The Ethics of Cosmetics

Posted on July 17, 2018 in Eco

The Ethics of Cosmetics

Clear your skin as well as your conscience! Rebecca Day discards her mainstream make-up bag and opens our eyes to the world of natural, cruelty-free beauty products.

The history of make-up spans back thousands and thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used cosmetics to embellish their looks through the use of oils and eyeliners. They were slightly mystified by the discovery that this make-up also prevented bacterial infection due to a mild toxic content. These ‘magical’ qualities gave the products an allure which Egyptian women couldn’t resist. Cosmetics then spread across to Rome and Greece, where they became a privilege of only the ruling classes. Financially unfortunate types viewed the products as unnecessary and extravagant. The reputation of beauty products declined further during Europe’s Middle Ages when wearing make-up was even classed as a sin by the church. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that cosmetics made a re-emergence. The 19th century was about ‘ladies’ presenting themselves as beautiful through the utilisation of make-up and elaborate clothing. Industrialisation brought about advancements in technology, medicine and chemistry, enabling a great change in the formation of their cosmetics.

With the 20th century came photography, film and rapid communication which paved the way for the modern cosmetic industry many of us know today. Not only have advances in technology allowed for cosmetics to be mass produced using a concoction of chemicals, but it has also allowed large cosmeticcompanies to promote their brand through the utilisation of media platforms. We are constantly surrounded by images of women in the media with flawless skin; they have no bags under their eyes, no spots lacing their chins and no blemishes on their cheeks. It could be said that the beauty industry profits from this image of the ‘ideal’ face by suggesting that using their advertised products achieves the same air-brushed complexion! However, toxic ingredients existing in these High Street brands often go unnoticed – women are more likely to discuss the coverage of a product rather than how beneficial it is for our skin, the environment and animals.

The beauty industry is one of the fastest growing industries globally. Whilst researching statistics about women in the UK who wear make-up, it became evident that cosmetics play a large role in many of our daily lives. We wear make-up for a variety of reasons: to look younger, to feel more confident and to hide blemishes. In a poll conducted in 2011 by High Street chain, Superdrug, it revealed that a third of women wear make-up every time they leave their homes. According to a more recent study carried out for the Vitality Show, two thirds of women were ‘too scared’ to go to work without wearing make-up. Whilst this reveals women’s reliance on make-up, just how many are aware of what their cosmetics contain and the ethical credentials of global brands?

Cruelty-free & vegan

The good news is that testing cosmetic products on animals has been banned throughout Europe since 2004. Testing cosmetic ingredients was banned in 2009. However, only until recently, it was still legal to sell products which had been tested on animals elsewhere in the world. “The EU sales ban on all animal-tested cosmetics, introduced this year, reflects the public’s conviction that vanity cannot come before animals’ lives,” confirms Ben Williamson, the spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). However, animals are still used for testing across the globe for sales elsewhere, having chemicals dripped into their eyes and rubbed into their skin. China’s policy on make-up products still needs to be tackled. Before new products can go on sale in China, they must be submitted for testing to the Chinese authorities, which normally involves a range of animal tests. “Thanks to a generous grant from PETA US, scientists in China are now being trained in the use of non-animal test methods and working with officials to have these methods adopted,” says Ben. “China is currently in the process of implementing its first-ever non-animal methods for testing cosmetic ingredients.”

Although testing products on animals has been banned in the EU,animal by-products can still be found in products sold on the High Street. “The list of excretions and body parts that go into some beauty products is enough to make anyone’s skin crawl,” discloses Ben. “From cow’s urine and sheep placenta, to lanolin squeezed from slaughtered sheep carcass… even beaver genitals. People are unwittingly paying high prices to rub bee vomit onto their skin or wash their hair with gel made from boiled-down horse hooves.” Other animal and insect products which can be found in cosmetics on the High Street include shark liver oil (squalene); crushed beetle (carmine), often used in bright lipstick and fish scales (guanine), found in nail varnishes and shampoo to give the product a shimmery look. ‘Natural’ make-up brushes may be made from animal hair – such as goats and squirrels – because the bristles give good coverage. “With greater education and awareness of the cruelty associated with animal experiments, consumers around the world will increasingly demand cruelty-free products,” states Ben.

