Plant-Based Skincare: Is There a Darkside?
by Heather Smith on Feb 09, 2023
Plant-based skincare sounds lush and vibrant, full of fragrant flowers and trees. But what lies beneath the surface? Beyond the bright colours and pleasant aromas lurks an industry that can wreak havoc on our planet's natural resources, cultures, and environment.
We all want beautiful skin, but at what cost? Plant-based skincare products are popular due to their natural ingredient origin. Still, many companies aren't eco-friendly or sustainable in producing these items. It's time for us to take a closer look into this multi-billion dollar industry and ask ourselves: Are we really getting the beauty without the beast?
Consumers must become aware of what goes into making these products to make informed decisions when choosing which ones to buy. In this article, I'll discuss some of the hidden truths behind this seemingly innocent industry and explore how we can make sure our choices are genuinely beneficial for us individually and our collective future on this planet.
Benefits Of Vegan Ingredients
Not all plant-based products or nature-derived ingredients are vegan. That said, a vegan approach to cosmetics has distinct advantages (particularly for the animals).
At first glance, vegan ingredients may appear no different than their non-vegan counterparts; however, they have many benefits that make them stand out.
Emu oil is a good example. While it has skin benefits, it can be replaced with vegan alternatives with the same benefits. Emu oil is extracted from the fat tissue of the emu bird. The process typically involves rendering the fat, melting it down and removing impurities. Unfortunately, after the oil is extracted, the rest of the bird is often discarded or underutilized as there is limited market demand for it.
Another example is snail mucin, which is a secretion from snails. Several vegan alternatives can match the effects of snail mucin in skincare products, which is excellent news for the snails. These include plant-based ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and aloe vera. These ingredients can provide similar hydration and healing benefits to the skin without using animal-derived products. In addition, some plant-based alternatives may offer additional benefits, making them even more effective in improving the health of the skin.
In the U.S alone, it's estimated that nearly $4 billion was spent on vegan skin care products in 2020 – a rise of 5% from prior years! Not all vegan ingredients are plant-based, however. That's why we're focusing today on the origin of each ingredient.
Benefits of Natural Active Botanicals
There is no line drawn that divides plant-based skincare from other options. It's a misconception to say that plant-based is chemical-free. That is not true because everything is a chemical. However, the origin of plant-based ingredients starts at the level of nature.
Something like "Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride" doesn't sound natural, but it is a modified version of guar-gum, which originates from the seed of the guar bean. Guar gum is an excellent, natural thickener for plant-based skincare. When chemically modified in the lab, it can gain a positive (cationic) charge, making it an excellent thickener for hair conditioners that are plant-based, biodegradable, and non-irritating. Would it be considered natural? Probably not after the modification, but it still qualifies as a plant-derived ingredient.
Trying to keep things a bit closer to nature and unmodified, many plant-based ingredients are active in their original forms without chemical/lab modifications. For example, aloe vera extract helps cool sunburns while also providing moisture; rosewater has anti-inflammatory properties and is suitable for all skin types; chamomile extract reduces redness and puffiness around the eyes; and lavender oil is an antioxidant that promotes healing.
In addition to those mentioned above, some examples of other beneficial active botanicals include:
- Calendula flower extract
- Neem extract
- Some essential oils
TIP: When selecting a product with any of these ingredients, make sure they come from reputable sources like organic farms that don't deplete soil fertility or hinder biodiversity - this will ensure both short-term effectiveness and long-term sustainability for your skincare regimen!
The Dark Side
Behind the luxurious packaging and attractive labels, the ingredient farming industry for skincare products often has a dark side. The industry is plagued with serious ethical and environmental issues, from environmental destruction to the exploitation of workers and animals. From using harmful chemicals or pesticides in crop production to the inhumane treatment of animals for ingredient extraction.
The reality of the ingredient farming industry for skincare products is often at odds with the clean and natural image presented to consumers.
Palm Oil Farming
Palm oil farming is one of the largest industries in the world, producing a widely used ingredient in many products, including skincare. However, producing palm oil has devastating impacts on the environment.
