Cosmetic Chemicals and Toxic Beauty Pollution

Feb 5, 2022by Heather Smith

Despite being a clean beauty brand, we are critical of how some cosmetic chemicals are marketed. Toxic and non-toxic are classifications some people believe are black and white. That couldn't be farther from the truth. This is especially true when it comes to beauty products and plastic waste.

Within the world of clean beauty, there is much emphasis placed on the safety of cosmetic chemicals for the people using them. The focus is on potential toxicity to the person based on a belief that the chemicals are absorbed or ingested. Things like endocrine disruption and the harmful effects of chemicals in cosmetics on human health are important to study. However, we need a broader focus on the environmental issues in beauty industry once they pollute the natural environment. 

The critical problem is that they don't just simply wash away down the drain and disappear.  

Beauty Industry Pollution

The relationship between the beauty industry and the environment is complex.

The accumulating adverse effects on ecosystems are caused mainly by waste from human activity. Pollution is produced from every aspect of life that requires energy. The farming of ingredients and production of cosmetics result in emissions and air pollutants. Certain processes have a better or worse carbon footprint, but emissions are released with them all.

Many bioactive substances are used in cosmetics. These include preservatives, fragrances, pigments, antiseptics, polymers, and light blockers. Think about the cosmetics and personal care products you use - nail polish, hair dyes, hairspray, glitter - they all contain plastic that sticks around forever. In fact, 9/10 products on the market contain some number of environmentally persistent chemicals.

Once thrown into the trash or washed away, these chemicals end up in treatment plants, landfills, or the natural environment. Unfortunately, no chemical processing occurs. As a result, these cosmetics toxic chemicals persist. Many of them are not biodegradable, so they remain for hundreds of years.

They may be invisible, but they're still there. 

Environmentally persistent cosmetic chemicals are grouped with drugs under the common term: Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCP), a class of persistent environmental contaminants. There is no requirement to identify these or other volatile organic compounds (VOCS) on product labels.

Biosynthesis is the process of "manufacturing" skincare ingredients using bacteria and yeast. Many of these ingredients could be produced in a lab environment using chemical reactions. However, biofermentation can be a more sustainable, renewable way of making some of these ingredients instead. 


Microplastics in beauty products are of significant concern because they do not biodegrade.

Microplastics are potentially the most common cause of beauty industry pollution, originating from plastic packaging. Polyethylene, the most frequently used skincare packaging material, is responsible for most water, soil, and air microplastic contamination.

Most people think of plastic pollution as visible – water bottles and shopping bags floating in the ocean.

Micro and nano plastics persist in the environment, possibly forever. As they get smaller, they increase their ability to disperse. They are small enough to make it into dust and cross cell membranes into tissues, including the placenta. This means we are eating, drinking, and breathing microscopic particles of plastic. 

Determining the actual impact on human, animal, fetal, and ecological health is impossible because these plastics are literally everywhere. There's no way to control exposure to perform proper studies.

The demand for plastic-free, genuinely biodegradable products has increased with increasing consumer awareness of harmful chemicals in cosmetics and beauty industry pollution. The Sustainable Beauty Coalition debuted at Glasgow's COP26, with the question "How can we make greener beauty choices?" and its Planet Positive Beauty Guide

Liquid Microplastic As Cosmetic Ingredients

These polymers play an essential role in the overall cosmetic industry pollution footprint. 

Acrylate copolymers

Acrylate copolymers are used to deliver active ingredients, or as a binder, hair fixative, or thickening/gelling agent. They are used in colour cosmetics, sun, skin, hair care products, shaving creams, and moisturizers. 


Often called synthetic wax, polyethylene is a plastic polymer available as powder, flakes, or granules. PE improves the hardness of cosmetic oils. It is also widely used in stick formulations, lip balms, hot pour foundations, fixative sprays, and abrasive PE microbeads for their exfoliating properties.

Thankfully microbeads have mostly been banned, but the ingredient is still microplastic, even if it's not in bead form. 


Carbomers are thickening and emulsifying agents helping to control the viscosity of cosmetics and skincare products. Carbomers are large molecules that do not penetrate the skin barrier. Thanks to their water absorption and retention properties, they can increase in volume up to 1000x times. They are used in gels such as styling gel, sunscreen, anti-aging treatment, eye cream, cleanser, and scrubs.

