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Tread Lightly: Face it - we need to make our cosmetics a little greener

Tread Lightly | By Allie Birley

I remember watching a documentary several years ago which asked the question ‘How toxic are you?.’

It scared the hell out of me by highlighting the dangerous chemicals found in make-up, shampoo, conditioner, soap and other beauty products.

While I don’t wish to alarm you to this extent, it is worth checking what’s in the products we are just popping into our shopping baskets and questioning if they could be harmful to us and the planet.

How green are your cosmetics?
How green are your cosmetics?

The following chemicals are just some of those identified as potentially toxic:

  • Parabens
  • Silica
  • Talc
  • Triclosan
  • Synthetic colour
  • Phthalates (fragrances)

They appear in whole range of products, but this month I am going to focus on cosmetics. To start us off, it is worth remembering that there is no legal definition for the term ‘clean beauty’ and other buzz phrases being used by the industry. Equally, chemical doesn’t necessarily mean evil and the term ‘natural’ doesn’t always mean safe, for example lead and mercury are technically both natural ingredients.

As in most industries, there is a certain amount of ‘greenwashing’ by cosmetics companies, but there are certificate bodies, including COSMOS organic or natural, ECOCERT, the VEGAN trademark and Soil Association organic standard, which have strict criteria that companies need to meet.

The key thing is to understand what matters to you - whether you want organic products, to know your make-up is certified vegan and/or all the packaging is sustainable.

The good news is that with consumers demanding more natural, organic and sustainable products, the industry has responded and it has never been easier to switch to plant-based products with zero-waste packaging. There is a lot of information available, but below are just some of the considerations and things I learnt when I detoxed my make-up bag.

The first switch was my foundation, with the key criteria being that it was free from parabens and other potentially harmful ingredients, that I had checked recommendations and cost was another consideration. I ended up with a mineral foundation, which was vegan and as an added bonus its refillable.

When looking at lipsticks I learnt that many high street brands contain chemicals and plastic particles which can harm the environment, plus I didn’t like the idea of ingesting them if I licked my lips. I switched to a chemical-free brand and the choices included natural beeswax-based options and coconut oil for vegans.

Nail varnish and remover are more of a problem, as they contain a lot of nasty ingredients. For the varnish there is a toxic-free scale where 3-Free is the minimum and 10-Free is the top level with the worst 10 ingredients removed. When getting a nail varnish remover then choose non-toxic, unscented products, which are acetone-free. As a gardener its not a problem for me as my nails aren’t usually in a fit state to highlight with nail polish.

Also think about how you remove your make-up. I treated myself to some re-usable make-up remover pads, but it is also easy to make your own.

The item I didn’t need to think about was sustainable beard-care options, although this may change if we carry on polluting our water. Joking aside, the advice for sustainable oils and balms is similar to cosmetics in terms of search terms and checking reviews. You can also get bamboo beard combs.

I suggest that you don’t change all of your products at once, as it is a good idea to give your skin time to adjust, plus it would be rather expensive. If this article does inspire a make-up drawer clear out, then the good news is there are alternative options to just sending it to landfill:

  • Make-up recycling – there are a number of outlets where you can drop off old make-up to be recycled.
  • Make-up donations – if you have unused or lightly used make-up then you may be able to donate to local homeless shelters and women’s refuge centres.

As individuals we are unlikely to save the world, but the more of us that make sustainable swaps and use our consumer power to drive change, the better. Even the smallest of switches can make a big difference. For example, just having reusable face wipes instead of disposable ones would stop thousands of them ending up in landfill or the oceans.

Allie Birley is a freelance communications specialist in Cambridgeshire offering comms and business support to small businesses, artisans, sustainability and wildlife projects, specialising in social media, website content and campaigns.

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