Every year at least 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean. If it continues at this rate by 2050 the amount of plastic in the ocean will will outweigh the fish. Shortly after this we’ll face a food crisis as we are no longer able to farm. Scientists estimate that at the current rate of soil fertility degradation we have around 60 years of harvest left. Maybe less. The Great Barrier Reef has been irrevocably damaged and we are losing an estimated 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest every day. The world as a whole has warmed one degree celsius since pre-industrial times and the UN predicts that we are on course to reach a 3 degrees celsius rise by 2100. Although these numbers sound minute, this warming has caused catastrophic melting of arctic ice which combined with the expansion of the sea water as it warms could lead to the flooding and submerging of cities such as Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, and Miami. Global warming is already responsible for the extreme weather – the droughts, hurricanes, storm surges, heatwaves, erratic rainfall and floods –  that we’ve been seeing recently.

We need to start being kinder to our planet, to start making choices in our lives that are informed by environmental responsibility. This is needed on a global political scale, of course, but we can also do our bit with our daily actions. And why not start with our beauty routines. Take care of yourself and your planet at the same time. Dazed Beauty’s Guide to Sustainability is here to help you be an informed and conscientious beauty consumer.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sustainable Beauty

Sustainability is a hot topic right now with many young people increasingly demanding it from their products. YouGov data showed that in 2017 the proportion of 18-24 year olds turning to vegetarianism for environmental reasons increased from 9 to 19 percent, while a 2018 McKinsey & Business of Fashion study reported that 66% of global millennials are willing to spend more on fashion brands that are sustainable.

But what do we actually mean when we talk about sustainability? Environmental sustainability is the maintenance of natural resources and long-term ecological balance. Where the demands placed on the environment can be met without depleting the natural resources or compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In the context of the beauty industry sustainability can be applied to different areas including: how the raw ingredients are sourced; production, e.g. the energy consumption, waste management, and carbon footprint of the company; packaging, both consumer product packaging and creative PR mailers; and the biodegradability of the finished product.

How efficient and renewable companies are with their energy use and waste management is hard for us as consumers to affect. However, what we can control is whether we are buying products that are sustainable in their ingredients and packaging. Here are some things to be aware of.

Palm Oil

Palm oil is widely used in cosmetics and skincare products – an estimated 70% contain a palm oil derivative – as well as in food, cleaning products, and fuel. However, the production of palm oil has been extremely harmful to the environment and is believed to be responsible for 8% of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008. This is because large areas of rainforest are burned down in order to clear the land for palm oil plantations. These fires not only release high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere but also destroy the habitats of endangered species such as the orangutan and Borneo elephant.

The palm oil industry has also been linked to worker exploitation and human rights abuses. If you are interested in learning more about this Amnesty published a report, “The Great Palm Oil Scandal,” in 2016.

Many ingredients contain palm oil derivatives so if you’re looking to avoid palm oil check your labels for (among others): Elaeis Guineensis Oil, Sodium Stearate, Lauryl Betaine, Sodium Cocoamphoacetate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol & SLS, SodLauroylSarcosinateNP, Lauroyl Sarcosine, Glycol Cetearate, GMS SE40 – Glycerol monostearate, SSD – Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate, Glyceryl Stearat-PEG100, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Stearic Acid, Laureth 4, PEG–6 Caprylic / Capric Glycerides & PEG-60 Almond Glycerides.


Silicones are another ingredient widely used in haircare, skincare, and cosmetics. They can be found under many names the best known being ‘Dimethicone.’ You can generally identify a silicone from the ending ‘-cone’, ‘-conol’, or ‘-siloxane’. Some examples include: Methicone, Trimethicone, Cyclomethicone, Trimethylsilylamodimethicone, Trisiloxane, Cyclopentasiloxane, Polydimethylsiloxane, Dimethiconol, Amodimethicone, Dimethicone crosspolymer, Trimethysiloxysilicate, Polymethylsilsesquioxane, Polypropylsilsesquioxane.

Silicones have generated a lot of discussion within the beauty community over safety and environmental issues. Environmental debates are centred around the biodegradability of silicone and concerns that silicones are bioaccumulative i.e. that they are building up in the environment.

Several studies have found traces of silicones in plant and marine life, research which led to, in April 2018, the EU restricting the use of silicones D4 (octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane) and D5 (decamethylcyclopentasiloxane) in wash-off cosmetic products in a concentration equal or greater than 0.1% by weight after 31 January 2020. The European Chemical Agency (ECHA) is working on an additional proposal to restrict use of D4 and D5 in leave-on personal care products.


Microbeads are those tiny pieces of plastic often found in personal care products such as face scrubs and shower gels. Environmental concerns began to be raised, however, after thousands of tonnes of microbeads were being washed into the sea every year, ending up inside marine wildlife and ultimately making their way into humans. One study by Plymouth University in 2013 found traces of plastic in one third of fish caught in the Channel.

In January 2018 a ban on microbeads came into effect in the UK, as well as Canada. This followed the 2015 US Microbead-Free Waters Act which stopped companies using microbeads in beauty and health products. New Zealand and Taiwan banned the beads in July 2018 and Ireland is expected to do the same by the end of the year.

Since the microbead ban has come into effect, scientists have turned their attention to another ecologically hazardous micro-plastic still widely used in cosmetics: glitter. “I think all glitter should be banned, because it’s microplastic,” Dr Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist, told The Independent. Dr Farrelly’s research has investigated how PET, the plastic most glitter is made from, releases chemicals when it breaks down which disrupts hormones in animals and humans.


