Beauty at the Expense of the Environment

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Cosmetics and toiletries, like other consumer products, contain ingredients that can persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in our bodies and other living organisms. Let's take a close look at some of the chemicals found in our cosmetics that are now present in the environment to an alarming degree. 

Triclosan is found in many common household products including washing-up liquid, toothpastes, hand washes, soaps and other cosmetic products. An estimated 60-90 tonnes of this substance are released into the UK environment each year, the majority of it is heading straight for the sewers. Most of it is removed prior to the effluent being discharged back into the environment, but some still remains. Triclosan can degrade into the persistent metabolite methyl triclosan, which bioaccumulates in fish, triclosan can also degrade under sunlight to produce a form of dioxin.

Synthetic musks man-made chemicals commonly used in a range of fragranced consumer products, including laundry detergents, air-freshners, household cleaners, perfumes, aftershaves, cosmetics and personal care products, are persistent environmental contaminants that have been detected in rivers, lakes, sediment, soil ,sewage, sludge and effluent from waste water treatment plants in the UK, Canada, the US and Europe.
Although produced to replace natural musks derived from musk deer and musk ox, synthetic musks are not structurally  similar and behave more  like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and organochlorine pesticides. increasing in concentration as they move higher up the food chain. Due to the prolific use of synthetic musk in consumer items they have also been identified in the atmosphere, both indoors and outdoors. All synthetic musks have been shown to possess oestrogenic and anti-oestrogenic properties. Many retailers are discontinuing their use.

Commonly used in cosmetic products are plasticizers and solvents, phthalates  are the most abundant synthetic chemicals in the environment. They are ubiquitous environmental contaminants that are deemed to be hazardous waste and regulated as pollutants when released into the environment by industry. Phthalates have been detected in rainwater, water, soil, sediments, indoor air and dust, fish/marine food webs, meat, dairy products, human blood and breast milk. Phthalate metabolites have also been identified in the urine of adults and children.
Analyses of wastewater from residential, commercial and industrial sites in the San Francisco Bay area by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) detected, in 18 out of 19 wastewater samples evaluated, at least one of the three unregulated and commonly used hormone disruptors - phthalate, bisphenol air and seawater samples, although the concentrations detected were low. 

Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), a group of fluorine-containing chemicals used for their heat-stable properties and ability to resist degradation and repel water and oil, can be found in a host of applications, including non-stick coatings for kitchenware,  stain - and water-repellent treatment for carpets, paper coatings, surfactants, furniture and clothing, floor polishes, cleaning products, shampoo and food packaging materials. PFCs are persistent and bioaccumulative contaminants. Perfluorooctane surfactants have been detected in living organisms, water and air samples from geographic locations in the North American Artic collected between 1972 and 2002, detected levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorocarboxylic acids (PFOAs).


One of the most commonly used PFCs is the chemical known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8 (because it has eight carbons). PFOA in the manufacture of Teflon and is persistent and bio-accumulative in the environment, wildlife and humans. The US  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found an association between PFOA and various cancers in laboratory animals, as well as birth defects, suggesting a potential risk for humans of developmental and other undesirable effects. A 2005 survey by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that the chemical is present in the blood in more than 95 per cent of Americans. PFOA and similar chemicals were reviewed by the EPA following its investigation of perfluorooctyl sulfonate (PFOS) in 1999, due to their persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity. You can reduce your exposure by avoiding packaged greasy and oily foods, stain-resistant furniture, clothing and other goods. Teflon or non-stick cookware and cosmetics containing Teflon or related compounds. Check cosmetic labels for ingredients including the words 'fluoro' or 'perfluoro'.

Alkyllphenols (APs) are the breakdown products of alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) and are toxic to aquatic organisms and potent endocrine disruptors. Although APEs were phase out of domestic detergents in the 1970s, they are still used in various other consumer products including shampoos and shaving foams, and they break down into ecologically hazardous APs such as nonylphenol (NP) and octylphenol (OP) after being discharged into sewage treatment plants or undergoing environmental processes. Once discharged from treatment plants they are disseminated into the environment via effluent discharge into surface waters and sludge disposal on lands.
  • The breakdown products of APE are approximately ten times more toxic than the original compounds. In one study on sea urchin embryos. NP and Op were shown to cause malformationm in the skeletal system at low concentrations, while high concentrations hindered the growth of the embryos. Dr Christian Daughton and Dr Thomas Ternes of the US Environmental Protection Agency explains in a special report published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives that personal care products are constantly entering the environment through sewage treatment facilities and where untreated sewage is discharged directly in rivers, products and pharmaceuticals may be more chronic than exposure to pesticides because they are constantly introduced into the environment in places where humans reside and visit.
    We are powerful as consumers. The products we use, even in small amounts, have a measurable effect on the environment. Choose all your household products- personal care and cleaning - according to their kindness to the environment. And, reduce packaging as much as you can. Choose glass containers where possible and seek out manufacturers who encourage refills of containers.
  • Reference: Toxic Beauty: Dawn Mellowship



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