Credit photo: Francesco Ungaro
We hate to break it to you, but sunscreen isn’t the only product you need to be careful about when it comes to water-based toxins. To be able to fully understand the scale of the threat oceans and rivers face from cosmetics, we first need to explore how ingredients go from our makeup bags into the sea in the first place (spoiler alert: it doesn’t only happen when you go for a swim in the sea). Then, we’ll look at which ingredients are problematic and precisely how they cause issues for the delicate ecosystem that keeps our oceans alive. And lastly, we’ll see what brands are doing to create effective and safe formulas for us and our oceans.
How do cosmetics get into the water?
As much as we’d love to say the only way your cosmetics get into the ocean is by going swimming in the sea, that just isn’t the case. If it were, we’d all be able to wash off any cosmetics before going into the water, and everything would be golden. In reality, though, every time we rinse ourselves in the shower or wring out our makeup-stained washcloths over the sink, the ingredients in our haircare and skincare products begin a long journey through the water system and into the sea.
In essence, after the water leaves our homes, it goes through sewer systems and into a treatment facility. These treatment facilities can remove waste and impurities from the water before it’s released back into the system. That being said, treated water does make its way to the ocean in the long run. Researchers have found that conventional wastewater treatment may not be effective enough at filtering chemicals.
Which ingredients aren’t reef-safe?
There’s a whole host of ingredients that aren’t great for the environment, but some stand out when it comes to their impact on the oceans. Not only have these ingredients been found to be harmful to the environment, but they’re not great for us humans either. Here are a few leading ones to consider:
Probably one of the most talked about chemicals when it comes to safety for humans, and for the environment, a whole host of brands are phasing out parabens. The chemical is used as a preservative to keep products fresh but is known for causing changes to chemical levels in the sea that can accumulate in wildlife and even cause coral to die off.
Oxybenzone and octinoxate
According to Ocean Conservancy, oxybenzone and octinoxate, two sunscreen ingredients, are some of the worst culprits in terms of cosmetics that can harm the ocean. The ingredients have been found to cause all sorts of issues for marine life, affecting algae’s ability to grow, deform and kill coral, and even causing congenital disabilities and hormonal disruption in fish. Reef-safe sun protection now generally doesn’t include these ingredients, but it’s always worth reading labels to be sure.
A preservative ingredient, triclosan, is considered toxic to organisms in its original form, and it can also be transformed into carcinogenic chemicals when exposed to UV. This chemical actually tends to affect freshwater organisms, causing damage before it even reaches the ocean, so this is definitely one to look out for.
It should go without saying that avoiding microplastics in our cosmetics - and disposing of plastic packaging responsibly - is essential to preserving water quality worldwide. A common culprit, plastic exfoliating beads, should no longer be in circulation since they were banned a few years ago).
What are brands doing to solve the problem?
On the whole, cosmetics brands are waking up to the issue and are working on creating formulas that don’t rely on ingredients that are harmful to oceans’ ecosystems. Regulations vary from region to region, so labeling can still be misleading. As tempting as “reef safe” and “paraben-free” labels are, for now, knowing your ingredients is the most effective way to be sure you’re shopping consciously.
There are certifications available for cosmetics, including biorius Reef Friendly, which aims to help consumers avoid having to spend time checking ingredients because they’ve done the checks for you.
What can we do to keep our oceans free from harmful ingredients found in cosmetics?
The good news amongst all this pretty bleak information is that there are things we can do every day to make changes. The first, and most effective method, is switching up buying habits. Take time to go over labels before adding cosmetics to your cart. Not only will this mean you know exactly what’s in the products you’re using every day, but it will also show brands that being ocean safe is vital to consumers. And changes from brands are the most effective way to make a difference on a large scale.
And when it comes to direct impact, avoiding using cosmetics aside from sunscreen when you’re going in the ocean can’t do any harm!