Over 25 million Americans use face lotions more than two times per day. While that equates to a lot of baby-bum smooth cheeks, it also equates to a lot of emissions from extraction, production, and transportation.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON
Face lotions are made with dozens of ingredients. Everyone’s skin has different needs and sensitivities when it comes to moisturizer, but there are some key ingredients that we suggest avoiding in order to reduce unnecessary harm to our planet, including sulfates, artificial fragrances, phosphates, and palm oil. Despite efforts to reduce animal testing in the beauty space, it still exists. Be aware of some key certifications to ensure you’re not contributing to this practice. And one of the most effective ways to decrease the environmental impacts of face lotion is to choose packaging that can be reused or recycled.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Sulfates, like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS), are emulsifying cleaning agents used to break down and wash away the dirt and grime that water can’t get rid of on its own. They also happen to be highly toxic threats to aquatic life, from algae to frogs to fish. Although there is some debate on sulfates, the World Health Organization unequivocally states that SLS “...is toxic to aquatic organisms. It is strongly advised not to let the chemical enter into the environment.” Take our advice, and the WHO’s, and try to avoid face lotions that contain these harmful ingredients.
The most elusive ingredients of all might be “fragrances”. That’s because fragrances are protected from disclosure. While “fragrance” might appear to be one ingredient on the label, that word could potentially comprise hundreds of chemical compounds just for one scent! What’s our beef with smelling like roses? It’s not the scent that worries us, but what comes along with it. In particular, phthalates, which enable fragrances to become soluble. They are known endocrine disruptors in both humans and aquatic life and can even lower the production of testosterone. Studies have found that prenatal exposure to phthalates can decrease mental and motor development in children. Yikes. Always double-check the label to make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re putting on your body.
What about non-synthetic fragrances? Essential oils, botanicals, and plant extracts – while naturally occurring – can still cause skin irritation. Enter: contact dermatitis. Fragrances like linalool and limonene, fragrances extracted from citrus fruit peels, can cause allergic reactions indelicate, or sensitive, skin. However, if your skin can handle these non-synthetic fragrances, go for it.
Some of the biggest offenders in face lotions are phosphates. Excessive use of phosphates may lead to eutrophication, which is the release of excess nutrients into bodies of water. When too many nutrients enter the water, it can lead to a huge increase in algae growth which can release nasty toxins as they grow that make humans and fish sick. Even worse, these algal blooms can block sunlight from getting to plants in the water, which can lower oxygen levels and suffocate fish. Look into face lotions that avoid the use of phosphates.
Oh palm oil… don’t want to live with it, but it’s hard to live without it. Palm oil is commonly found in lotions because it’s a great source of vitamin E and antioxidants. About 66 million tons of palm oil are produced annually, making it the most common vegetable oil on Earth. It is a very productive crop, offering greater yield at a lower production cost than any other vegetable oil. However, it’s derived from oil palm trees which only grow in the tropics and need a serious amount of water to flourish.
The increased use of palm oil has directly led to deforestation, child labor exploitation, the displacement of Indigenous peoples, increased global warming, and has threatened 321 species with extinction, such as orangutans, Borneo elephants, and tigers. As the demand for palm oil-based products expands, so too does the demand for palm oil plantations. That means that areas like Borneo and Sumatra are disproportionately affected by the problems caused by the expansion of palm oil production, which is reportedly responsible for 5% of all tropical deforestation. The expansion also leads to increasing land scarcity and higher land prices, which affects the livelihoods of local farmers who can be shut out by bigger corporate growers.
It’s important to note that not all palm oil is produced in such an irresponsible way – some palm oils are produced without contributing to deforestation or ecosystem disruption, but it is a limited amount. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) claims to certify sustainable palm oil production. However, researchers have found no significant difference between certified and non-certified plantations for any of the sustainability metrics investigated, such as conservation of biodiversity, consideration of social impacts, economic viability, or commitment to best practices. Plus, less than 7% of total palm oil production is certified as sustainable by RSPO.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on face lotion.
Fair Trade Certified
Fair Trade Certified™ is the global brand of the nonprofit organization Fair Trade USA. The Fair Trade certification works on the ground with suppliers to ensure that people making FTC products work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and earn additional money to empower their communities. This certification has intersectional impacts, including an emphasis on safe working conditions, environmental protection, sustainable livelihoods, and Community Development Funds. For more details on this certification, check out our Fair Trade Certified glossary definition.
Leaping Bunny is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted on any product ingredients. It’s the most stringent animal rights standard, so prioritize this one if you want to alleviate your animal welfare concerns.
