8 Environmentally Harmful Ingredients to Avoid

Author: Chantal Navratil

There are many ingredients that can be harmful to the environment. Starting with small steps such as: recycling packaging, using products with biodegradable packaging and being cautious of the ingredients the products you purchase use, is the best way to help reduce the impact on the environment through cosmetic use.

Siloxanes (Silicones)

Siloxanes are silicone-based compounds used in cosmetics for their texture. They are used for their smooth, silky texture in lotions, anti-aging, hair and makeup products. However, they are seeping into the environment. The American Chemical Society in 2015 found small amounts of siloxane compounds in krill, phytoplankton and plants in Antarctica.1 Detectable levels of siloxanes were found when the Norwegian Institute for Air Research and the Swedish Environmental Research Institute took samples in several locations in Nordic countries.1 Detectable levels were also found within fish which raises concern about bioaccumulation from siloxanes.1 Siloxanes also are released into the air when applied to ourselves and can contaminate waterways.1 Decreasing usage of products containing silicone-based compounds is the best way to decrease the amounts found in the environment.


Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that can be dissolved in water and used as Formalin in cosmetics.2 Formaldehyde is used in personal care products and cosmetics as a preservative to prevent contamination. However, when products containing formaldehyde are released into the air, it reacts with other species in the atmosphere and is then absorbed in water and soil over a few days.3 Formaldehyde may also form the ground level ozone layer which can damage crops and materials.3 Cleaner preservatives such as organic acids and antioxidants can be used in place of formaldehyde.


Glitter is used for music festivals, cosmetics and in many art projects. Glitter is made mostly from plastic which contributes to the growing problem of microplastics in the environment.4

Microplastics are a huge issue for marine life and are often consumed by fish, birds and plankton.4 Many animals die due to the buildup of microplastics in their system. The chemicals in glitter can also disrupt hormones in both animals and humans.4 Many are trying to create a biodegradable substitute or use mica as a glitter alternative to help the impact on the environment glitter causes.

Exfoliating Microbeads (Microplastics)

Exfoliating microbeads are made from microplastics that are usually made of polyethylene.1 Polyethylene is a plastic substance that creates the little exfoliating beads. Exfoliating microbeads are used in body washes, face washes, color cosmetics and even toothpaste. The issue with the exfoliating microbeads is that they pollute rivers, lakes and oceans. They pollute waterways and are consumed by fish and animals which harms the fish or animal’s digestive tract.1 The microbeads are not captured by most wastewater treatment systems so if they washed down the drain, they can end up in bodies of water.5 They are almost impossible to remove from the environment. The best solution is to use a biodegradable substitute or to not use products containing microbeads, microabrasives, polypropylene and polyethylene.


BHA, butylated hydroxyanisole and BHT, butylated hydroxytoluene are synethetic antioxidants used in preservatives. These preservatives can be used in makeup items such as lipsticks and moisturizers. Long-term exposure to high amounts of BHT and BHA are toxic to aquatic organisms and animals.6 Exposure can cause kidney, thyroid and liver problems.6 BHA and BHT are both considered toxic to fish and animals and it also has the potential to bioaccumulate.6 It is also shown BHA can cause genetic mutations in amphibians.6 The best solution is to use products with naturally derived antioxidants.

Chemical Sunscreens

A common ingredient in chemical sunscreen is oxybenzone. Oxybenzone contributes to the bleaching of coral reefs.7 Coral reefs are exposed to 14,000 tons of sunscreen each year. Sunscreen washes off our bodies when we swim in the ocean and when synthetic chemicals are used, it can hurt marine life.Oxybenzone damages coral’s DNA and hurts the reproduction and growth of young coral because it acts an endocrine disruptor.7 Coral reefs provide shelter for many marine organisms and are very diverse ecosystems.7 Using mineral-based sunscreens such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide are safer for the oceans and help act as a reflective mirror for the sun’s rays.


Triclosan is an antibacterial ingredient used in deodorant, hand sanitizer and hand cleansers.

When triclosan is washed down the sink, it can alter the biochemistry aquatic life, aquatic plants and amphibians.1 The European Union has triclosan classified as potentially being harmful to causing long-term effects in the aquatic environment.1 Since triclosan doesn’t degrade quickly, it can accumulate in the environment.1 It can react with chlorine in tap water to form chloroform which can damage the environment.1 It can also react with other chemicals in waterways and form dioxins which are toxic and a pollutant to the environment.1 Using natural antibacterial ingredients such as: tea tree, thyme and witch hazel is a great alternative to triclosan.

Petroleum and Mineral Oil

Mineral oil and petroleum derivatives are used in creams, ointments and color cosmetics. It can be used to lock in moisture and act as a barrier for the skin. Petroleum contributes to acid rain and air pollution. Petroleum can also fuel climate change. Petroleum being used in cosmetics contributes to those as well. Mineral oil is not environmentally friendly because it doesn’t biodegrade well.8 It also doesn’t not come from a renewable source.8 A great alternative is to use vegetable oil alternative products. These are better for the environment and the skin.



[1] https://cvskinlabs.com/7-cosmetic-ingredients-that-are-bad-for-the-environment/

[2]  https://cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredient/formaldehyde-infographic

[3] https://apps.sepa.org.uk/spripa/Pages/SubstanceInformation.aspx?pid=57

[4] https://www.insider.com/why-glitter-is-bad-for-the-environment-2019-3

[5] https://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/plastics-and-packaging/plastic-microbeads

[6] https://davidsuzuki.org/queen-of-green/dirty-dozen-bha-bht/

[7] https://www.gloworganicbrighton.co.uk/blogs/green-beauty-world/how-your-beauty-products-are-affecting-the-environment

[8] https://www.thespruce.com/mineral-oil-used-in-cleaning-1707024

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