Plastic Beauty: Beauty and Plastic Pollution

Plastic is forever. You can recycle plastic into new plastic, but it will never biodegrade. Plastic can break down into smaller pieces of plastic (microplastics), but it still exists. We could potentially reduce the need to produce plastic by recycling, but only 9% of plastic is recycled (Geyer et al.).

To explain just how harmful plastic is would take a book. In fact, books have been written. In short, plastics have health and environmental consequences.

What is Plastic?

Plastic is a man-made material that can be molded into just about any size or shape.  And its cheap (Association of Plastics Manufacturers). Leo H. Baekeland invented the first plastic, Bakelite, in 1907. Other forms of plastic soon followed (Woloson). Plastic went on to invade nearly every aspect of life. We brush our teeth with plastic toothbrushes. We wear clothing made of plastic (polyester, acrylic, etc.). We even store our food in plastic and drive cars made with plastic.

How Does the Beauty Industry Use Plastic?

Most of the plastic we see in beauty is in the packaging. In 2018 the beauty and personal care industry created 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic just for the United States (“Beauty Waste”). As I mentioned above, only 9% of plastic is recycled. The remaining 91% is burned, sent to landfills, or ends up in the wild (Geyer et al.).

I said most of the plastic we see is in packaging. That’s just what we can see.  Many products include plastic ingredients. These tiny plastics are known as microplastics. Microplastics are smaller than 5 mm and are often smaller than that. Microplastics are used in moisturizers, deodorants, makeup, and many other products we use daily (UNEP 1). There are actually more than 500 microplastic ingredients found in beauty products (“Guide”).

Examples of microplastics used in beauty (UNEP 13):

  • Nylon-12 (polyamide 12)
  • Polyethylene
  • Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon)
  • Polyacrylate
  • Acrylates copolymer
  • Allyl stearate/vinyl acetate copolymers
  • ethylene/acrylate copolymer

What’s Wrong with Plastic?

Plastic doesn’t just surround us. It is in us. Bisphenol A (BPA), an estrogen mimic, has been found in human blood, tissues, urine, amniotic fluid and milk (Halden 181-182). Microplastics are in the food we eat, water we drink and the air we breathe (Karbalaei et al.).

The environmental costs are even more devastating. An article published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences states “Over 260 species, including invertebrates, turtles, fish, seabirds and mammals, have been reported to ingest or become entangled in plastic debris, resulting in impaired movement and feeding, reduced reproductive output, lacerations, ulcers and death” (Thompson et al.). Microplastics cause reproductive disruptions, interfere with feeding, and have other harmful effects on marine life (UNEP 20).

What Is the Beauty Industry Doing to Get Better?

As a whole, the beauty industry is slow to change. However, there are segments that are heeding the warning signs and looking for ways to reduce or eliminate plastic. In my post “3 Plastic-Free Beauty Buys for Plastic Free July” I discussed 3 beauty products that are plastic-free and 3 more that are low-plastic. Lush Cosmetics goes even further. Not only do they make plastic pots and bottles from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic, but Lush also partnered with Ocean Legacy to recycle plastic collected from the ocean (“Our Values”).

Refillable beauty is another trend to watch. Refilling products decreases waste in general by reusing the packaging. The list of brands offering refillable products is small but growing.  From what I can tell, every Kjaer Weiss makeup and skincare product is refillable. L’Occitane en Provence offers refillable skin and body care.

Many brands have also banned microplastics from their ingredient lists. Beat the Mircobead has a webpage where you can search by product or brand. Or download their app and scan any ingredient list to check for microplastics. Just be aware that you are likely to get some unpleasant surprises about some products you are using.

What Can I Do?

When you can, buy plastic free. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. During my journey towards an eco-friendly beauty routine, I’ve discovered that the beauty industry frequently uses plastic that is not recyclable. Unfortunately, I often don’t realize this until I have already purchased something.  Fortunately, many brands provide information about recycling on their website. To find out if a brand uses recyclable packaging, use your favorite search engine to search the brand’s name and “recycle” or “sustainability.” If a brand does not provide information, I assume it can’t be recycled.