PETA Cruelty-Free Certified
PETA’s Cruelty-Free offers a searchable database of companies and denotes whether they conduct, commission, or test their products on animals. It’s a great tool to use when vetting face lotions and other personal care products.
Much of today’s face lotion comes in plastic packaging, and unfortunately, it’s usually made with several types of plastic. This makes it difficult to recycle the entire unit through curbside pick-up programs in one piece. Luckily, L’Occitane teamed up with Terracycle to create a face lotion recycling program that allows people to send in any brand’s used product via mail or drop-off – check the website for nearby locations.
Plastic is made of carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels, which we extract from the earth’s crust by drilling and fracking. Drilling and fracking have a host of negative environmental consequences that can devastate already fragile wildlife populations. Because plastic is such a strong material, products made from plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade or decompose. The only sprinkle of sugar is that plastic provides a lighter-weight, durable option that can lessen emissions associated with transportation and distribution. But when plastic is only used once, those potential savings still leave us with a pretty bitter taste.
Glass is made of naturally occurring materials such as sodium carbonate, silica sand, and limestone. Glass can be recycled endlessly, but 70% is still sent to landfills annually and it can take one million years to decompose! Plus, when it comes to production, limestone mining causes water contamination and habitat destruction, which can harm those who live near limestone quarry sites. Studies show that dust from limestone mining is associated with an increase in heart and respiratory diseases, as well as cancer. Yikes. Luckily, glass can be recycled endlessly and its structural integrity doesn’t suffer when it’s reprocessed. More reused and recycled glass means less mining. Also, glass is made of materials that aren’t toxic if they reach our waterways. Make sure your glass face lotion containers get recycled or reused to minimize their environmental impacts.
Whether it be a tin or a tube, aluminum is commonly used for face lotion packaging. One of the main reasons is that aluminum is a highly recyclable material and 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. Before you go celebrate, know that not everyone recycles aluminum tubes properly – many recycling facilities won’t take them if the plastic cap is still attached. Luckily, the L'Occitane recycling program through Terracycle mentioned above will also collect aluminum face lotion tubes (plastic caps attached or not). But before we get much further, know that aluminum has its drawbacks from an environmental and social perspective.
Firstly, aluminum is derived from bauxite, which has been linked to human rights issues in Guinea because of mining practices that have taken ancestral farmlands from local communities without providing sufficient compensation. Plus, bauxite mining can reduce access to clean water sources and the dust produced by mining can pollute the air in surrounding areas. Aside from these social implications, the smelting process used to produce aluminum is extremely energy-intensive and can actually produce up to twice the amount of greenhouse gasses as the production of plastic.
Before you go swearing off aluminum, know that recycling can save 95% of the energy used to produce new aluminum packaging because the energy-intensive smelting process is removed from the equation. The best way to reduce aluminum-related emissions from your face lotion purchase is to prioritize brands that use recycled aluminum in their packaging.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
To truly cut back on the impact of face lotion, try using a little less product. Some brands recommend using just a pea-size amount of lotion, and that can stretch even further if applied to damp skin. Aside from using less, be cognizant of the ingredients in the lotion and the materials that make up its packaging. We recommend avoiding SLS, phosphates, fragrances, and palm oil and opting for lotions that come in recycled or reusable packaging, preferably made of glass or aluminum.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“What kind of face lotion is the most sustainable?”
While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” face lotion because using it will always come with resource tolls and associated waste, we came up with this list of more sustainable face lotions based on what they’re made of.
“What is the most natural moisturizer for the face?”
If you were to check out our handy-dandy glossary, you’d see that based on Finch’s definition, “natural” isn’t useful in choosing personal care products. And, if we’re defining natural as not made or caused by people, then natural products just don’t exist – you likely won’t just stumble across a glob of face lotion in the wild. Individual ingredients or materials might be natural, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better. If you’re on the hunt for products that are “natural”, we encourage you to ask yourself what you’re really looking for. Are you interested in purchasing a product that is minimally processed or includes the least amount of artificial ingredients possible? Are you interested in purchasing a product with a lower carbon footprint? Once you find out what matters most to you, use this guide to help you make the right decision.
“Which face lotions are non-toxic?”
To be honest, “non-toxic” doesn’t actually mean much of anything either. In fact, no chemical or material is purely “non-toxic”. Instead of saying “non-toxic”, scientists will determine whether something is NOAEL (aka it has ‘No Observed Adverse Effect Level’). The NOAEL is the highest amount of a chemical an organism can be exposed to before it begins showing some sort of toxic response, like getting sick or developing a rash. When it comes to face lotions, SLS and phosphates have observed adverse effects, so we recommend avoiding those ingredients to protect your skin and the environment.