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How the Beauty Industry Might Be Causing Harm To Our Bodies and the Environment

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

Guest Written By Nur Alifah Bte Abdul Malik

Edited By Rakin Kaisan, Made Prima, Salsabila Khairunisa, SG Climate Rally

Note: A reader has pointed out that the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which was referenced in this article, is heavily funded by the organic lobby and tends to share misinformation on toxicology in order to sell more products. We were unaware of this when publishing the article, but to provide a fuller picture, you can read more about it here:


Beauty standards are always evolving, but one thing stays consistent — these standards demand perfection from women. Consequently, the usage of beauty products has become one of the most important factors for appearance in order to reach society’s standard of ideal beauty. These standards are also further reinforced by the media, which encourages the consumption of beauty products in order to achieve a desired “ideal” beauty standard. However, aside from driving many women to go great lengths in order to look conventionally attractive, the rising trend of beauty products hides a bigger issue.

The Risks of Using Illegal Beauty Products For Our Bodies

Some cosmetic labels claim that their products are toxic free and offer instant results to get a perfect look, driving a huge amount of people to buy these products increasingly. However, their claims are not proven to be free from risks of harm, according to a research from the “Environmental Working Group” conducted in 2018.

The research found that less than 200 beauty products contained 'Polyfluoroalkyl' and 'Isobutylparaben' and 'Isopropylparaben'. Furthermore, these toxic substances contain formaldehyde, pythons, alates, parabelead, mercury, triclosan, and benzophenone that can disrupt the endocrine system and immune system, making consumers more susceptible to infectious diseases and viruses.

Many brands still continue to use toxic substances in their products, which is a serious threat to public health. As an example, the packaging of beauty products come from plastics and glass which are harmful to the environment based on recent studies. Around 70% of the beauty industry contributes to the wastage of plastics from packaging, which is concerning, as many consumers are oblivious to what happens after they throw away the packaging. Hence, immediate actions against cosmetics that pollute mother nature are needed before it poses grave danger to our shared earth.

The Beauty Industry’s Links to Destruction of Environment and Exploitation of Workers

Massive exploitation of the environment by the beauty industry has resulted in the extraction of chemical substances for cosmetics into the worst situation. As a look, in the degradation of land, water and air for the past decades. Components that function to support life are allegedly damaged by the anthropocentric view, which sees the environment as only being dredged to meet human’s needs and profit without looking at other factors. Cosmetic packaging and toxic chemicals pollute a green environment and produce stuck landfills in the bodies of animals and relentlessly destroy the planet. In the other words, beauty products that mostly contain a source of harmful emission become particularly dangerous when released into the air.

This happens a lot in the place of work in the beauty industry. Workers under the beauty industry face health hazards at work from exposure to toxic ingredients in beauty products that they are not aware of. This is coupled with lack of workplace safety standards that prioritise the health of workers. Examples of occupations with long-term exposure to toxic ingredients include nail and hair salon workers.

A study from Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) on the health impacts of exposure to beauty chemicals on most women who work for beauty care is the first of its kind. The study, “Beauty and Its Beast: Unlocking the Impact of Toxic Chemicals on Salon Workers”, indicates long-term exposure to products routinely used in salons leads to an array of negative health conditions frequently suffered by beauticians and other salon workers.

The report aggregates decades of research on the incidence of those health problems in the beauty care workforce. Include a disproportionate amount of cancers, neurological diseases such as dementia and depression, immune diseases, birth defects, reproductive disorders including a high rate of miscarriages, skin diseases, asthma and other breathing problems. WVE tracked down studies showing that hair and nail salon workers have higher risk of several types of cancer, including breast cancer, lung cancer, cancer of the larynx, bladder cancer and multiple myeloma, than the rest of the population. The majority of salon workers suffer from skin conditions of various kinds and are more likely than other groups of workers to have throat problems like coughs and nasal and throat irritation.

Furthermore, these workers experience various kinds of exploitation; aside from being exposed to hazardous chemicals in a workplace, they also have long work hours and receive low wages from industry. As a fact, most of the workers have to go through a mandatory work time and are required to serve customers and do the other grunt work needed to run in the beauty industry. Moreover, these workers do not enjoy financial stability and thus are driven to rely on jobs that are harmful for their overall health. As a result, many beauty industries have undergone low salaries for their workers.

Most of these workers are women and experience a gap in wages as compared to male workers. A woman worker may be forced to accept working conditions or entitlements in exchange for the flexibility she requires to care for children or sick or elderly relatives. For example a woman worker may have to take a part-time job that is low paid or below her skill level in order to fit with her family care demands. At the same time, work that is highly flexible, unpredictable and insecure can be problematic for women with young children, who cannot obtain childcare at short notice and who need a steady income to support their family.

