Environmental Impact of Natural Cosmetics
A few months ago, I started taking serious steps toward my goal of making natural soaps. Part of the fun, for me, was the idea of creating my own formulas and recipes. Using organic or "natural" ingredients was not enough. I wanted the soaps and products I made to be vegan, natural, and sustainable without taking any shortcuts.
It was difficult to find truly natural raw ingredients that met all of my ethical requirements. In fact, some of the information I have found is so alarming that I am not sure if I am going to pursue soap-making at all... at least in the traditional sense I imagined.
The natural cosmetic industry is growing faster than our natural resources can keep up. As society becomes more aware of the carcinogenic chemicals in synthetic detergents, the global organic beauty market is expected to reach $22 billion by the year 2024; growing at an average rate of 8-10% a year.
A large majority of the raw ingredients used in natural cosmetics are sourced from the same tropical regions of the world, which puts an immense strain on comparatively small habitats. The cosmetic supply chain is a complex and disorienting one to navigate, but we must try in an effort to save our natural resources.
- This is not an exhaustive list. At this time, I have only researched some of the most popular ingredients used in vegan formulations. I will try to continue updating this list as more information becomes available.
- I promise I am not trying to fear monger or discourage the use of natural products. My goal is to illustrate the facts as they are from a mostly objective point of view, so we can all do whatever we can to take corrective actions. If you spend any amount of time shopping natural ingredients, you already know how rampant greenwashing is in the industry. The narrative of what is considered "safe" or "sustainable" changes from retailer to retailer.
Hard oils are solid at room temperature and are widely used in food and cosmetic industries. Hard oils play an even bigger role in vegan formulations, as they are used to replace animal fats in traditional soap recipes.
Palm Oil (Elaeis guineensis)
Palm oil is perhaps the most widely used oil in the world as it is a key ingredient in food products, cosmetics, fuels, and cleaners. The issues that surround palm oil are fairly well-known at this point, but conditions continue to deteriorate.
Palm oil primarily comes from Elaeis guineensis, which is cultivated in the tropical forests of Indonesia and Africa. The expansion required to meet the global demand for the oil is decimating the natural habitat of many native species, such as the orangutan, Asian elephant, and the Sumatran Rhinoceros and Tiger. In the last 20 years, over 90% of the habitat has been destroyed. Threatened species play incredibly vital roles in the local ecosystem, such as the spreading of seeds that only be germinated when passed through the gut of an orangutan. The tension has also given rise to aggressive and devastating animal cruelty. To make matters worse, the burning that is required to remove native vegetation releases immense quantities of smoke, making Indonesia one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world.
The situation is critical. Many small cosmetic producers have been hard at work reworking formulas with substitutes for palm oil. It was not until I became aware of the problem that I noticed just how many things contain the oil. Many suppliers are masking the use of palm oil by blending it with other oils and calling it "hydrogenated vegetable oil". When asked specifically what vegetable oil is used, the answer is: "That's proprietary information." That's unacceptable.
Coconut Oil (Cocos nucifera)
Coconut oil is the go-to substitute for palm oil, but I'm sad to say the outlook is worrisome for coconuts, as well. Coconuts provide us with so many wonderful products, such as water, milk, meat, coco noir, and oils. The top coconut-producing countries (Indonesia, Phillippines, and India) seem to be doing okay right now, but there has been a lethal yellowing bacteria killing off coconut plantations in the Caribbean. Conservation is difficult because coconut seeds do not lend themselves to long term storage in seed banks. Biodiversity of the crop will be a major issue if these diseases continue to spread. Despite the global demand for coconuts, many local farmers are still unorganized and very little money is being spent on research to save the coconut.
Carrier oils are mild vegetable oils that are used as bases in all cosmetic formulations. Carrier oils are used for cooking and diluting essential oils, and are well known for their moisturizing or drying abilities. Carrier oils are made from the fatty portion of plants, which is most commonly a seed. The good news is that there are lots of sustainable carrier oils to choose from. The only one on my radar at the moment (from a cosmetic standpoint) is soybean oil.
