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How ethical and sustainable are your cosmetics?

Jopie, Anna, João, Brenda & Polly Jopie, Anna, João, Brenda & Polly 28 Sep 2021 How ethical and sustainable are your cosmetics?

Where does the cotton in your jeans come from? What are the working conditions of the people who sew your T-shirts? Chances are you won't be able to answer these questions very quickly.

But what about more sustainable cosmetics? Many brands advertise with 'natural' and vegan ingredients in their products. Sounds good, right?

Sadly, the lack of transparency in the cosmetics industry is at least as problematic as in the fashion industry. Both industries have large issues such as poor and unsafe working conditions, child labour, modern slavery and a major impact on the environment. The more steps in the process from raw material to end product, the more complicated it is to figure out what exactly is going on behind the scenes.

As a result, companies that label themselves as 'sustainable' usually do not know what is happening in the early phases. Where do the ingredients in cosmetics actually come from? And what is the impact on our environment?

In this article:

Diving in deep: different raw materials used in cosmetics and where they come from

Different types of ingredients come with different types of issues. In this blog, I make a distinction between three groups of ingredients and raw materials.

There is a fourth group, synthetic ingredients, but given that they can all be traced back to raw materials, these actually fall under these three groups as well. You can't conjure a synthetic ingredient out of thin air, of course!

1. Animal-based raw materials: where do they come from?

Animal-based raw materials largely come from factory farming or commercial fisheries. These materials are often by-products, such as offal, animal fats, beeswax as a by-product of honey. Or, for example, hyaluronic acid, which is sometimes plant-based, but is also extracted from the combs of chickens and roosters.

If you're vegan and came here to shop vegan stuff, I'm sure I don't have to explain what cruelties lie behind this. Are you new to the vegan game? Then read our blog about the importance of veganism!

Factory farming is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Moreover, the trade in by-products is often extremely lucrative – sometimes even more lucrative than meat production itself.

So you don't buy something that would actually be thrown away, but indirectly and unintentionally still contribute to nasty things such as animal cruelty and environmental pollution. And that is the last thing you want when you buy a new mascara or face cream, right?

Examples of animal ingredients: tallow in foundations, skin care and shampoos, the red dye carmine, silk extract in soap and hair care products, some types of fatty acids, and beeswax in lipstick and mascara.

2. Where do plant-based raw materials come from?

Plant-based raw materials are generally more environmentally friendly than animal products, but still come with a host of issues of their own. How sustainably the raw material is extracted and under which working conditions can vary greatly.

Let's take cotton as an example; a commonly used raw material in skincare. The cotton industry is highly polluting, partly due to the use of pesticides, and uses an enormous amount of water.

Another example: cocoa production is notorious for slavery and child labour. Cocoa is not only the main ingredient in chocolate, but is a popular cosmetic ingredient in the form of cocoa butter.

Growing almonds for almond oil, among other things, consumes a lot of water and is partly the cause of the drought in California.

Plant-based raw materials may also be filtered or processed in the production process with the help of animal products, which is often difficult or even impossible to find out. We’re not getting any happier here! We’ll just dig into another box of vegan donuts...

Examples of plant-based ingredients: Carnauba wax in lipstick, lip balm, mascara en pomades, cotton extract in creams, almond oil in skincare, and cocoa butter, shea butter, argan oil and essential oils in creams.

3. Mineral raw materials and their origin

The origin of mineral raw materials in the cosmetics industry is not discussed much, but definitely needs attention. You will find them mainly in 'natural' cosmetics, but most cosmetics actually contain minerals of some kind.

Mineral raw materials include salts, but also many pigments, metals, mica and clay, and everything that comes from a mine.

The extraction of these raw materials has some enormous issues concerning child labour and working conditions. These mines are often located in countries where there is little or no legislation for living minimum wages.

The risk of health problems for miners is enormous – especially lung diseases are very common due to the inhalation of dust particles and toxic substances.

For example, mica, a common ingredient in eyeshadows, foundation and lip products, is often mined by children under hazardous working conditions.

Examples of mineral ingredients: clay in face masks, talc in powders, mica, zinc in creams, salts in scrubs, and many pigments such as red and yellow ochre, ultramarine, chromium oxide and manganese violet.

Hazardous substances and safety in the cosmetics industry

As we have seen in the previous paragraphs, there's a big ethical problem with many ingredients: the working conditions of many miners and workers are downright appalling and the extraction of many raw materials has a major impact on the environment as well.

The EU has strict safety guidelines for the use and processing of chemicals via REACH, the European regulation on the production and trade of chemicals, but many raw materials that are extracted and processed outside the EU are not up to scratch.

The FDA and EPA, the government organizations in the United States that deal with the safety of finished products and raw materials, have different standards and are often influenced by lobbyists from the cosmetics, food and chemical industries.

Is there ever an end to all of this misery? We're already on our third box of vegan donuts… But do read on, for there is a light at the end of this tunnel!

Do ethical, sustainable and vegan cosmetics actually exist?

The question of whether there is such a thing as 'ethical and sustainable' cosmetics is not an easy one to answer, seeing that the cosmetics industry is practically as big and with as many transparency issues as the fashion and textile industry.

But even if we don't know everything, we can still make better and more sustainable choices. To help you out, I’ve got a few tips for you to shop your cosmetics as ethically and sustainably as possible.

  1. Always opt for vegan and cruelty-free cosmetics. If you do this, you’ll at least avoid animal cruelty as much as possible.

  2. Pay attention to the packaging of your cosmetic product. Avoid plastic and choose brands that use more sustainable packaging materials such as recycled cardboard.

  3. Do you doubt whether a cosmetics brand is really as sustainable as they claim to be? Email them! Ask critical questions about the origin of raw materials and the working conditions of workers and don't be put off with vague answers. When faced with critical and persistent consumers, cosmetic brands are more likely to change their policies.

All the purchases we make put a strain on the world around us. By making more conscious choices and holding brands and companies accountable, we can ensure that this strain remains as small as possible and even has a positive impact!

Want to read more about vegan, sustainable and cruelty-free cosmetics? Check out some of our other articles below.


Rethinking FDA's Regulation of Cosmetics, Grace Wallack, Harvard Journal on Legislation, 2019.

Cosmetics Industry Seeks FDA Recall Power Over Tainted Makeup, Megan Wilson, Bloomberg Government, 2019.

Here’s the Real Problem With Almonds, Tom Philpott & Julia Lurie, The New Republic, 2015.

Shea butter in Ghana: Hard labour for smooth skin, Akwasi Sarpong, BBC Africa, 2016

Unethical Beauty is Hard to Escape, Renee Yang, The Startup, 2019.

Who's going to pay to end child labour in West African cocoa?, Dario Soto Abril, Fair Trade International, 2020.

Beauty companies and the struggle to source child labour-free mica, Peter Bengtsen & Laura Paddison, The Guardian, 2016.

Your Beauty Products May Involve Human Rights Abuses, Cheryl Wischhover, Racked, 2018.

Haribo investigates slavery in supply chain, Katy Askew, Food Navigator, 2017.