The fruit of the palm tree grows in large clusters at the top of the tree, also known as the "heart" of the palm. To access the fruit, the entire tree must be harvested, resulting in the tree's death. This large-scale and intensive farming has contributed to significant deforestation, as vast areas of forests are cleared to make room for new palm oil plantations.
The rapid expansion of palm oil plantations has led to the destruction of rainforest and other critical habitats, threatening the survival of many plant and animal species. In addition, some pesticides and fertilizers in palm oil production pollute waterways and contribute to soil degradation.
Large-scale monoculture farming of palm trees also results in a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem balance. Moreover, the industry is often linked to labour abuses and human rights violations, as workers on palm oil plantations are often paid low wages and work in hazardous conditions.
The destruction of rainforests due to palm oil production has been devastating:
- Forests are cleared away, displacing species such as Orangutans, Sumatran Tigers, Pygmy Elephants and Sun Bears
- Biodiversity hotspots like peatlands vanish
- Carbon emissions skyrocket due to illegal activities such as forest fires set by plantation owners
Trying to be a completely palm-oil-free skincare brand is very difficult. Palm oil is used as a feedstock for innumerable cosmetic ingredients. There are several organizations dedicated to monitoring and promoting sustainable palm oil production. One of the most prominent is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international, multi-stakeholder organization. The RSPO was established in 2004 to promote the sustainable production of palm oil by working with stakeholders from across the supply chain, including growers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, and environmental and social advocacy groups. The RSPO sets standards for sustainable palm oil production and provides certification to producers who meet these standards. The RSPO's certification process covers environmental and social impacts, including deforestation, biodiversity, and workers' rights. By providing a platform for collaboration and promoting best practices, the RSPO is working towards a more sustainable future for the palm oil industry
We already know about the devastating effects palm oil farming can have on rainforests, wildlife and people's livelihoods. By choosing certain types of plant-based skincare, we could be contributing to another type of environmental harm: biodiversity loss. Some ingredients are derived from rare or endangered species; they may even come from critically endangered habitats, like coral reefs. This means not only do these precious ecosystems suffer, but also those who rely on them for their survival.
There's nothing more heartbreaking than seeing an entire habitat wiped away due to irresponsible harvesting practices – all in the pursuit of beauty and consumerism. Thankfully there are ways around this issue. We can choose brands that ensure sustainable sourcing, check labels carefully, and make sure any product containing marine ingredients is also certified eco-friendly.
Changing Culture and Traditional Farming Methods
When some new "superfood ingredients" takes the world by storm, the market forces pressure the agricultural industry to start producing the ingredient at large scale. The consequences can devastate small-scale farmers and local communities who have been growing and harvesting plants for centuries. Introducing new farming techniques and technology has disrupted their way of life, resulting in reduced access to land, resources, income and even cultural identity. In some cases, it also leads to displacement as these groups move away from their ancestral lands in search of different opportunities.
This all adds up to an unsettling picture where people's livelihoods – so often intertwined with their cultures - become threatened by a specific industry. We must take action now to ensure that we're not damaging those same rights while seeking natural beauty solutions.
Much of this has to do with rampant consumerism and the culture of viral trends in North American Society. Occasionally it has benefits (like acai and cocoa discussed below), but more often than not, the need to have the "next big thing" gets satisfied before anyone considers the downstream consequences.
Rainforest deforestation has been linked in many cases to the need for more land to grow ingredients. In addition, these practices often disrupt traditional agricultural practices, which have been going on for centuries. To make matters worse, this activity affects animal habitats leading to species extinction or endangerment.
The effects of rainforest deforestation are devastating and heartbreaking - here are just three:
1) valuable carbon dioxide sinks are destroyed
2) water cycling patterns change
3) soil erosion leads to the desertification of large areas.
Environmental exploitation helps nobody.
If the rainforest gets smaller and smaller, the effects of climate change are amplified globally. We must take action by being conscious Consumers who choose brands with sustainability at their core. We must also deeply examine our own shopping patterns and behaviors and learn to take a slower approach to beauty.