Soybean Oil (Glycine max)
In theory, soybean oil should be the answer to a lot of issues that affect threatened crops around the world. In practice, however, soybeans are quite the troublemakers. The USA is the second-largest producer of soybeans, second only to Brazil. According to the USDA, 90% of the soybeans grown in the USA are genetically engineered (GMOs) to withstand powerful herbicides. Subsequent studies of the genetically modified soybeans contained residues of herbicides. The use of GMOs in agriculture presents a myriad of problems, including soil erosion; contamination of water systems, soil, and organic crops being grown nearby.
Expansion of soybean production also contributes to deforestation (aka burning) of tropical rain forests, which adds to global greenhouse emissions. The lucrative crop has also led to the exploitation of farmers in Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Small communities and farms are being pushed off the land to make room for large commercial operations.
Seed butters are very similar to hard oils in that they are mostly solid at room temperature and have a spreadable consistency. Butters are used to add moisturizing qualities to soaps, lotions, lip balms, and much more! I'm sad to say that the most popular butters on the market have some serious environmental concerns that need to be addressed.
Cocoa Butter (Theobroma cacao)
There seems to be an outcry regarding some of the injustices that affect the chocolate trade, but very little is said about cocoa butter, although both products come from the same tree. Loss of habitat threatens many species native to the areas where cocoa is grown. Several journalists in recent years have also exposed rampant use of child and slave labor on cocoa farms. (In 2004, a reporter was killed for reporting on working conditions within the cocoa industry.) Climate change is also a looming threat that has been affecting yields, plant health, and pollination rates.
Theobroma cacao is native to Mexico, but has been introduced in several other countries with similar climates: Indonesia, the Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru. At the moment, Africa appears to be the largest producer and exporter of raw cocoa. The cocoa butter supply chain is a convoluted one to follow. I would assume that Africa is the largest exporter of the cocoa butter used in cosmetics; however, the Netherlands and other European countries that do not actually grow the crop have the largest cocoa butter exports. It can be reasonably concluded that the cacao beans do a lot of traveling to complete the manufacturing and distribution cycle.
Mango Butter (Mangifera indica)
Of all the butters I investigated, mango butter appears to be the most stable and sustainable product at the moment. Mangoes have been affected by climate change, but the mango industry has been very proactive about protecting the crop and its future. There are several species of wild mangoes that are threatened or have gone extinct, but the exact cause of those extinctions is not immediately clear. Mangoes are predominately produced in India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, and Mexico.
Shea Butter (Vitellaria paradoxa)
Shea butter is produced in Africa from the nuts of the tree Vitellaria paradoxa, as well as the less common Vitellaria Nilotica. Shea trees are slow to mature, taking 40-50 years to produce the nuts used to make shea butter. These Vitellaria species are currently threatened due to over-exploitation for timber, firewood, and charcoal, as well as expansion due to population pressure.
Kokum Butter (Garcinia indica)
Kokum butter is produced from the seeds of the Garcinia indica tree, which is native to India. According to the IUCN Red List, the species is considered vulnerable due to habitat loss and unsustainable collection of fruits and seeds. It has been reported that the population of the species is dangerously low, and the problem is further exacerbated by the fact that seeds fail to produce seedlings due to various biological and environmental factors.
Illipe Butter (Shorea stenoptera)
Illipe butter is produced from the tree nut of Shorea stenoptera, which is native to Southern Asia, notably Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo. It is currently listed as "Endangered" on IUCN Red List due to habitat loss, but very little information is available as to why this is occurring.
Sal Butter (Shorea robusta)
Sal butter is produced in India from the seeds of Shorea robusta. It has significant populations in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Shorea robusta does not appear to be having the same issues that other popular commercial crops are having in this category, so it may be a great alternative to consider in vegan formulations.
