As I was bingeing “Domina,” a show about ancient Rome, I noticed the main character applied her eyeliner with a stick of charcoal. Marveling at the makeup’s simplicity, I wondered what ingredients my own beauty routine used. I grabbed my eyeshadow palette and Googled until I found the answer: petrochemicals.
Oh, yes. The same companies extracting oil from the earth and refining fossil fuels into gas also supply some key components in our cherished cosmetics. The ingredients listed in tiny print on the back of my own eye shadow palette included many of the most commonly found petrochemicals: petrolatum, mineral oil, perfume or fragrance, phthalates, amongst at least a dozen others.
As a writer with years of experience covering climate-related research, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard much on this subject through an environmental lens. When discussing the beauty industry’s environmental footprint and ways in which it can become more sustainable, are we neglecting an obvious key factor?
On both the corporate level and the consumer level, the conversation around the beauty industry’s impact on the environment has predominantly concerned the prevalence of microplastics (also made of, you guessed it, petroleum), with mass public outrage catalyzing the passage of The Microbead-Free Waters Act back in 2015. We’ve seen companies abolish — or at least pledge to ban — straws, or replace the plastic tubes with environmentally-friendlier alternatives in response to the global outrage over pictures of turtles with them up their noses. Of course, many brands have also responded to consumer demands to cut plastic use in beauty packaging, with refillable, recycled and alternative materials catching on throughout the industry, from mass to luxury.
In recent years, “clean” beauty has continued to boom, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. The specific sector of the market is expected to reach $15.7 billion by 2025, according to research firm Statista. Per a Feb. 2022 report, “The revenue of organic cosmetics in the United States was about 750 million U.S. dollars in 2016 and is forecasted to reach approximately 1.65 billion U.S. dollars by 2025, with most of the growth in revenue being attributed to organic face creams.”
So it’s no surprise that the number of brands positioning themselves as “clean” has absolutely exploded, and retailers including (but not limited to) Nordstrom, Target, Sephora and Ulta have overhauled their in-store and online strategies, implementing new marketing programs to highlight these brands for consumers seeking out certain “clean” buzzwords.
Many “clean” brands and their supporters have been the ones to single out petrochemicals as questionable for consumers’ health and safety; plenty of brands touting themselves as “clean” put petroleum-derived ingredients on their “banned” lists, despite the fact that the medical and scientific communities agree that the petrochemicals used in cosmetics like petroleum jelly are safe. Still, outside of the “clean” beauty movement, it can feel as though petroleum in our makeup is a subject no one wants to think about.
However, the impact these ingredients can have on the planet shouldn’t be brushed aside: Many of them are considered “forever chemicals,” that, when washed down the drain or otherwise discarded, don’t readily degrade in the natural environment and can get into water supplies, wildlife and even human bloodstreams and breastmilk. And beauty trends that rely on petro-based products are thriving.
Take, for example, TikTok’s latest trend of #slugging. This buzzy, popular skin-care practice preaches the benefits of spreading a layer of Vaseline on your face (or on certain dry patches) before bed to trap moisture in skin. Vaseline has relied upon petroleum jelly for its hero product since 1870. I have to ask: Do these Gen Z-ers, famous for their laudable no-nonsense advocation of climate change legislation and adoption of renewable energy infrastructure, know their petroleum jelly skin routine is supporting the oil industry, one of the biggest adversaries in history to a swift departure from fossil fuels?
My guess is, probably not. The carbon footprint associated with oil extraction and refinement is immense, as is the capital system currently dependent upon fossil fuels for longevity. But there’s a power to understanding the foundations of the current cosmetics system and the parties profiting from this mass customer ignorance. And that power enables change.
This isn’t to suggest that individual consumers — particularly beauty consumers, the majority of whom tend to identify as women — are “the problem.” As we know, the onus to make meaningful steps toward fighting climate change falls on corporations and governing bodies, who are responsible for causing most of the problems in the first place (or not properly regulating them). But as many of us choose to examine how we can lessen our own carbon footprints to become more conscious consumers, being armed with the right information is crucial.
For me, an examination of the larger picture of the petroleum industry was revealing. For one, oil isn’t necessarily the driving interest anymore. According to a 2018 International Energy Agency report, “petrochemicals are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil demand.” The general trend actually predicts a steady decrease in the value of oil per barrel over the next few years, spurring oil companies to slowly shift their priorities in preparation of a day when gas is not as crucial to society.
