The beauty industry is a climate disaster
The beauty and oil industries are inextricably linked, argues beauty reporter and critic Jessica DeFino.
IN TODAY’S ISSUE…
An interview with beauty industry critic Jessica DeFino on the connections between the beauty industrial complex and the oil industry that absolutely blew my freakin’ mind.
Links to additional reading on the connection between beauty culture and climate change.
A list of real, non-fossil-fuel-funded local newspapers that could use HEATED readers’ support, as suggested by HEATED readers.
A picture of Fish on a nice sunny day.
Let’s do it to it.
I often say climate change is not just an emissions problem, but a cultural problem. We won't muster the will to create a truly sustainable economy until we change what we value as a society.
One of the things society values most is beauty. So in this week’s newsletter, we’ll be exploring the connection between beauty culture, the beauty industry, and the climate crisis.
Our guide for this topic is Jessica DeFino, beauty industry reporter and critic, and author of The Unpublishable newsletter. We’ll cover the industry’s rampant plastic packaging; its use of fossil fuel-based and fossil fuel-derived ingredients; the effect of fossil fuel pollution on human skin; and the connections between beauty culture and environmental justice.
These topics may be of particular interest to HEATED’s female readers, as women are the disproportionate targets and consumers of the beauty industry. But I hope male readers will pay attention as well, as they not only also consume beauty products, but help perpetuate the beauty standards women are held to.
The beauty industry is one that I actively support and enjoy. So this interview was a tough one for me. It might be tough for you, too, if you love your mascara like I do mine. But that’s ok. We can do tough things. That’s what fighting climate change is all about.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and ease of reading.
Emily Atkin: Before we start, I want to recognize that many readers of a climate newsletter might not be familiar with the “beauty industry” as a concept. What do you mean when you talk about the beauty industry?
Jessica DeFino: I'm talking about everything from skincare to soap to personal care products like deodorant, makeup, hair care, and all of the tools that go into that. Blow dryers, lymphatic drainage, electrical tools for the face. Nail salons and hair salons and chemical treatments. I would also include things like injectables and plastic surgery, and all the sorts of in-office treatments and procedures that people get.
EA: Basically, the things that we buy in order to adhere to beauty standards.
EA: How are beauty standards connected to the climate crisis?
JD: Taking a broad view, what’s happening to our planet right now is derived from the same cultural forces that created beauty culture: patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. I often talk about those four things being the core roots of any beauty standard or beauty trend. Basically, anything that's happening in the industrialized beauty space can be traced back to one or two or all four of those forces. I think the same could be said for climate change.
More specifically, they are connected by consumerism. Mainstream beauty is very much about consuming, and looking like you've been consuming. If you look at some of the celebrities that we hold up as our beauty idols, they have this aesthetic of looking like they funneled money into their faces. The standard of beauty is just wealth, and wealth is just buying things and putting them on your body, or injecting them into your body. And buying things is directly related to climate change.
EA: You said the standard of beauty is wealth, and looking like you funneled money into your face. The first people I thought of when you said that were Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner. They were in the news a lot recently for their use of private jets as an environmental issue. But I wonder, is that really their biggest contribution to climate change? Could it be, say, the beauty products they sell, and their perpetuation of beauty standards?
JD: I haven't crunched the numbers, but I definitely think there's something there. Think of all the components that go into one tiny beauty product that you're going to use for like, 2 to 3 months at most. It's monumental.
Say we're taking one product from Kylie Skin. First of all, it's packaged in plastic. It's probably shipped to you in multiple plastic containers within each other, within a cardboard box with paper inserts and bubble wrap and whatever. Then there's the number of ingredients that go into a product, which is usually between 15 and 50. Then you have to think of the environmental impact of farming, harvesting, processing and extracting every actual ingredient that's being used. You have to think of the industrial production of each individual synthetic ingredient—the emissions from that product, the hazardous waste disposal from creating those cosmetic chemicals, and the supply chain that's involved in getting every individual ingredient in that product from their manufacturing facilities to the skin care manufacturing facility.
Then, there’s the production of the final product, mixing all of those individual ingredients together, packaging them up. And in the packaging, there's always non-recyclable parts. The pumps, the caps, those are too small to be recycled. They will never be recycled.
EA: True, I just recently ran out of something and was like, what the fuck do I do with this cap?
