How Sustainable is Sustainability in Skincare?

*As of Earth Day 2021

earth day skincare sustainability

As creatures of this planet and lovers of animals we can’t help but feel a slight sense of impending doom when you think about the state of Mother Earth and global warming. The good news is that sustainability is a major topic in the cosmetic industry and we don’t see this initiative going away anytime soon (partially in thanks to you the knowledgeable consumer *clap clap clap). So with that, let’s open up this big can of worms and do a general update on the skincare industry’s impact on our planet. Technically each of the topics below could turn into its own blog series but the goal here is more to highlight both the work being done and where the industry still needs to do better.

Formula & Ingredient Focus

Water Conservation & Waterless Skincare

Why? Water is a non-renewable resource and the amount of water consumption outweighs the amount of water available.

Water in the Industry: The cosmetic industry can be quite a heavy water guzzler. At every stage requires water, ingredient sourcing, processing, production, and the formula itself. 

Waterless Skincare: So as a result, some may think waterless formulas make sense for two reasons:  1. You’re potentially creating a more potent skincare formula since you’re removing water, which essentially dilutes the formula right? And 2. You’re reducing the use of water. While waterless makes some sense for wash-off products like face bars, shampoos, etc., waterless formulas (balms and oils) don’t necessarily equate to very effective formulas that can target tougher skin concerns like wrinkles and pigmentation since most of those actives ingredients are water based. Additionally waterless (oil/balm) formulas still require a lot of water in processing to wash out production kettles.

Chemist thoughts: This isn’t our favorite initiative since waterless skincare doesn’t result in the best formulas nor truly reduces water consumption in the industry as a whole. Instead, depending on the consciousness of the skincare company & contract manufacturers, there is an effort to optimize their formulation processes and minimize their water footprint. Personally as a skincare consumer, what makes a more significant impact is just keeping tabs on our own personal water consumption at home via efficient appliances, efficient water flow, and just good habits. It’s all about each of us doing our part.

Palm Trees and the Rainforest

Why?: So. many. things. come. from. palm. Palm is both affordable and incredibly versatile to manipulate, and is therefore used across many industries. In the food industry alone it has a favorable smoke point and melting point which makes it great for packaged, fried, baked, and frozen foods. 85% of the palm oil industry comes from Malaysia and Indonesia and has led to major deforestation, the highest greenhouse gas emissions for Indonesia and destruction of habitats for orangutans, tigers, and rhinos.  

Palm in the Industry: In skincare, it can be manipulated into oils, foaming agents, detergents, and a great carrier for oil-based actives. Any ingredient with the prefix of “palm” in it, such as retinyl palmitate, isopropyl palmitate, ethylhexyl palmitate, etc. means it’s been sourced from palm (there are some that are sourced from other crops such as olives and coconut). In fact, even glycerin and SLS can be sourced from palm.

RSPO and Palm-free Initiative: The good thing is that awareness has drastically grown in the past years in the EU and US on the impact of sourcing palm and it turns out that Europe and the US only account for 14% of actual total palm oil consumption. While it is difficult to go entirely palm free there have been many initiatives to use sustainably sourced palm thanks to initiatives like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Chemist Thoughts: There’s still so much work to be done but the push for sustainable palm oil sourcing has drastically increased and there are more and more ingredients pushing for either palm free or sustainable palm sourcing. If you want to learn more about the palm oil used in your skincare products, our recommendation is to ask the brand.

Sunscreens and the coral reef:

Why?: Initial studies suggest that chemical sunscreen filters such as oxybenzone and octinoxate have shown to cause coral bleaching and impact coral development. It’s caused Hawaii and Florida to create laws banning the sales of SPF using these sunscreen filters from being used.

But wait: These initial studies tested these filters under extreme standards where the concentration of these filters was 10x higher than what actually occurs in sea water. But the reality is that the science is still unclear. Studies are still underway to better test these sunscreens under realistic conditions to better understand the long term effect of these sunscreens on our coral reefs.

Chemist Thoughts: Because there’s not enough data saying there is or isn’t an impact on the coral reef, this really comes down to your choice as a consumer. These filters help create some very light textures that make it favorable for users to reapply and get proper sun protection (especially for oily, acneic skin types). While we don’t agree that these filters should be banned from sunscreen entirely, we also appreciate the mindfulness and consciousness of using minerals while you’re doing any coral reef snorkeling.

Plastic Packaging

When we think of plastic pollution, we can’t help but think about the floating trash island (Great Pacific Garbage Patch) in the ocean. What makes plastic both a good and an evil is that it’s both cheap and indestructible. Thus the consumption and use of plastic far exceeds the degradation time and many countries (including a majority of first world countries) just don’t have the infrastructure to even properly recycle plastic. Additionally there’s concerns on the impact of plastic when it breaks down into fibers potentially harming aquatic life and ocean habitats.

The added issue with plastics in the cosmetic industry is that a lot of it can’t be recycled. A lot of formulas use treated plastic or plastic blends. Add this complexity to a crude, limited recycling infrastructure and it turns out a majority of products are unable to be recycled. 

Alternative Materials

  • Recycling: Ignoring recycling infrastructure for a moment, we did want to highlight Terracycle. This recycling program works with certain beauty brands (generally big players) to help recycle their product packaging. Check out their page to see which of your products can be mailed in for recycling for free.
  • Sugarcane (Bioplastics): One alternative that sounds great on paper is sourcing plastic from plants like sugarcane because plants breakdown right? Unfortunately plant based plastics used in cosmetics still have the same biodegradation time and character as non-plant plastics. Mainly because they need to be durable enough to withstand filling lines and store the formula for the duration of its shelf life. This may solve some skincare and beauty packaging needs, but not all.
  • Reusable: Big players such as Ulta are major players in driving this trend. Ulta partnered with Terracycle to send customers products they love in reusable packaging. Once customers finish, they mail their empties back to be cleaned and refilled with new formulas. This is a pretty new initiative to help reduce plastic consumption that we hope will only grow with other big retailers in the future.
  • Cartridge Refills: The idea behind this is to reduce plastic consumption except the refill replacement still comes in...plastic. The original idea was that these replacement cartridges could be exchanged or sent back to the brand for reuse except most of these brands don’t actually have this sort of program set up. This is not our favorite.
  • Post Consumer Plastic (PCR) Plastic: PCR plastic is any plastic that uses post consumer plastic resin. PCR plastic not only reduces plastic waste but is easier to process instead of virgin plastic. You’ll find brands using PCR use lingo like “this product uses _% PCR plastic)

Chemists Thoughts: We believe PCR is the way forward for the industry, however the reality is that PCR is still not affordable for most packagers and small brands. This makes it incredibly difficult for indie brands (even us) to produce affordable skincare. However, we remain hopeful as the industry is hard at work to make this process more efficient and affordable in the near future.

Closing Thoughts

You’re probably feeling like sustainability is a daunting, multi-faceted problem with many challenges and you’re right. Despite being an uphill battle with a lot more work to be done, we will say the cosmetic industry is being challenged to push forward with sustainable solutions from ingredient sourcing to end product. And we really owe that to informed, conscious consumers calling for our industry to do better. As a result, in a short period of time we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the innovation in this area to treat our planet better. While not perfect, the intention is definitely there and we believe there will be more good things to come.

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