular structure to a tee. Not only that, but synthetic ingredients are able to be manipulated to exclude any elements that serve no purpose, or that make an ingredient less pure or less safe. Synthetic ingredients are also not subjected to the same issues as sourcing natural ingredients, such as overharvesting, worker exploitation, child labor, and so forth.
This fascination we have with using only natural ingredients is essentially flawed, because, as you can see, natural ingredients are not always safer or more sustainable.
How to Avoid Overconsumption of Natural Resources
One of the biggest things we can do to help this overconsumption problem we’re facing is to stop buying from companies that don’t support sustainable practices. The money you spend is directly investing in, and supporting, the agenda that those companies support. So if they don't have complete transparency on the ingredients they source, how do you know they're ethical and sustainable? Simply put, you don't.
Anyone who follows us knows that we follow a trifecta of questioning before even considering partnering with any brand. “Sustainable” is such a broad term, and many brands manipulate its meaning to suit their agendas. But the truth is, for a brand to be truly sustainable, they need to meet these three requirements:
- Sustainable Ingredients: how are they sourced and made?
- Sustainable Packaging: do they have low or no impact on our environment?
- Sustainable Operations: what are their philanthropy contributions, carbon footprint, and overall brand values?
You can use the trifecta of questioning to determine whether a brand is truly sustainable or not. If you have to go digging for information about a brand, and one of the criteria isn't clear, or can't be found on their website or social media, then the chances are they are not truly sustainable.
Support a Circular Economy
An even better way to avoid overconsumption is to look for brands that are contributing to a circular economy. This is commonly known as upcycling. It's where, instead of throwing old jeans away, you make them into a denim vest. Or you take an old bicycle and broken bookshelf and make them into a side table. In skincare, it's a little less common to find, but I do know of three beauty brands who have taken this model, and implemented it into their operations.
UpCircle Beauty utilizes byproducts from the food and beverage industries. So far they salvage coffee grounds, fruit stones, and chai spices destined for landfill, giving them a new life’s purpose as effective and luxurious skincare products.
One of my favorite products from their range is their Face Moisturizer with Argan Powder. This buttery-textured lotion has a soft, earthy aroma. For anyone with oily skin—like me—this is going to properly hydrate and balance your skin’s sebum production, without leaving a greasy residue. For anyone with dry skin, the shea and cocoa butters are going to really nourish and protect your skin from external aggressors.
Three Ships (12)
This brand was founded by two passionate young women with a vision for a more responsible beauty industry. The formulations are high quality, with the best ingredients sourced from nature and laboratories. They also embrace a circular economy, much like UpCircle Beauty do, by following a regenerative business model with the ingredients and packaging, and they also offer complete transparency on the ingredients they source.
Coming into the cooler months, try their Purify Aloe + Amino Acid Cleanser for a hydrating and gentle cleanse that won’t strip your skin. It contains amino acids for protecting and maintaining the skin’s elasticity; aloe for soothing and hydrating; and fermented yeast minerals to boost the skin’s moisture content.
US-based beauty brands are a little behind other countries in the way of Sustainability. But one New York-based brand is leading the way with their complete transparency on sustainability. Circumference is a forward-thinking skincare brand that puts the planet first with their “waste-not sourcing” of ingredients. They partner with Brightland to upcycle the olive leaves from Brightland’s olive oil harvest. They also source responsibly and trace all of their ingredients back to the source, to ensure ethical and sustainable standards are being upheld in all stages of production.
Their In-Depth Hydration Face Mask is a luxurious creamy texture that goes on like butter. Moringa seed oil nourishes and protects, while cactus flower hydrates, and hibiscus brightens and resurfaces the skin.
Ending Overconsumption Starts with Us
Believe it or not, your purchases do make a difference. When you’re almost finished with a bottle of something, or a jar of something, or you need a new pair of shoes, don’t default back to where you always buy things. Do some research. Your purchasing decisions do make a difference.
“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” – Dalai Lama
Emma Masotti is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn’t cost the earth.
Some of the products promoted in our blog are from our online store. Many others are brands we have researched and found to be great examples of sustainable, ethical, and innovative brands in their field, and we don't make any profit from mentioning them in our blog. #CollaborationOverCompetition