Beeswax (Cera alba)
I know beeswax (and honey) is not considered vegan, but I have seen it in cosmetics that are advertised as vegan so I thought it should be included here. As a general rule of thumb, it's pretty safe to assume that any living population that generates a product humans want will suffer from cruelty and exploitation. I'm sad to say bees are not exempt from the cruelty of industrialization. Bees are vital to the global ecosystem and their numbers have been dwindling in tandem with the increasing popularity of natural products. Scientists are scratching their heads wondering what is going on with bees, but if opinions count for anything, I think the answer is exploitation for honey and wax.
Carnauba Wax (Copernicia prunifera or Copernicia cerifera)
I always assumed Carnauba wax came from the same plant that palm oil does (Elaeis guineensis), but I was incorrect about this. Research is insufficient, so I cannot verify the current status of social and environmental sustainability. Since carnauba wax is a highly valuable product and since it is primarily produced in one region of the world known to have other agricultural conflicts (Brazil), I am still wary of it.
Soy Wax (Hydrogenated Soybean Oil)
See Soybean Oil in Carrier Oils section.
Candelilla Wax (Euphorbia cerifera and Euphorbia antisyphilitica)
Candelilla wax is produced from two different species of evergreen shrubs in Mexico and the southern United States. The shrub is sensitive to climate changes and weather, but appears to be sustainable at the moment. It may be a good stand-in for beeswax and soy wax until better options become available.
Essential oils are all the rage these days, and for a good reason. Oils are extracted from plants around the world for their aromatic and therapeutic qualities. Essential oils are used in perfumes, aromatherapy, soaps, candles, and a variety of natural cosmetics. Oil is extracted from plant material by steam distillation or expression, and (in lower quality oils) chemical solvents.
Most of the plants that are used for their essential oils are renewable and, by all appearances, sustainable. The ethical concern I have is that the production of essential oil is an incredibly resource-intensive process. So much plant material is required to produce a few milliliters of oil that over-consumption of the oils seems wasteful to me. Consider the amount of land, resources, and emissions required to grow and produce prized essential oils.
Essential oils are amazing, but I wonder if it would better to use them sparingly in highly consumable products like soap or candles. The amount of oil required to scent one batch of soap is significant, especially if the oil used is heat-sensitive. In situations like that, a significant amount of oil (and its therapeutic qualities) is essentially vaporized in the process.
Some ideas to create more sustainable products using essential oils include:
- Lowering or eliminating the amount of essential oils used in products that are highly consumable or have short shelf lives.
- Consider using oil infusions or tinctures wherever appropriate. The smell or therapeutic qualities will not be as strong, but is a strong scent really necessary for a bar of soap that will only last a week? Why not reserve the more potent essential oils for perfumes, aromatherapy, and oil-based cosmetics that can be enjoyed for a longer length of time and do not require as much oil?
- Only order volumes of essential oil that you can use within the oil's shelf life to prevent waste from rancidity.
- Consider using oils that are not as destructive or resource-intensive. Resource-intensive examples include oils made from sap or bark, oils derived from tropical plants in areas where deforestation is a major threat, as well as plants that have low yields requiring a lot more plant material to produce.
Essential Oil Yields of Popular Plants
Pounds of Raw Material (lb)
Essential Oil Yield (mL)
Did you know some types of sugar, including brown sugar and confectioners' sugar, are processed with animal bone char? The animal bones used are purchased from several countries in the Middle East and sold directly to sugar manufacturers in the U.S. Bones are purchased from overseas because the FDA prohibits the use of animal bones from the U.S. meat industry. The imported bones are supposed to be from animals that died of natural causes, but no one is currently monitoring that. So much is wrong with this scenario that it would be worth it to source vegan sugars on the market, which are primarily derived from beets.
I hate to put corn starch on this list because it is a handy ingredient to have in the kitchen for a variety of uses. In natural cosmetics, it is used as a thickening or absorption agent. The problem with cornstarch is that it is made from corn, which shares the same bad reputation as soybeans. Most, to the tune of 93%, of the corn produced in the USA since 1996 has been genetically modified or contaminated by GMO pollen drift. Consider trying to source certified non-GMO cornstarch (if it exists) or consider trying alternative products such as arrowroot powder, tapioca starch, or potato starch.
