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Cosmetic Ingredients That Are Harmful to the Environment

You might be wondering: Which cosmetic ingredients are harmful to the environment? Here's what to avoid—and why they're so dangerous.

Written by
Giulia Lallas

Get this: A whopping 30 gallons of water are wasted every day by the average person. And as that water goes down the drain, so do all the makeup and skincare products you had on your face and body. But where do all those ingredients go—and what do they do to the environment?

There hasn’t been a new cosmetics law released in the United States for quite some time. Unfortunately, that means many of the ingredients in typical makeup and skincare products are largely left unregulated. Not only can these ingredients be harmful to you and your body, but they can also be toxic to the environment.

Once they hit the drain, they flow through your community sanitary sewer system and end up in the wastewater treatment plant closest to you. These wastewater treatment plants are no match for cosmetic chemicals. After leaving the wastewater treatment plants, the water is released into local bodies of water, where the chemicals end up harming the wildlife in those waterways.

These chemicals are detrimental to the eco-system and can even cause species to go extinct. Here are some of the top cosmetic ingredients that are harmful to the environment.

6 Cosmetic Ingredients That Are Harmful to the Environment

1. Oxybenzone and Octinoxate

You've probably heard of oxybenzone and octinoxate. Hawaii was the first state to ban the common sunscreen ingredients due to their negative effect on coral reefs. They both contribute to coral bleaching and are thought to be one of the biggest factors in coral reef destruction. Choose one of these reef-safe sunscreens instead.

2. Parabens

Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetics and are among the many chemicals banned in the European Union, but not the U.S. Researchers have found parabens in the tissues of marine animals, like dolphins and sea otters. According to the Environmental Working Group, parabens have been linked to ecological harm. They can kill coral reefs and may cause reproductive issues in animals.

3. Triclosan

Another ingredient to be aware of is triclosan. The ingredient is commonly found in shampoos, face washes, toothpastes, and more. It's been linked to toxicity toward aquatic bacteria and has been deemed harmful to algae and dolphins. 

4. Fragrance

Beauty and hair products that contain artificial fragrances have long-lasting effects past the drain. They're increasingly appearing in waterways, where they've been cited to cause long-term damage to marine animals.

5. Sulfates

It's also wise to avoid sulfates. SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate), for instance, is what makes products like toothpaste, shampoo, and shower gel foam. Unfortunately, past studies have shown it can be toxic to aquatic organisms.

6. Microplastics

15 countries have taken the steps to ban microbeads (including the United States!), a kind of microplastic often used in exfoliating products. Unfortunately, there are still many countries to go. Fish and birds often mistake these tiny plastic beads for food, and eating them can kill them.