Cruelty Free International were instrumental in achieving the European ban on animal-tested cosmetics and toiletries. Around 500 cosmetic companies worldwide are now certified under Cruelty Free International’s ‘Leaping Bunny’ certification, including The Body Shop and Marks & Spencer. Michelle Thew, Cruelty Free International’s Chief Executive, explains that until Cruelty Free International achieves a global ban, the logo will continue to be the only guarantee that animals are not used for testing. It is estimated that around 15,000 cosmetic ingredients have already been proven safe to use. Michelle confirms that every day more companies are saying no to animal testing, and are continuing to produce safe and effective products.

However, although the products are stamped with the Leaping Bunny, it may not necessarily mean that the product is vegan, as some cosmetics will inevitably contain animal-derived ingredients. “While many companies that adopt a no-animal testing policy do also produce vegan products, the two claims need to be assessed separately,” says Michelle. “Similarly, just because a product is described as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ it does not necessarily mean the product was not tested on animals.” Cruelty Free International highlights companies offering vegan or vegetarian products as part of their range. By searching on, consumers can find a full list of Leaping Bunny certified companies, and check which companies produce vegan or vegetarian products too.

Chemical-free & organic

Not only is it essential to choose products which are cruelty-free and vegan, but it is also vital to purchase cosmetics which are free from harmful chemicals. According to a variety of sources, it takes around26 seconds for the skin to absorb any product. Ian Taylor from Green People suggests that up to 60% of some ingredients used in cosmetics may be absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream. “Substances absorbed in this way bypass the liver where detoxification takes place and instead can be circulated around the body where they may interact with living cells,” explains Ian. “By avoiding potentially toxic ingredients in make-up the risks from this exposure are considerably reduced.”

There are many undesirable ingredients in cosmetics that consumers need to avoid. Parabens are a type of preservative, which many mainstream cosmetic companies use to prevent the growth of microbes. Putting this ingredient into their make-up, companies can guarantee that their products will sustain a long shelf-life. However, research carried out by the University of Reading and the University Hospital of South Manchester which focussed on 40 women being treated for breast cancer, revealed that parabens were present in 99% of breast cancer tissues. Whilst we may not be certain that parabens are a cause of cancer, it’s certainly alarming that this research revealed the ingredient to have such a presence in the human body. Parabens have caused such an alarm that there is even talk of banning the ingredient in products throughout Europe.

Others include mineral oil, a by-product of petroleum, which is used in anything that is in liquid form as a filler to make products cheaper. Disposing of petroleum is very expensive, so oil companies sell it cheaply on to cosmetic companies. It can also go by names such as paraffin or petroleum jelly and is found in a majority of UK cosmetic brands. The ingredient gives skin a smooth texture and also has a long shelf-life – any cosmetic company’s dream! So, what are the dangers of mineral oil? When placed on the skin, it can have a very similar effect to wrapping your body in cling film – it blocks pores, consequently trapping bacteria and doesn’t allow the skin to breath. Skin becomes dehydrated through its incapability to absorb moisture – something which is essential for keeping the skin looking young and fresh. Mineral oils can therefore be labelled as one of the culprits for skin ageing, along with too much sun exposure. Phthalates, commonly used to soften plastic and to provide the scent in air fresheners and detergents, has also shown up in a range of cosmetics and nail polishes. It’s main purpose is to hold the scent and colour of make-up products. Extensive research has revealed that it disrupts hormones, and can be particularly harmful if used by pregnant women. Formaldehyde, an ingredient also used in nail varnishes and other skin care products, is understood to trigger allergic skin reactions. Furthermore, bismuth oxychloride – a by-product of refined tin, lead and copper – is known to commonly cause skin irritation.

