Culture 8 min read

Do Your Personal Cosmetics Cause Plastic Pollution?

Ivan Mateev /

Ivan Mateev /

A new study found that certain cosmetics cause pollution on a much larger scale than previously thought. One chemical present in these cosmetics could be a dangerous creator of harmful gases such as ozone.

Shampoo, lotion, and deodorant often contain a chemical that can cause as much damage to the environment as emissions from car exhaust fumes during rush-hour traffic.

Even with the good news that the ozone layer is healing itself, we still need to be aware of the issues of pollution and climate change. It’s all too easy to get carried away with your own experience here on Earth.

Also, don’t forget that there’s no planet B for future generations (still holding out for colonization of Mars). We all know that we need to recycle, cut down waste, and be more mindful of how we treat our planet.

What most people are even more mindful of is their personal grooming.

How many lotions and potions do we lather, douse, spritz, and spray ourselves with each morning? In the name of personal hygiene, we all leave the house in a haze of Eau de Cuckoo and honey blossom.

Without giving it much thought, it’s just part of our morning routine. Would you still do this if you knew exactly which cosmetics cause pollution?

Most of us are also still under the common misconception that vehicle emissions are the biggest contributors to air pollution. Even the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 75 percent of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) come from fuel while 25 percent come from chemical products.

However, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology revealed that the divide between fuel emissions and chemical emissions is closer to 50-50.

In other words, humans who use personal care products are walking sources of harmful emissions.

How Scientists Figured out That Cosmetics Cause Pollution and Plastic Pollution

New York City street
Although you wouldn’t think it by the smell, heavy use of cosmetics in urban areas can cause serious pollution problems. ¦

The study, carried out by CIRES and NOAA, monitored rush-hour traffic in Boulder, Colorado.

It measured VOCs from the roof of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory and from a mobile laboratory between 2015 to 2017.

VOCs range from gasoline to perchloroethylene, the main solvent used in dry cleaning, to benzene, found in tobacco smoke.  

During this time period, the researchers used a highly sensitive instrument to monitor 150 VOCs, including benzene. Benzene is also a common indicator of vehicle exhaust during rush-hour.

While monitoring the chemicals found in the air, an unknown compound caught their attention. The mystery compound seemed to peak at rush-hour along with benzene. However, the scientists couldn’t figure out exactly what it was.

After much speculation, the team figured out that the unknown chemical was siloxane. The team saw a correlation between the rise of siloxane emissions and benzene emissions. So, they assumed that siloxane was another chemical in vehicle exhaust fumes.

They tested this theory by measuring tailpipe emissions taken directly by the roadside. However, siloxane was nowhere to be found.

Even though siloxane and benzene were both present during commuting hours, they were not coming from the same source.

The team had to break down the data they had collected and examine it hour by hour.

What they found was that siloxane emissions peaked in the morning when people used personal care products before leaving for work. At the same time, benzene emissions rose because so many people were commuting.

In the evening, both chemicals peaked again when people returned home. However, the siloxane emissions were lower than in the morning. This was because the personal care products had worn off and evaporated throughout the day. This showed the researchers that the ingredients in our everyday cosmetics cause pollution.

Infographic of air pollution statistics
Image by elenabsl | Shutterstock

Could This Common Shampoo Ingredient be Contributing to Climate Change?

The research team found that the products you may use to make your skin softer and hair silkier are major contributors to air pollution.

This is because many personal care products contain siloxane.

Siloxane is short for decamethylcyclopentasiloxane. As previously mentioned, siloxane is a VOC.

This group of chemicals evaporates quickly. VOCs become particularly damaging when released into the air.

Sunlight triggers VOCs to react with nitrogen oxides and other compounds.

When this happens, they turn into ozone and particulate matter. These are two types of pollution that have adverse effects on human health and reduce the quality of the air we breathe.

Ozone is linked to asthma, lung disease, heart attacks, and premature death. It also has adverse effects on vegetation and ecosystems.

Sure, it takes more fuel to power your engine than it does deodorant to keep you smelling fresh. But, it is important to consider that for every kilogram of fuel that’s burned, only one gram is released into the air. While in the case of personal products, the pollutants evaporate completely.

