Cosmetic Ecology and the Battle for Beauty

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Microbeads. That’s a word I’ve been hearing a lot of lately. They’re exactly what they sound like: tiny plastic microspheres that can be found in science labs or, more often, cosmetics and toothpastes. If you’ve ever used an exfoliating scrub, the chances are it’s microbeads that give it that granulated texture that leaves your skin feeling smooth and fresh. The reason these little blighters have been getting so much attention lately is that they’re used in bathrooms around the world but, once they go down the drain, are too small for typical sewage treatment facilities to remove them from wastewater streams. That means that when you’ve rinsed them off your face, they’re probably headed straight for a waterway where they accumulate in the biosphere. Their tiny proportions make them easily edible for marine life, and effectively impossible to completely eliminate from the environment.

Now, I don’t mean this post to be a narrowly-focused tirade (but, by all means, strive to purge your life of all microbead-based products). What I would like to do is call attention to yet another vanity-related environmental menace. I recall a time when the lead and whale-blubber content of lipsticks was all over the news. I was pretty surprised to hear that Johnson & Johnson, manufacturers of the “No More Tears” shampoo that is nearly ubiquitous in households with infants, just eliminated formaldehyde from their baby shampoos. Like, this year. Every time I hear a new story about how a personal care product I use on a daily basis contains something sinister, I feel like I need o hire a toxicologist to examine my daily routine. What I find eerie is that many of these unsavory ingredients go into products across the quality spectrum, and products that are sold globally. We’re pretty much all in this together.

Though I’m a self-professed environmentalist, I find it exceedingly easy to overlook the ecological repercussions of most of my actions. I’ve been washing my face with those horrendous microbeads for years, as a baby my head was lathered up with formaldehyde-y shampoo, and I’ve probably ingested a non-inconsequential amount of lead from my lipstick use. Perhaps, then, it would behoove us all to take a good look at all the little things we do. What contact lens solution do you use? What’s in your hand soap or moisturizer? Is there anything odd in your shaving cream? A bit more conscientiousness on the part of us consumers, especially when it comes to the little luxuries of vanity we grant ourselves, could go a long way. If all of us switched to biodegradable exfoliating scrubs, there would be 90% less plastic waste in Lake Eyrie.

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