Make the most with natural beauty products

Making the most of one’s appearance is a natural desire and, says ELSA KRÜGER, it can also be achieved sustainably. With our planet’s protection in mind, ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ are new watchwords in the cosmetic industry.

Green. Clean. Sustainable. These concepts may have once been dismissed as the words of ‘greenies’, but now they are a matter of urgent concern globally. We are suffocating our planet with plastics and toxins and thwarting the nurturing processes of the natural world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cosmetics industry. The statistics are daunting. The international personal care industry is worth US$500 billion a year and is responsible for 120 billion packaging units. In the USA alone, almost 7.9 billion units of non-degradable rigid plastic are created annually for beauty and personal care products (Euromonitor International).

Natural beauty

So what does a beauty junkie do? The more we know about the tons of cosmetic waste heading from our bathroom shelves to landfill sites, the better equipped we are to make sustainable beauty purchases.

The beauty industry itself is taking the matter more seriously than ever before. Brands acknowledge that modern customers are increasingly averse to contributing to pollution and environmental damage and have started reworking their ingredients and packaging to become more eco-friendly. Two drivers of this change have been identified: an obsession with wellness, as consumers read labels more carefully and are more aware of possible irritants in synthetic ingredients; and an increase in skin sensitivity resulting from pollution, stress and exposure to the blue light of digital devices.

The Environmental Working Group, a US non-profit environment and health advocacy organisation, reports that American women are exposed to an average of 126 chemicals a day in cosmetics, food, cleaning products and pollution. “Skin sensitivity is the new buzz topic, ahead of anti-ageing, and this is driving a shift towards caring for skin with natural, honest ingredients.”

Many brands commit greenwashing, incorrectly claiming to be eco-friendly, organic and natural. Without turning into an eco-warrior, supporting brands that are truly eco-friendly is important: their products are safer for the environment, combat plastic waste and avoid water contamination. But how to do this consciously without getting confused? 

The no-nos

• Artificial colours: they make the skin more sensitive.
• Mineral oils (petroleum, liquid paraffin, petroleum jelly): cheap by-products of the crude oil industry, they can clog pores.
• Silicones (e.g. dimethicone): they can congest the skin.
• Sodium lauryl sulphate: it strips moisture.
• Phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP, BPA): as emulsifiers in synthetic fragrances, hairsprays and nail polish, they can be absorbed through the skin.
• Parabens (methyl-, ethyl-, butyl-, propyl-): these controversial preservatives have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive problems.
• Alcohols: harsh to sensitive skin.
• Synthetic microbeads: used in face and body scrubs, they do not dissolve but end up in rivers and oceans.
• Artificial fragrances: they irritate the skin.
• Chemical sunscreens: washed off, they kill coral reefs.
• Palm oil: plantations cultivated to produce palm oil have replaced valuable rainforest, leading to the release of massive amounts of CO2, loss of biodiversity and increased threats to endangered animal species.

As consumers, we need to understand the jargon involved in an eco-friendly approach to beauty:

• Clean beauty and green beauty are terms often used in the beauty industry’s marketing strategy, but because there is no way to certify them, they can be misleading. Clean products are defined as being without toxins, whereas green ones are made sustainably, often from plants or botanical ingredients.

• Ethical products have not been tested on animals, and child or slave labour or sweatshops have not been involved in creating them.

• Natural is no longer considered enough of a credential for beauty brands and has been replaced by zero-irritant as the new standard. Natural products contain ingredients from plants and have been minimally processed. Most do, however, rely on preservatives such as parabens to keep their formulas stable and safe for the skin. If you choose to buy a product without some form of preservative, be aware that it will have a short shelf life and can be dangerous when bacteria begin to develop.

• Organic ingredients are non-GMO and have been grown, harvested, manufactured and preserved without antibiotics or chemical herbicides, pesticides or fungicides, so the final product contains fewer toxins. Organic ingredients may, however, make up as little as 10% of the formula. Organic products tend to be more expensive as the farming and processing costs are higher.

• Vegan beauty formulas contain zero traces of animal products: no honey, collagen, albumen, carmine, cholesterol or gelatine. Hair products can be problematic, as keratin, lanolin, silk protein and beeswax are common ingredients, but these can be replaced with plant-based alternatives. Botanical science enables brands to produce high-performance hair products using ingredients such as butters and oils, wheat protein, algae, shea butter, moringa oil and argan oil. PETA, Leaping Bunny and the Vegan Society certify such products as vegan.

• In toxin-free beauty products there are no harsh chemicals that may lead to a build-up of toxins in the skin and body. Brands such as South Africa’s own SKOON prefer to describe its products as toxin free rather than natural or organic to emphasise their concern about harmful ingredients and synthetic chemicals. 

• So you want to buy a sustainable beauty product? Look for one that contains ethically sourced ingredients (vegan, organic, fairly traded and palm oil-free), is housed in recyclable or reusable packaging and is made by an environmentally aware brand that considers its carbon footprint at all stages of production.

Natural beauty

Products to try

•  Team Dr Joseph founded in Italy in 1986.
•  ZERO by Skin Academy. A UK vegan brand, with products now available in South Africa.
•  NUXE Bio A French brand with a cult following worldwide.
•  SKOON Cape Town-based, using rooibos, honeybush and buchu.
•  [comfort zone] based in Parma, Italy.  
•  Esse Skincare based in KwaZulu-Natal.

To summarise, when making your next beauty purchase, there are a number of concerns to think about. Does the product contain clean ingredients that are plant-based, free of toxins? Has it been responsibly and sustainably sourced and certified organic? What is the product’s environmental impact? Is it vegan and has it been manufactured without plastic or palm oil, or any cruel practices? And is the product socially responsible? Is it proudly South African, supporting and empowering local communities; and is it ethically produced, without unnecessary waste, perhaps under the Fair Trade banner?

To answer questions such as these, the label is a good place to start. Then, the brand’s website is often very informative. Reputable, eco-friendly brands are transparent about the ingredients they use (and avoid) and where they source them from.

As important as the product itself is its packaging. Who doesn’t love a sumptuously packaged perfume or jar of face cream? Recyclable glass is fine, but plastic is a different matter. According to the World Economic Forum, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. The beauty industry is a principal contributor to this pollution.

You can reduce your packaging footprint by:

• Buying products that have no packaging.
• Opting for glass rather than plastic containers, as they are easily recycled or re-used  and they look chic.
• Buying products in refillable containers, a growing trend among many beauty brands.
• Switching to biodegradable packaging materials, such as bamboo, cardboard or recycled paper, that will break down over time.
• Embedding paper-based packaging with seeds to grow herbs, vegetables or flowers.
• Choosing recyclable plastic, if plastic is unavoidable. A by-product of the sugarcane industry, bioplastic has a lower CO2 footprint than other plastics, while PET and PP plastic bottles can also be recycled.
• Avoiding packaging that contains microplastics that are found in polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate and polymethyl methacrylate. They make their way into the ocean and are destroying marine life at an alarming rate.