To sum it up, emissions from siloxane can be as detrimental to the planet as chemicals emitted in car exhaust fumes.

Read More: Pollution Killed More Than war, Famine, and Natural Disasters in 2016

Microbeads Banned in Favor of the Environment

This is not the first time cosmetics have come into the spotlight due to their negative effects on the environment.

Plastic microbeads often used in cosmetics like exfoliating face scrubs and toothpaste were banned in the USA in 2015 and in the UK the following year.

These plastic beads may be tiny but can cause a huge amount of plastic pollution.

Before the ban, thousands of tons of microbeads washed into the sea every year. Here they not only harm wildlife, but also humans. Because fish tend to eat the beads, you could order salmon en crouté but end up with a plate of fishy microbeads.

Studies estimate that there are five trillion pieces of plastic floating in even the most remote parts of the ocean. Microbeads made a significant contribution to plastic pollution numbers.

Read More: Study Finds Great Pacific Garbage Patch at Nearly 3x the Size of France

All that Glitters may not be Gold, but it’s Definitely not Green

Man with glitter in his beard
Image by Melanie Lemahieu | Shutterstock

Another tiny but significantly damaging beauty product is glitter.

Glitter is thrown around like confetti in craft clubs, parades and stuck onto every visible inch of skin come festival season. It’s shiny, it’s fun, and it seems harmless.

Recently, we’ve come obsessed with the stuff. However, our inability to resist the allure of sparkles comes down to evolution. A team of Belgian scientists claims that our love of glitter stems an innate human attraction to water. We need water to survive so it’s part of our survival instincts to gravitate towards anything that sparkles.

Glitter is usually made using etched aluminum bonded to polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Just like the microbeads, glitter is a form of microplastic.

Microplastic is almost impossible to control so, like microbeads, glitter ends up in the seas. In fact, microplastics account for 92.4% of the plastic pollution in our oceans.

These tiny sparkles can be so detrimental to the environment that some scientists have called for a complete ban on plastic glitter.

Don’t worry glitter bugs, you can still cover yourself in sparkles. There are many companies now selling eco-friendly glitter alternatives. Companies like Eco-Stardust and Bio-Glitter have developed a product that uses cellulose from plants instead of PET.

How to Avoid Cosmetics that Cause Pollution and Plastic Pollution

Simply taking a quick look at the ingredients contained in the products you buy could really make a difference to the environment.

These days, we cannot give manufacturers the benefit of the doubt. Most of the time, using chemicals and synthetic ingredients to produce personal care products is a lot more cost-effective.

It’s better for business to take the cheapest route to meeting consumer demands. This way of thinking is short-term. When we continue to use these products, we feed an industry that wreaks havoc on our planet, without taking responsibility.

If we pay closer attention, we can substantially cut-down the chemicals we use on a regular basis.

However, it can be difficult to decode the long complex labels. More often than not, I can’t even pronounce the ingredients on the back of my shampoo.

We should all want to prioritize the fate of the planet over our beauty routines.

Start off by avoiding products with the number one air pollution culprit: Siloxane.

And, avoid glitter products with the following ingredients:

  • polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • polyethylene (PE)
  • polypropylene (PP)

Even small changes can have a huge impact in minimizing our individual contributions to pollution and plastic pollution. Sustainability is about ensuring everything from ingredient sourcing, to manufacturing, and packaging has as little a negative impact on the planet as possible.

Read More: A Look at the Latest Tech in Clean Cars

Being more aware of what we consume is a crucial aspect of protecting the Earth. Is being powdered, sparkly and silky-smooth worth risking the only home we will ever have?

Read More: Microplastics Discovered in 93 Percent of Popular Bottled Water Brands

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Comments (10)
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    Sunny Yadav July 17 at 5:51 pm GMT

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      Bryan Frias January 30 at 3:04 pm GMT

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    Joseph Fanelli January 30 at 3:29 pm GMT

    glittter is very tasty

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      Bryan Frias January 30 at 3:29 pm GMT

      but its bad for your health

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    Liam zzstu Reynolds February 11 at 3:53 pm GMT


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