Some cosmetic companies have made great ethical advances in the last few years. For example, they have set up ethical sourcing practices and supply chains. They may even place ethics over profits. In this highly-competitive and crowded market, a sustainable approach that incorporates environmental standards can result in a win for consumers, a win for the company, and ultimately a win for the planet.

But what exactly does it mean when a company claims to be sustainable, or have sustainably resourced products?

Chemicals Are Big Business

Cosmetics and skin care products are overwhelmingly based on the development, use and marketing of complex chemical formulations —many of which could be substituted with far safer, equally-effective and simpler natural alternatives— so consumers are right to challenge claims of sustainability by large corporations.

The sheer number and type of chemicals used in the cosmetics industry is alarming. In fact, your average American is exposed to no less than 100 cosmetic chemicals of concern every day[i]. A true chemical cocktail! Some are even known carcinogens, such as formaldehyde and arsenic. Others, such as phthalates, are suspected endocrine disruptors [ii]. Toxic chemicals. Carcinogenic chemicals. Hormone-disrupting chemicals. Nothing remotely ethical or sustainable.

The Truth About Nano

Technological advances have further complicated the picture. Nanomaterial is engineered matter at incomprehensibly-small sizes (billionths of a meter) and products on sale today already contain nanoparticles such as titanium and zinc oxide. Initial studies have pointed to health implications such as an increase in free radical formation [iii]. The truth is nobody really knows for sure how safe these materials will be. They have novel properties and are unlike anything seen before.

In an industry where regulation runs only skin-deep, this change in type, number and size of chemicals and particle-size represents an enormous challenge. History shows us that products are rushed to market. Consumers are seduced by inflated claims and promises, and weak regulation means some companies are free to exploit uninformed consumers.

Enter The Indie Brands

What IS clear, is that consumers are demanding more accountability, more authenticity and more choice. In response, indie cosmetics and skin care brands that are using ethically-sourced, natural, non-toxic, organic ingredients, and incorporate strict worker and environmental standards, are trending. These small businesses are minimizing their carbon and water footprint, and are using earth-friendly packaging. They are caring for the planet and for future generations. They can do this because they are small, owners are typically hands-on, and they listen carefully.

Ultimately, the choice is ours. We can make ethical choices, buy local, choose organic and ethically-sourced ingredients, read the labels, discover what is really in our cosmetics and skin care, and make informed choices based on best sustainable practice. The future truly is in our hands – based on our shopping choices; and on our skin, in our bodies, and penetrates right to the core of what it means to be truly sustainable.


[i] Data taken from the Environmental Working Group. In Geiser, K (2015) Chemicals without Harm : Policies for a Sustainable World (Urban and Industrial Environments). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press (p.5)

[ii] For a more detailed account of harmful chemicals found in cosmetics, see http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chem-of-concern/

[iii] See the study by Mihranyan, Ferraz, & Strømme. (2012). Current status and future prospects of nanotechnology in cosmetics. Progress in Materials Science, 57(5), 875-910.

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