Bright green liquid makeup is smeared against a black background.

Photograph by Fernando Gomez / Trunk Archive

Why Are We Still Putting Harmful Chemicals on Our Face?

words by molly lipson

News that the UK government is silently overturning a long-standing ban on animal testing for makeup ingredients has been met with outrage from activists. But the harmful effects of the beauty industry on our ecosystems are far more insidious.

Last week, the UK government very quietly reversed a 25-year ban on animal testing for makeup ingredients. Despite the outrage that ensued, the news shouldn’t come as a surprise. 


The ban, which had been in place since 1998, has routinely been jeopardized by the Home Office since 2019 when it started issuing licenses for animal testing of certain ingredients; a move that the Home Office says is in line with EU rulings that allowed such testing as a “last resort.” Animal rights group Cruelty Free International proceeded to take the UK government to the High Court in August 2022 to clarify the UK’s position on animal testing in light of these revelations, and to reinforce that the ban should remain in place. In its ruling following the case’s hearing in May 2023, the High Court sided with the government, stating that they were acting legally.


The recent ruling means the UK is now further aligned with new EU regulations that came into power in 2020, which requires certain ingredients be tested on animals to ensure they are safe for humans to handle. Even so, the UK government has assured the public that they don’t view the High Court’s ruling as overriding the ban and that it remains in place. Animal rights organizations are not convinced.


The British Beauty Council, a nonprofit organization that seeks to create positive change within the beauty industry, says that they are working with various policymakers and stakeholders to investigate the challenges facing the UK Government’s approach to cosmetics testing following the recent news. “We continue to work towards completely eliminating animal testing from UK beauty as something that is of the utmost importance to both consumers and industry,” a representative told Atmos.

When it comes to harm within the beauty industry, animal testing is just the tip of the iceberg.

Animal testing can be traced back to as early as the first century when animals were used for scientific experimentation. However, cosmetics testing is a more recent endeavor, though it’s difficult to pin its beginnings to a specific date. In the US, the government passed a law in 1938 that required new cosmetics to adhere to certain safety regulations, leaving manufacturers with little choice but to test on animals. The extent of the testing was often extreme; one particular test developed in 1944, dubbed the Draize test, involved dropping chemicals into the eyes of rabbits to assess the effects of cosmetics on eye health.


The US currently has no national ban on animal testing at all, so it’s up to states to individually put such laws into place. Currently, only ten states ban animal testing, which means that in those states products that have been tested on animals cannot be sold or manufactured. Though this is a step in the right direction, it’s just a drop in the ocean in terms of the national and global beauty industry. In Europe, animal testing for cosmetics was only outlawed in 2013 by the EU, but its updated 2020 legislation will have wide-reaching consequences for animal testing across all member states. And China, the world’s second‑largest consumer market for cosmetics, has also not banned animal testing though it has stopped requiring post-market animal testing for brands entering the Chinese market.


There is longstanding outrage at countries’ unwillingness to fully outlaw animal testing, and the UK government’s ban reversal is the latest in a series of frustrating steps that seek to undermine progress so far. But when it comes to harm within the beauty industry, animal testing is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Problem With Cruelty-Free Beauty

The term “cruelty-free” is used by companies wanting to distinguish their products as untested on animals—but even this is a complex web to navigate. In some cases, a product hasn’t directly been tested on an animal, but some of its ingredients might have. In others, a cruelty-free brand might be owned by a bigger conglomerate that allows animal-testing on some of its other labels.


The reality of the beauty industry’s environmental devastation, however, is far more insidious. Jessica DeFino, a beauty critic and writer, explains that the beauty industry harms animals—and the wider environment— just by existing. “There are so many activists who are very passionate about animal testing…and I would invite them to think of some of the other, perhaps more under the radar, ways that the cosmetics industry is contributing to climate change and is killing animals, biodiversity, microorganisms in the soil, ocean life,” she said. “It’s all linked.” 


The beauty industry is a huge contributor to global heating and biodiversity loss. Much of this comes from sourcing raw materials, such as petrochemicals, collagen, and palm oilwhich devastates rainforests, Indigenous communities and wildlife, and it is also present in 70% of personal care products. Issues with products’ plastic packaging, transporting, and shipping items, and the inability to recycle most makeup and packaging also contribute to ecological damage.


But the connection between the climate crisis and the beauty industry goes even further. It’s no surprise that Black women are disproportionately impacted by harmful ingredients in personal care products like parabens and phthalates. As DeFino explains, both the climate crisis and the industrial beauty complex derive from patriarchal, colonial ideologies. Beauty standards were created to impose a specific set of social norms that favor lighter skin tones, eye colors and hair colors, as well as thinness. 


We strive to assimilate as closely to those norms as possible. Makeup brands, skincare labels, and the beauty market more widely profit from unattainable ideals, and in so doing, contribute to and reinforce sexism, ableism, racism, gender binaries, and colorism.

The Beauty Products Making Us—and Our Planet—Sick

The climate crisis is predicated on the very same structures. Global warming is the result of socioeconomic planning that prioritizes profit over human life, especially the life of a racialized or marginalized person. Racial capitalism—the term used to describe the extraction of profit from people of color—underpins the ways we live and relate to one another.


“Colonialism gave capitalism a brilliant business model to follow: It illustrated just how easy it is to profit off deep-seated insecurities stemming from a lifetime of being treated as less than,” DeFino said. With the groundwork laid so successfully, it’s no surprise that fossil fuels, also obtained from extractive practices for profit, have made their way into almost every product imaginable.


An ingredient may affect the wellbeing of an animal in the lab, but the reality is that the chemicals in our cosmetics are harming us and our nonhuman neighbors anyway. Beauty products rely on an array of noxious ingredients, including oil production byproducts like petrochemicals. Some petrochemicals are easily recognizable—petroleum jelly, for example, is not hard to miss. Others have more complex names, like polyethylene glycol or sodium laureth sulfate and can be found in shampoos, concealers, eye shadows, moisturizers, and nail polish. And even if we were able to easily establish whether or not an ingredient is itself a petrochemical, often they are used in the production of that ingredient with its final iteration listed as something untraceable.

An ingredient may affect the wellbeing of an animal in the lab, but the reality is that the chemicals in our cosmetics are harming us and our nonhuman neighbors anyway.

Campaigners have been monitoring the use of chemicals in cosmetics products for years and their findings are horrifying. Products contain known carcinogens like formaldehyde, coal tar, lead, parabens, and PFAS chemicals. According to Nneka Leiba, the director of healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group, this is causing increased rates of certain cancers, infertility as well as allergies in children—lethal side effects that disproportionately impact women, Black women in particular.


In short, these products are making us ill—both mentally and physically. They keep us trapped in a cycle of unobtainable perfection and self-criticism, binding us to standards of beauty that are steeped in racialized and colonized ideals. And on top of all this, they are damaging our biodiversity through the sourcing, production, and testing of ingredients. 


The UK’s 25-year ban on animal testing at least protected animals directly, even if the industry more widely was perpetuating untold harms. But now, with the legalities of animal welfare becoming flimsier than ever, it looks like a future of testing cosmetics on animals may well remain very much in place.

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