How do cosmetics impact the environment?

How do cosmetics impact the environment?

When we don’t pay attention to the chemicals, toxins and plastics that are part of our cosmetic consumption, we are unknowingly contributing to the poisoning of water, bleaching of coral reefs, displacement of hundreds of species from their habitats and generating huge volumes of waste. It’s time to understand the impact of cosmetics on our environment and how you can be more aware to stop it. 

We’ve rounded up seven of the biggest environmental concerns created by the cosmetics industry. They have an essential role to play in urgently changing their practices and products to help deal with the climate and wildlife crises.

1) Mass production of plastic

Packaging in the beauty industry is less practical and more fanciful.  Approx 70% of the beauty industry’s waste comes from packaging - amounting to 20 billion units every year. 

Once you've used up your lipstick, shampoo or body wash it gets thrown away. Only small amounts are recycled. Currently, 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year. 

Plastic is not biodegradable, which means it will never decompose. Instead, it goes through a process called ‘photodegradation’ where it shatters and breaks down into microscopic sizes. This process takes between 100 to 500 years to complete depending on the type of plastic. The smaller the plastic, the more of a hazard it becomes and the harder it is to clean up. 

Already, 100,000 marine mammals die worldwide as a direct result of plastic pollution. This includes dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and even whales. Each year, the average person consumes around 70,000 microplastics. Per meal, that’s around 100 pieces of microplastic. The UN environmental program also warns that if the waste trend continues, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050. 

2) Cosmetics are wiping out forests and wildlife 

Palm oil is one of the most used ingredients in our cosmetics. Its high demand has led to unsustainable extensive cultivation. To make way for palm oil plantations, huge areas of natural forests have been removed and countless animal species have lost their homes. Other cosmetic oil sources including soy, rapeseed, and coconut can also have the same detriments when not grown and harvested sustainably. 

Aerial view of a palm oil plantation

Furthermore, 18 million acres of forest are cut down each year to make cardboard boxes, paper wraps and packing tissues that consumers throw away as soon as they begin using the product. 

3) Cosmetics are boosting air pollution

Perfumes, hairsprays and deodorants pollute the environment as much as car emissions.

Studies have shown that scented products emit the same level of chemical vapours as petroleum emissions from cars in the form of ‘volatile organic compounds’ (VOCs). These interact with other particles in the air to produce harmful ozone and a type of pollution known as PM2.5, which is very bad for our lungs.  WHO estimates that 7 million die each year from air pollution.  

Many cosmetic products are made in foreign countries and need to be transported overseas - leaving a large carbon footprint too. These carbon emissions speed up the processes of global warming and pose risks to our health. 

4) Creates huge water waste 

Water is the cosmetic industry’s most used ingredient. Although it is a safe and natural ingredient, from a sustainability standpoint, the resource is dwindling. The United Nations has predicted that 52% of the world's population will live in water-stressed regions by 2050.

Another consequence of using water as a filler to bulk out a product is its weight. Water is heavier than most oils, even, and the heavier the load, the higher the transportation emissions.

5) Beauty chemicals are killing our coral reefs 

Every cosmetic we use eventually washes off and ends up in our oceans. Often, shampoos, sunscreens, creams, and lotions contain harmful chemicals which cause damage to the environment. 

Parabens and triclosan are the biggest culprits and have been tagged as endocrine disruptors and linked with cancer. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls the world's coral reefs 'one of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth', yet they are subjected to 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen every year. 

A common chemical ingredient used in almost every sunscreen is ‘Oxybenzone’ also known as ‘Benzophenone-3’. This is an active chemical that absorbs UVA and UVB rays which protects skin from the sun. Whilst this ingredient is very effective at protecting your skin, it is a culprit in the massive destruction of coral reefs in the world's oceans.

Studies show that Oxybenzone damages the coral’s DNA and interferes with the reproduction and growth of young coral. Coral reefs house diverse ecosystems that provide habitat and food for many marine organisms, they also generate billions of tourist dollars to local economies.

Chemical ingredients like BHT, sodium Laureth sulfate, and BHA have also been found to cause changes to the biochemistry of aquatic life. They reduce the animal plankton population - a crucial food source to marine life and even result in fish death. Once these chemicals enter our waterway they are hard to remove. Even after sewage treatment, some of these chemicals remain in our water supply.

6) Accelerating single-use behaviour and waste 

Single-use items are one of the biggest contributions to the huge volumes of waste in the beauty industry. Items used for applying and removing cosmetics such as wet wipes, cotton buds and pads, face masks and blotting sheets are only used once and then are binned. These amount to a lot of waste too! 

In the UK, we use 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds each year and an astonishing 11 billion wet wipes each year - causing an environmental catastrophe. Wet wipes clog up sewage systems and by the time they enter our oceans become often ingested by sea life, such as turtles, who mistake them for jellyfish and eventually die. 

And for wet wipes that are not flushed, they end up in landfills where their toxic chemicals seep into the soil and poison our land. 

7) The beauty industry is still causing animal cruelty

Testing cosmetics on animals is not only inhumane and unnecessary, but it is also a huge polluter. Surprisingly, 80% of countries still allow cosmetics to be tested on animals, subjecting 100 million animals a year to possible allergens that often cause suffering and death. 

Testing facilities are highly resource-intensive and wasteful. They require huge amounts of space, ventilation, temperature stabilization, and constant lighting. They produce waste including chemical, radioactive, and biological hazards, from cleaning, testing and burning dead bodies. Between 2011 and 2013, waste from the National Institutes of Health’s animal testing facilities (USA) totalled 1.5 million pounds in weight. 

Boycotting animal-tested cosmetics can help bring an end to the demand for these inhumane practices. 


Despite the cosmetics industry making small progress, it is clear that green innovation is not a priority in the almost $700 billion dollar beauty industry.

At KiteNest, we put our ethos and ethics before everything we do, but that doesn't mean that your finished product will be any less amazing. Our clean conscious cosmetics won't only help the planet, but they'll make you feel incredible too.

All KiteNest products are 100% natural, cruelty-free and don't include any harmful ingredients like SLS or parabens. Our products are made from natural ingredients using renewable energy and are packaged with zero-plastic. We have refill options too. 

How you can help?

We should all care for the beauty of our planet as much as we care for the beauty of our bodies. By adjusting and making simple swaps to your beauty routine you can help push the agenda of sustainable cosmetics forward by: 

  • Choose natural beauty products
  • Buy from sustainable beauty brands
  • Swap to reusable wipes
  • Continue to educate the impact of your consumerism and routines 
  • Avoid products that contain unstainable Palm Oil or Vegetable Oil
  • Avoid buying sunscreen that contains Oxybenzone
  • Choose plastic-free products
  • Opt for product packaging made with glass, tin or recycled paper
  • Proactively support businesses which provide refill options
  • Purchase cosmetics from local companies to lower their carbon footprint
  • Bycott products that are tested with animals
  • Send empties into TerraCycle when they aren't accepted through curbside recycling. You can see a full range of their services here