It would appear that mainstream cosmetic companies often select ingredients based on business rather than principles – increasing profits come before people’s health. But there are a number of companies which ensure their cosmetics are not only safe for our skin, but kind to the environment and our little furry friends too. Green People is one of the most prominent companies committed to offering consumers ‘natural, organic and highly effective’ products. With all cosmetics registered by the Vegan Society, they also believe that it’s a ‘fundamental right’ to know exactly what their products contain. “Being ethical affects everything you do as a company,” declares Ian. “This includes making sure you don’t source ingredients and products from countries or companies that have human rights issues. It also means sourcing ingredients that are sustainably produced and which do not cause harm to the environment or users of the products.” The Ethical Company Organisation have awarded Ethical Accreditation to the Green People Company – the first cosmetics company to achieve this award. “Some companies produce products with minimal levels of organic ingredients and claim that their finished products are organic,” he clarifies. “We think this is misleading, therefore our products contain the highest possible level of organic ingredients.” All of Green People’s make-up is independently certified organic either by EcoCert or by Organic Food Federation under their Non-Food Certification Company scheme. “This gives customers the confidence that these products are genuinely organic,” he adds.

Because we’re worth it…

Berith Sandgren-Clarke, an image specialist and Arbonne International independent consultant, became involved in the beauty industry because of her love for people. “I’m passionate about helping women in particular,” she enthuses. “I enjoy making them feel more confident about themselves.” Having worked as an image consultant for around 11 years, Berith has developed a profound knowledge about skincare. “Women are good at going on diets and eating well. However, if they are using facial products which block the cells, their skin will react badly. They often don’t realise that what they apply to their skin is harmful.” When purchasing products, Berith reminds us of the importance of looking at the item’s shelf-life. “Because parabens are carcinogenic and used as a preservative, when purchasing we must check how long the item will stay fresh – if it’s less than 12 months it normally means it’s paraben-free.” Although mascara can last up to six months, Berith suggests that it should not be used for any longer than three. “The water, or oil, in our mascara attracts a lot of germs and bacteria which live in our eyelashes,” she says, and recommends we go for smaller packaging when shopping.

For years, Jameela Kosar – the founder of Bohemian Chic Minerals – struggled to find make-up that didn’t react badly with her skin. “It seemed everything I put on my face made me break out in some kind of rash, whether it was using make-up or skin care products,” she recalls. “Eye shadows made my eyes puffy; it looked like I had eczema. My face even started flaking – it was horrible!” With a beauty qualification, wearing and experimenting with make-up was an essential part of Jameela’s life. Walking through Uxbridge one day, she was approached by a woman selling mineral cosmetics. Not long after receiving a make-over, and loving the coverage it gave, the itching and redness soon returned. There were a few ingredients in the products which just didn’t work for Jameela’s skin – the products which contained bismuth oxychloride, talc or kaolin (a natural clay which can cause skin dehydration) reacted the worse with her skin. Her alarming outbreaks from these cosmetics made her search for less harmful alternatives. Two years ago, Jameela founded Bohemian Chic Minerals, a company whose products are ‘100% pure, natural and beautiful, and also suitable for vegans’. “It took a while to find the right formula,” she discloses. “The process took so long; it wasn’t easy and was sometimes very boring, but it had to be done.”

The main ingredients in her products are mica, iron dioxide and titanium dioxide, which works well as a non-inflammatory. ‘CI’ numbers – colour additives – in her products are created through an oxidation process, allowing items such as foundation to match with different skin tones. I asked what makes a powder bad for the skin. “It all depends how it is formulated: to create powders, ingredients are grounded down to nano particles which become absorbed into the pores,” explains Jameela. “Because these powders are too fine, they block up the skin, not allowing our faces to breath – we therefore feed our skin with lots of unhealthy chemicals.” Having noticed a great improvement in her skin since using her own products, she stands firm by her ethos that the less harmful ingredients in a product, the better.

Most of us know that processed food is unhealthy and we would prefer to fill our bodies with natural, nourishing ingredients. The same should apply for our skin. Whether its cosmetics, or general skincare, choosing certified products will ensure our conscience and complexion remain equally clear.