Plastics are not only an ecological hazard as ingredients in cosmetics and skincare, but plastic pollution from product packaging and single-use plastic beauty items is also becoming a major environmental burden.

As of 2018 the UK government estimated there are over 150 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean and that every year one million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals die from eating or getting tangled in plastic waste. These numbers led to the European Parliament overwhelmingly voting for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics including cotton buds, straws and disposable plates and cutlery, last month. The ban is scheduled to go into effect across the EU by 2021, and the UK will have to comply with the new rules if they implemented before the end of the Brexit transition period.

Product packaging makes up an estimated 45 percent of landfill waste and in 2017 the annual awareness campaign, Zero Waste Week, reported that more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the global cosmetics industry every year. Recycling beauty products, however, can be tricky. Cosmetics are often packaged in containers that are comprised of mixed materials (a plastic pump, a metal spring, a glass bottle etc.) and while the different components may all be technically recyclable it is often cheaper and easier to throw them in the landfill than separate and recycle.

In an effort to combat this problem, recycling initiative TerraCycle have teamed up with various beauty brands including L’Oréal’s Garnier and L’Occitane to create free recycling programmes for all beauty product packaging. Another recycling initiative is the “take back” programmes from brands such as MAC Cosmetics, Aveda, Lush Cosmetics, Le Labo, Kiehl’s, and Origins. These brands offer incentives to customers to bring back their “empties” for reuse or recycling such as money off or free products.

A Word on Language (a brief interlude)

It can be confusing and overwhelming to navigate through the often unregulated and vague marketing language of the beauty industry: ‘recycled’ vs ‘recyclable’, ‘biodegradable’ vs ‘compostable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’, ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’, ‘non-toxic’, ‘ethical’. It’s important, though, to pay attention to what a product is telling you.

“Brands will put ‘one hundred percent recyclable’ on their bottles and if you’re not reading properly and looking at the fine print you see the recycling logo and you think, ‘great something about recycling,’” says Alex Brownsell from Bleach London. “Well a pure plastic bottle without a coating is always going to be one hundred percent recyclable. I think that’s a cop out. The consumer needs to have a look at what’s actually going on. Is it recycled, is it recyclable, and what percentage is it?”

To give an example of why this difference is important: Zero Waste Week reported recently that the cardboard packaging from products such as perfumes, serums, and moisturisers contributes to the loss of 18 million acres of forest every year. Cardboard is recyclable but if companies continue to use new cardboard instead of recycled, then that is not sustainable.

The organisation A Plastic Planet encourages us to differentiate between the words ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable.’ They warn against the use of the word biodegradable because technically everything eventually biodegrades. A plastic bottle, for example, will break down but it will take hundreds of years. Because of this A Plastic Planet prefer to use ‘compostable’ which gives something useful back to nature at the end of its life.

The Problem with Creative PR Mailers

It’s not just waste from consumer product packaging that needs addressing. The excess packaging in PR mailings to influencers and beauty editors is a topic that is becoming increasingly talked about. You only need to watch one of any number of extremely popular “unboxing” videos by beauty bloggers on YouTube to see the wasteful amount of packaging that comes with their PR samples – the packaging peanuts, confetti, tissue paper, boxes inside of endless boxes, single-use video screens, balloons, candy floss, ribbon, sequins and so on and so on.

A survey by Fashionista found that the worst perpetrators when is came to wasteful, superfluous PR mailings was the beauty and skincare brands. And now people in the beauty community are beginning to speak out about it. Elle Magazine beauty director Julie Schott and Jen Atkin, founder of Ouai Haircare, Kardashian hair stylist, and influencer in her own right, have both highlighted the excess waste that comes with the products they get sent. Beach House PR, who have worked with beauty brands such as Urban Decay and Anastasia Beverly Hills, launched their “Change the Game Movement” in April where they announced they are saying goodbye to excess waste and will only be using 100% recycled, eco-friendly mailers that are devoid of excess fluff.

Beach House CEO Amy Denoon says the decision to do this came after she became uncomfortable about the discrepancy between the industry becoming more eco-conscious and the extravagant amoun of waste that was being created by the increasingly elaborate PR mailings which brands feel compelled to keep topping. “Brands can’t keep up. It’s like we’re on this hamster wheel of Keeping up with the Joneses version of creative mailers and where do we go from here, how do you outdo yourself from the last one that you did?” Denoon says. “We had several brands coming to us saying ‘what’s next?’ and when we came back to them with the pricing and the waste that was going to come out of it, I just sort of woke up and thought ‘we’re not doing this anymore.’ It doesn’t feel right and it just feels so frivolous, so gluttonous.”

Denoon is hoping that other brands and agencies will follow their lead in cutting down on waste and becoming more sustainable. “Everyone knows that this is a game or a wheel we all need to get off of, primarily for the environmental reasons but also just because it’s gotten out of control. Our mission is to get everybody else on board and to create an industry shift. Everyone’s thinking of it so if we make that first step and we can get a few of these bigger brands on board I think it will trickle down and other brands and agencies will feel more comfortable making the shift as well. It’s all about positivity and trying to encourage a change that could have a big impact in a tremendous way and we just need to as an industry stop being so frivolous and wasteful when it’s in our power to change it.”