Cultural appropriation occurs when someone adopts elements of another culture without permission or understanding their true meaning – often using them as fashion statements while disregarding any potential harm they may cause.
In the context of plant-based skincare, this could involve a company claiming traditional beauty practices or ingredients used by Indigenous communities without proper respect or acknowledgement. It can also occur through insensitivity or ignorance:
- Not doing enough research on ingredients before sourcing them.
- Taking advantage of cheaper labour overseas without considering ethical implications.
- Promoting products with names which have no connection to the product's origin.
This kind of behaviour has serious consequences, causing financial losses due to intellectual property theft, erasing historical contributions from minority groups who lack mainstream recognition and putting people at risk by misrepresenting the properties of certain plants and herbs used in skincare recipes.
As consumers become more aware of where their products come from and how sustainable production methods are being practiced, companies should practice transparency to ensure their customers feel confident about purchasing their products, knowing there were no risks taken along the way.
Is There Any Good News?
Of course. The beauty industry isn't all bad and there are plenty of opportunities for sustainability.
Much good can come from practices that are grounded in ethics. It can become overwhelming for consumers if the only focus is on the bad side of cosmetics industry. There are plenty of changes that consumers can make, even if small there is still impact.
Just because palm oil farming can be harmful, it doesn't have to be. The key is knowing where the controversies exist and being educated enough to push brands to remain transparent.
Eco-friendly skincare is a multi-sided relationship between consumers, brands, manufacturers, and farmers.
Benefit: Beauty Ingredient Farming That Can Reforest The Amazon
By investing in farmers who specialize in cultivating nutrient-rich plants like aloe vera and jojoba oil, companies can promote sustainable agriculture practices while helping communities reforest areas of the Amazon Rainforest. This type of eco-friendly sourcing not only benefits local economies but has been proven to reduce carbon emissions as well significantly.
The Amazon rainforest has a vast array of plant species. Still, specific ones being used for reforestation efforts include native species such as acai palm, Brazil nut, cacao, and sacha inchi.
Regarding their relationship to skincare ingredient farming, acai berries and Brazil nuts are both known for their high levels of antioxidants and essential fatty acids, making them popular ingredients in various skincare and cosmetic products. In addition, cacao is used in many skincare products for its rich source of antioxidants, as well as for its potential to hydrate and nourish the skin.
The beauty industry needs more than just ethical business models; it also needs conscious consumers. As patrons of luxury wellness brands, we can all make better decisions when shopping by choosing options that prioritize regenerative farming over mass production.
We should demand transparency from suppliers and manufacturers about their sustainability initiatives and be sure they are taking steps to ensure that no cultures or environments are being exploited along the way.
Any sort of mass production will always have impact. The key is to make sure the impact is as positive as possible.
Benefit: Local Economic Growth
Just as booming ingredient popularity can be harmful, so too can it help. When done responsibly, encouraging agroforestry and supporting local communities and the farming industry can have economic growth advantages for developing nations. This, of course, needs to be from a non-exploitative standpoint.
The production of natural beauty ingredients provides jobs for locals and helps support their communities. It also encourages people to use resources responsibly, preserving them and making them more available for future generations. Additionally, when money circulates within a localized economy, it positively affects economic growth; this means that both individuals and businesses benefit from plant-based skincare products made with local ingredients.
The use of plant-based skincare offers many long-term benefits. However, it's important to take the time to research where these products are sourced from in order to guarantee that they have been ethically produced. Fortunately, there are now more options available at various price points - meaning everyone can find something suitable within their budget.
All brands, not just sustainable skincare brands, have an ethical responsibility to be transparent about their supply chains and ingredient choices. While certification programs exist that can be helpful, ultimately, shoppers need to know where the controversies exist so they can find brands that match their personal ethos.
As an advocate for plant-based skincare, I'm delighted by how far this industry has come in recent years; sustainable solutions are now within reach for us all. Let's continue to strive towards creating a healthier environment both inside and outside of our homes – one green step at a time!