Toxicity of these substances is a global health issue. Using a lip balm with carbomer doesn't make it automatically toxic. However, a lifetime of buildup of microplastics in your body isn't healthy. Nor is the fact that these chemicals build up in the food chain, which makes human exposure amplify over time. 

When designing a skincare product , synthetic polymers can be replaced by natural polysaccharides. However, finding natural ingredients with the same performance, texture, skin feel, and mechanical properties is difficult. The natural replacements for something like acrylic or carbomer are more expensive. This means it is harder to create a luxurious feeling serum or cream that doesn't pill or feel sticky.

Beauty Industry Environmental Impact

The first reports about the environmental presence of plastics and compounds derived from the PPCP group appeared in the 1970s. Since then, the occurrence of these pollutants has been confirmed worldwide in all waterways: wastewater, surface, groundwater, and marine water. They're also detected in natural sediments, agricultural soil, and even the polar ice caps.

Liquid and solid microplastics are measurable in drinking water and tissues of plants and animals.

Though the exact severity of health risk is almost impossible to predict, assuming they're inert and benign bystanders would be a mistake. Research suggests chronic and acute adverse effects of plastic pollutants on microorganisms, algae, plants, fungi, and animals, including people. 

Is Silicone Toxic?

An excellent example of how confusing this can be is silicone/siloxanes in cosmetics. Silicones are used extensively in skin and hair care. They aren't toxic chemicals that should be avoided at all costs, but they do have an ecological impact.

An ingredient added to lotions for spreadability and hydration is polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). It is toxic to barnacle larvae. Polysiloxanes are also used in sunscreens. In combination with UV-shielding oxybenzone, it becomes more potent. This suggests the mix of sunscreen ingredient list poses a greater risk to marine life, such as coral reefs, than individual components. The Blue Beauty movement is focused on marine safety. 

The results of current studies provide an opportunity to look for environmentally friendly alternatives in commercially available cosmetic formulations.

We don't think silicone ingredients are specifically harmful or toxic to humans as used in cosmetics. Still, there is evidence of ecological impact, and they persist in the environment once we wash them off our faces. 

How to Dispose of Products with Microbeads?

An estimated 4360 tonnes of microplastic beads were used in 2012 in Europe, with polyethylene beads representing 93% of the total amount equaling 4037 tonnes. 

Think of exactly how many microbeads you need to equal 4037 tonnes!

Thankfully, products with these beads have been mostly banned. However, many of us still have them sitting around in our cosmetics graveyards. So how can you get rid of them safely?

Start by calling the manufacturer to find out if they will accept returns, some do. The next best thing is to throw the product in the trash to prevent the beads from entering the water environment. You can use the remaining cleanser itself by straining it through a paper filter to separate the beads. Finally, there are many substitutes such as, bamboo stem, oats, sugar, and jojoba seeds already on the market.

Skincare Containers

A priority needs to be increasing the availability of genuinely biodegradable or compostable packaging materials. Switching to recyclable packaging that does not rely on the petroleum industry is a good first step - glass, paper, cardboard, steel, and aluminum. Plastic packaging has to go! Recycling plastic is a decent option, but it's not enough.

Biodegradable polymer substitutes for traditional plastic are developing. Several bio-based and biodegradable polymers such as polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), and polysaccharides are available.

In the next 5 years, we hope to see more plastic alternatives and anti-plastic activism that are not just greenwashing. Cooperation among researchers and industries will drive the cosmetic sector toward being more ecological and contributing to saving our environment.

We believe that skincare refill options are an important factor in improving the overall sustainability profile of packaging. While not a perfect solution, if it became pervasive throughout the beauty industry, the impact would be measurable. 




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About the Author

Dr. Heather Smith developed her love for skinimalism and clean beauty years ago when she began making home remedies for her newborn's eczema. She is an expert in natural ingredients and active botanicals and has now launched bareLUXE Skincare - a full line of effective oil serums. She dedicates this blog to consumers who are researching ingredients and working to make their beauty ritual more natural and sustainable.


This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Smith nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content should consult their physicians about their skincare concerns and routines.