I didn't learn this until recently, but lots of powders on the market (i.e. coconut milk powder) are made with casein, a derivative of animal milk. The good news is that there are companies out there that do specialize in vegan powders and are very transparent about additives in products.
The cosmetic and personal care industry is very much in the Dark Ages when it comes to sustainable packaging. In 2008, nearly 121 billion units of cosmetic packaging entered the waste stream. In toothbrushes alone, nearly 23,000 TONS enter the waste stream every year, and there would be even more if people changed toothbrushes as often as recommended. Containers used in cosmetics are notoriously hard to recycle due to type of plastics used, as well as the oily residues that remain after use. Greenwashing (making products appear more environmentally friendly than they are) is rampant in the packaging industry, which misleads consumers that are genuinely trying to make greener decisions.
I recently discovered biodegradable chipboard tubes, lip balm containers, and jars that I thought were the answer to everything (even if they would likely leak in warmer climates). Further research indicated that the labels used on the jars would not be wise to include in compost piles. Papers are plasticized, inks and toners contain chemicals you wouldn't want in compost, and the adhesives used are not environmentally friendly. Low tack labels and green label companies exist, but we still have a long way to go to make a dent in the amount of cosmetic waste filling landfills every day.
Where Do We Go from Here?
If you spend any time thinking about the political, cultural, and environmental climate of the modern world; it's easy to fall into a state of anger or despair. The problems that exist are so complex, how would we even begin to start correcting them? Try to remember that hope is not lost and that there is always something we can do.
- Find and support organizations or individuals that are actively trying to alleviate some of the problems that plague areas of conflict. An example might be a sustainable farmer's coop or education facility, an animal sanctuary, or an organization that specifically targets poachers and illegal agricultural activities. Support can come in many forms, from charitable donations to legitimate organizations, to getting the word out on social media and news outlets.
- Be informed. If you make, sell, or buy natural products, take the time to really investigate not only the supply chain of those products, but the origin of the ingredients in them as well. Hold suppliers accountable and demand transparency. Communicate with local lawmakers and regulatory bodies in support of regulatory groups such as the EPA or FDA, which are in danger of being completely dismantled in today's political climate. I'm not a super fan of regulations or red tape, but the stakes are high when it comes to public health and environmental conservation.
- Join the conversation. There are many social and environmental citizen science groups that you can join to participate in advancement. We need to be working together to find alternative sources for fatty oils that can be produced in more temperate environments.
- Democratize research. Many of the questions I have go unanswered because I do not have access to the research that has already been done. Many scientific papers are locked behind paywalls that I am not even eligible to join because I am not affiliated with any university. We need something like Wikileaks, but for scientific research!
- There are lots of raw ingredients for cosmetics that can be made at home. If you are unable to find ethical or sustainable sources for some ingredients, why not consider making them yourself? I personally recommend for learning how to make your own essential oils. The book includes instructions for making a still, as well as different extraction methods. And for vegetable carrier oils, there are several oil presses on the market that are affordable for small scale producers. The Essential Oil Maker's Handbook
- There are many great products on the market today that could be fantastic substitutes for some of the hard oils that are so destructive to the environment. A good example would be hemp butter or green tea butter. The problem with those products, however, is that they have to be mixed with another hydrogenated vegetable oil to get the right consistency. The unnamed "vegetable oil" is almost always soy or palm, or a combination of the two. It would be great to mix those products with a more sustainable oil instead.
- If entrepreneurship within the cosmetic industry is your goal, why not consider investing in products and services that are in desperate need of innovation, such as sustainable packaging, better formulas, or social enterprise?
- Tool: The Skin Deep database is an amazing tool for researching the ingredients in popular brands of cosmetics and cleaners on the market today.
Questions & Answers
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