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And the shift to prioritize petrochemical refining is not subtle. In 2021, ExxonMobile earned 30% of its yearly revenue from petrochemical sales; bringing in around $7.8 billion, ExxonMobile boasted a 297% surge from the previous fiscal year. There’s also the fact that refining petroleum into oil is an inexpensive process. According to Constance Bailey, a chemistry professor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, although alternative technologies to create similar chemicals without petroleum are being developed, they’re more expensive. (Vaseline’s modest $2 price tag has always been part of its appeal and accessibility, after all.)
“The technology to [refine biobased material] is more expensive at the moment,” says Bailey. “And anytime you develop new technology, it takes a while for it to become competitive with the established technology.”
Of course, the oil industry is working to maintain that status quo. In 2021, Greenpeace surreptitiously videotaped an ExxonMobile petrochemical lobbyist parading under the false flag of the American Petroleum Institute to deter the Biden Administration’s regulations against “forever chemicals,” including the petrochemicals found in cosmetics.
While the world finally discusses transitioning to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels, the oil industry clearly has no interest in going the way of the dodo. So it’s up to governing bodies to take action.
The most obvious solution is to regulate the marketing of petroleum-based products, requiring any company using petrochemicals to disclose that information in clear language. For example, tobacco cigarette companies once claimed smoking was good for health, going so far as to advertise doctors advocating for the use of cigarettes. Once the actual impact of tobacco was revealed, the FDA required tobacco companies to disclose not only the risks of smoking cigarettes, but also information regarding the components and chemicals added to the commodity.
Additionally, the U.S. government, in both its federal and local capacity, has the resources to address accessibility: Lower income communities, often largely composed of people of color, have limited access to brands and options, whether due to financial constraints or retail “deserts” that simply make finding alternatives difficult. Already established programs working to abolish environmental racism, redlining and food deserts possess the resources and demographic information to investigate and correct the limited accessibility to products.
One initiative already in place is the USDA sponsored BioPreferred Program. Originally funded under the 2002 Farm Bill, the BioPreferred Program serves to “increase the purchase and use of biobased products,” according to a USDA spokesperson. Promoting the concept of Green Chemistry, BioPreferred provides a government-sponsored label companies can promote should their products meet the standards.
However, it’s important to understand that the BioPreferred sticker doesn’t mean it prohibits petrochemicals. According to the USDA spokesperson, “The USDA establishes a minimum standard for biobased contents based on what is practical and possible for each industry to allow for innovation and advancement of sustainable chemistry.” When I asked about oil lobbyists’ interactions with the BioPreferred program, my question was shut down and all follow-up emails went ignored.
Despite the USDA’s stance, certain cosmetics companies have taken it upon themselves to get the conversation going. YouthForia, famous from TikTok and for its oil-based blush, is one example. A cosmetics company looking to shake up the status quo, the brand offers products comprised of 100% biobased chemicals, according to CEO Fiona Chan.
“I think in the beauty industry, a lot of people tend to forget the fact that we’re just putting on makeup for a couple of hours and [then] we wash it down the drain,” says Chan, adding that, on average, that a teenage girl uses around 17 different products. Chan didn’t want YouthForia to continue the cycle of hundreds of chemicals per person draining into the environment. For Chan, it was important that YouthForia’s products “don’t deplete Earth’s fossil fuels and don’t harm [your] skin.”
Most beauty consumers simply aren’t aware of their inadvertent support of the oil industry through cosmetic purchases — or the related carbon footprint associated with petroleum-based products. The petroleum lobby has years of established connections and support to continue subverting the sustainable transition. But, with the help of up-and-coming mindful brands like YouthForia, awareness about the prevalence of petrochemicals in cosmetics is increasing, and discussions of available biobased alternatives are starting to take place.
The reality is that makeup is supposed to make our lives better: It can be an art from, an escape, a medium for self-expression, a grounding self-care ritual, a way to carry on cultural tradition, a means of boosting self-confidence. Being a beauty consumer shouldn’t have to mean compromising one’s own health, community impact or environmental footprint. So as conversations about climate change and sustainability take a more central place in the beauty industry, let’s try to ask the right questions, pull at the right threads and demand transparency from the brands we’re supporting and the governments we’re voting in to power. The conversation has officially begun.