International Labour Organisation, inequality of treatment marks virtually all aspects of women's working lives. Beginning with wages and employment opportunities and extending to access to decision-making and managerial positions. Women make up a greater percentage of workers in "informal" and other precarious forms of employment, which tend to lie outside the purview of labour regulations and inspection, and are therefore more prone to exploitation. In the industrialised countries, between 65 and 90% of all part-time workers are women.

A very high percentage of women in developing countries work in the informal sector. These jobs do not provide the benefits of full-time work in the formal sector including steady wages, adequate occupational health and safety conditions, job security and social protection. Numerous recent events have pointed to the pressed wages at the lower end of wage distribution, giving rise to public concern about rising inequality and the problems faced by workers in coping with rising living costs. In the case of beauty industry workers, this is another significant factor contributing to the imbalance of bargaining power between workers and employees. This situation makes workers much more miserable and continue to live on the verge of injustice and poverty due to prolonged exploitation by industry.

Critics to Beauty Standard and the Global Beauty Industry

Beauty standards set a level of “ideal” and “perfection” that puts pressure and expectation on women to look a certain way. As an example with shades of cosmetics. It is extremely difficult to find a foundation that matches the skin tone of People of Colour. Every single foundation had shades that were much lighter, even the darkest foundation shade did not match as well with the other consumers.

Consumers around the globe, specifically those coming from countries that were historically colonised and hierarchies of skin colours are left as a ‘legacy’, shared similar experiences which implies that the problem is how the global beauty industry only caters to eurocentric beauty standards with a fairer skin tone and impossible standards in our society such as like doll or inhumane look. Coming from this point of view, an individual with a much darker skin tone is subjugated to colonial standards which led them to believe that achieving a lighter skin tone would make them more beautiful.

Although currently, as a society, we are slowly moving forward beyond those eurocentric beauty standards, evidenced by the existence of post-colonial critics that touched upon this subject, the number of those moving forward is still a minority compared to the giant beauty industries who preserve these standards through the media we consume everyday for the sake of profit accumulation.

This phenomenon of toxic beauty standards and the harm coming from its products paved the way for the rise of many self-acclaimed ‘eco friendly’ beauty products. These products claim to represent eco-conscious businesses who pay great attention to the substances being used in the products, how they’re being extracted, the packaging process, whether they’re being tested on animals or not, and the waste management of the products afterwards. Most of these businesses are in fact very meticulous in presenting the production cycles to their consumers and feel that this could be a good start in bringing change to the now environmentally harmful beauty industry.

However, It it is not enough to stop at ‘being eco conscious’ and calling it a day, as if all the problems related to the beauty industry are solved because in reality, there are many eco friendly beauty products who still use skin whitening ingredients that promotes eurocentric racist notions of beauty itself but with ‘euphemism’. For example, many companies use the term ‘glowing skin’ to sell their products, even though what they meant by ‘glowing’ is the bright white skin that was imposed by colonial standards.

Rooted in colonial standards, the exploitation of the body is still continuing until nowadays and it is incomparable to profit and will only cause misery to the point of profit-driven, in a way that exploits both women in order to generate revenue. A concept that does not support itself as it is, emotionally and powerfully will never feel happiness and be much more miserable. Therefore, the concept of love and self-acceptance have weighted importance in our everyday actions because it may support aspects of physical, mental and emotional health. The effort to achieve ‘beauty’ is in fact not a practice to ‘weaken’ or ‘strengthen’ something. It is an effort to “feel and take care of those feelings”.

Indeed, it is not easy to learn how to love ourselves when all our life we have been taught to ‘unlove’ it. We grow up with comments and discourses that are centered around our bodies, faces; our physical appearances. Hence, it is crucial for us as a society to create our own alternatives: a space where everyone feels loved and accepted, even if it’s just a small group of people. We could start from things as simple as changing the way we compliment people. For example, shifting from commenting on someone’s physical appearance to those of one’s inner qualities.

It would be more reflective and visceral since we did not stop on what is apparent on the surface. Not only that, these habits could also free oneself from the confinement of social standards that exist in society and will eventually bring critical discourses around the dilemma of beauty standards formed by our current social system. It is of utmost importance that we reconstruct the idea of beauty in our society. Today, we are still living with the ghost of the past; colonial beauty standards that are both harmful to our bodies and mother nature.

We should go beyond that by challenging the ‘status quo’ through alternatives that are community based and prioritises those most vulnerable and benefit the least from this exploitative trend. These alternatives will not come from giant industries, who live and accumulate wealth from the toxic beauty culture itself. It will come from the people, the 99%.

It is time for justice to be served without causing destruction from both sides, so that the environment is preserved and the identity of women in the world can be fully their own.

Writer Bio

Nur Alifah Bte Abdul Malik

A sophisticated and passionate student who loves to be involved in social service. An advisor and content writer of Jaga Rimba, a youth-led movement battling deforestation and harmful exploitation in Indonesian forests.

Motivated to encourage people to participate in building a positive place. Loves to create awareness on kindness to the wider community. Inspired to initiate justice for all surroundings and communities for a better world future.



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