How to Recycle

You first need to find out what options you have. Many cities offer recycling programs. This is often easiest for those who live in houses and single-family residences where recycling is collected by the city. Apartment dwellers can also recycle but must drop-off their recycling at a recycling center. You will also need to find out what is accepted. For example, some cities don’t accept plastic grocery bags (“Recycling”).

Many retailers also accept materials for recycling. Take 5 empty Lush Cosmetics black pots back to the store and exchange them for a free face mask (“Our Values”). Other brands have partnered with companies like TerraCycle to collect recycling. For example, ILIA Beauty will provide a pre-paid shipping label so that you can send in theirs and other brands empties. Complete this form for your free pre-paid shipping label.

No matter where you send your empties for recycling, you must prepare them first. Pumps and droppers need to be removed. Pumps often contain multiple materials and the rubber top of droppers can’t be recycled. You should also rinse out any product that is still clinging to the sides (Cruel). Or better yet, get a tiny silicone spatula and scrape out every last drop.

I reduced the plastic in my beauty habits, but I haven’t been able to remove it entirely. Ending our plastic dependence involves many entities including beauty companies, governing bodies, grassroot efforts, and us. As consumers, our buying power is our greatest tool. By supporting companies that have reduced their use of plastic we communicate our own priorities. We still have a long way to go, but the beauty industry is listening to our concerns and responding.

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Works Cited

Association of Plastics Manufacturers. “What are Plastics?” n.d., https://www.plasticseurope.org/en/about-plastics/what-are-plastics.

“Beauty Waste Is Taking a Toll on Mother Earth.” Waste360, 2020, https://www.waste360.com/waste/beauty-waste-taking-toll-mother-earth.

Cruel, Jessica. “10 Things You Need to Know about Recycling Your Beauty Products.” SELF, 7 July 2018, https://www.self.com/story/how-to-recycle-beauty-products.

Geyer, Roland, et al. “Production, use, and Fate of all Plastics Ever Made.” Science Advances, vol. 3, no. 7, 2017, pp. e1700782, https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782.full, doi:10.1126/sciadv.1700782.

“Guide to Microplastics.” Beat the Microbead, n.d., https://www.beatthemicrobead.org/guide-to-microplastics/.

Halden, Rolf U. “Plastics and Health Risks.” Annual Review of Public Health, vol. 31, no. 1, 2010, pp. 179-194, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.publhealth.012809.103714, doi:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.012809.103714.

Karbalaei, Samaneh, et al. “Occurrence, Sources, Human Health Impacts and Mitigation of Microplastic Pollution.” Environmental Science & Pollution Research, vol. 25, no. 36, 2018, pp. 36046-36063, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328276166_Occurrence_sources_human_health_impacts_and_mitigation_of_microplastic_pollution/link/5bd31da84585150b2b88b8e0/download, doi:10.1007/s11356-018-3508-7.

“Our Values: Naked.” Lush Cosmetics., n.d., https://www.lushusa.com/stories/article_our-values-naked.html.

“Recycling Plastics.” EcoCycle, n.d., https://www.ecocycle.org/plastics-recycling.

Thompson, Richard C., et al. “Plastics, the Environment and Human Health: Current Consensus and Future Trends.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 364, no. 1526, 2009, pp. 2153-2166, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873021/, doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0053.

UNEP. Plastic in Cosmetics: Are we Polluting the Environment through our Personal Care? , 2015.

Woloson, Wendy. “Plastic.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Edited by Thomas Riggs. vol. 4, St. James Press, Detroit, MI, 2013.

3 thoughts on “Plastic Beauty: Beauty and Plastic Pollution

  1. It’s a HUGE pity that we even started making plastic in the first place. Sure, it’s helped us out a whole lot, but it’s caused a lot more problems (especially future ones) than it has solved. Obviously, we can’t go back on the past, so really all we can do is help clean up. In all of your posts, you do a great job in showing how to clean up the environment, from little things to small. Thank you for helping save the Earth. We can’t do it without people like you, who advise and write about the world of plastic we live in.

    1. Thank you for joining the conversation! I truly believe that each of us can make a difference. When we discuss sustainable beauty in public forums we are letting the beauty industry know how they must change if they want our dollars.

      1. I totally agree. And not just in beauty, but in everything! Once people start cleaning up the environment, others will follow, and hopefully that’ll end in a clean Earth for us all.

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