The ugly side to beauty products: how personal hygiene items can harm the environment

According to Balasa, ingredients such as formaldehyde and preservatives are present in everyday, drugstore foundations.

Column Editor

Glancing down the makeup and hygiene aisles of any local drug store, thousands of products promise consumers beauty and cleanliness. But a quick read of the ingredients used to make these products reveals the ugly secrets behind countless makeup and hygiene products: many contain formaldehyde, are tested on animals and contain other toxins and preservatives that are detrimental to both humans and the environment.

While moves to ban animal testing have persisted for years, a recent awareness of the cleanliness and environmental consciousness of the ingredients in makeup and hygiene products has been growing. In spite of this recognition, navigating the challenging world of environmentally friendly makeup and hygiene products can be overwhelming. Consumers may find themselves confused, having questions about the best kind of packaging or the ingredients to avoid at all costs.

However, understanding the environmental impact of such products and making informed choices during a trip to the drug store does not have to be complicated: a little education in the area goes a long way. According to Meghan Bennett, a senior environmental science major and the president of the Earth, Ocean and Environmental Club, being cognizant of the packaging products use is a great place to start.

“I think the biggest thing is people’s issue with buying things and thinking, ‘Oh, it’s recyclable,’” Bennett says. “That’s great that it’s recyclable, but recyclable should be an alternative. First you should find something that can do the same thing again.”

Jessica Balasa, a junior who is studying English and has done research on toxic products in makeup, agrees with Bennett. She also cautions consumers to be wary about what they recycle, as many “recyclable” makeup products contain makeup residue — which is considered a contaminant — therefore making it impossible to recycle safely. According to Balasa, despite their “recyclable” and “environmentally friendly” labels, these products ultimately meet the same fate as their counterparts: the landfill.

In terms of the actual product itself, Balasa says the best place to turn is to the ingredients label.

“There are hormone disruptors [in makeup]; there are also parabens, which are preservatives,” Balasa says. “The FDA doesn’t have any regulations against parabens or using any type of preservative. Also, there are things like formaldehyde — which is used to preserve dead bodies — and that’s in foundations, mascara and eyelash glue.”

The impact of these ingredients does not end on users’ faces and bodies. Dr. Anastasia Chirnside, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, says that these ingredients eventually cycle back into the water, where they can impact entire ecosystems.

“It [the makeup products] go through a waste treatment center, which really isn’t designed to handle compounds like that,” Chirnside says. “When wastewater is treated and gets released, these compounds get into surface water in areas that they shouldn’t be.”

For those looking to reduce their environmental footprint, there are countless products available that promise consumers will be able to use them with a clear conscience. However, these products tend to be extremely expensive and out of many younger consumers’ price range.

“Price is a huge problem,” Balasa says. “When I did my research, [I found] the reason why we’re going to the drugstore and buying $5 mascara that is bad for the planet and for our face is because price is an issue. It’s a challenge for people who are economically unable to afford buying these high-end products.”

Still, Balasa, Chirnside and Bennett encourage consumers to stay aware and do what is within their capability and economic means to reduce their footprint.

“You think, ‘What can one person do?’” Chirnside says. “But if we all do it together, it does make a difference.”

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