JD: You can't do anything. You have to throw it out. And then there's the fossil fuel emissions that go into distributing the product, sending out samples, and the testing process. And when a beauty product is returned, it can't be resold. You can't even donate a returned product in a lot of cases. So there's just so, so, so much waste from getting the product into people's hands.
And then—I'm sorry, I'm going on and on, but you have to think about all of this—what happens to those ingredients when they're on your face? Most of them just wind up evaporating off of your face, so they're ending up in the air. Or you're washing them off your face and they end up in the water supply and in the soil. It’s a huge cycle, and every little individual ingredient in one of those products ends up having an impact.
EA: I think most climate-concerned people recognize the problem of plastic packaging, as plastic is made of petrochemicals. But I don’t think many folks consider that some of the ingredients within these products are petroleum-based. Can you give an overview of some common ingredients in beauty products that are fossil fuel-based?
JD: The beauty industry, from skincare to makeup to haircare, is completely dependent on fossil fuel-derived ingredients. Even “sustainable” brands. Some ingredients are mineral oil, petroleum jelly, paraffin wax, polyethylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and isopropyl alcohol. And then there are ingredients that won't be listed as a recognizable petrochemical on the label, but are perhaps extracted from the source using petrochemicals. For instance, some essential oils are extracted using hexane, which is a petrochemical. So fossil fuels are involved in the process of creating some of these “natural” products. Even if it's not on the label, petrochemicals are really used every step of the way.
EA: But some of these products are used for staying healthy and for hygiene, right? So how would you differentiate the “I'm just trying to stay healthy and hygienic” products from “I’m participating in beauty culture” products?
JD: The problem is, a lot of what we have come to think of as “hygiene” or “basic grooming” is wrapped up in beauty culture. Beauty culture has made us believe that a certain number of steps is part of our health, where it really is not. It's just a product that was invented to sell something that got really, really, really integrated into our existence. And now we think, Oh, this is a health choice.
For instance, soap. Soap is terrible for the human skin barrier and the human microbiome. There's a really great book that I would recommend, Clean by Dr. James Hamblin, that talks about the skin microbiome, and how the introduction of things like soap and skincare products are actually harming our skin and harming the environment, and we don't actually really need them.
There's also a lot of presentability politics wrapped up in “cleanliness.” A few months ago, there was this big discourse about white celebrities saying they don't shower very often, like Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher. And that brought in a lot of beauty standards, specifically in regards to Black people and people of color who are held to a higher standard. I remember Roxane Gay wrote a piece about how a Black celebrity could never come out and say “I don't actually shower,” because there are different degrees of beauty standards and cleanliness standards that different groups of people are held to. But if we're looking at it from a purely health perspective, there's not much that you need at all.
EA: That reminds me of what you said earlier about how beauty culture is derived from the same forces as climate change, which are patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. How is what's happening with beauty culture derived from those forces? I think the capitalism one is kind of obvious.
JD: I mean, they're all obvious once you think about it. Patriarchy, for instance: Look at the beauty industry’s target market. Look at its consumer base. This is all sexism in its most basic form. These are all standards that women are held to, that men are not held to. These are products that are pushed on women and are very rarely pushed on men. We're seeing more of that happen—for instance, Joe Jonas is the new face of an injectable treatment—but by and large, this is an industry that focuses on women.
For white supremacy, I think the easiest way to visualize this is to look at like foundation ranges and concealer ranges, and look at what's available. You'll see probably 60 to 75 percent of the market is for lighter skin tones. That sort of spirit is imbued in every part of the beauty industry.
Colonialism is probably like the hardest one to illustrate, but I would say the skin care industry is a great example, because a lot of the skin care ingredients that are being pushed on us right now, like ceramides and hyaluronic acid, are ingredients that the body naturally produces. So the industry is literally mining our bodies for ideas and ingredients and selling them back to us in a bottle. And these ingredients aren't as effective when they're sold back to us. So they're mining our land and our bodies for profit and reaping the rewards.
I also think of plastic surgery culture and injectable culture as colonization of the body. Two of the biggest treatments of the past couple of years are lip injections and the Brazilian butt lift. These are examples of taking a feature that belongs to a specific race or ethnicity and grafting them on to white bodies. Specifically, if you look at Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner, it's stealing features that don't belong to you and putting them on your body and saying, I deserve this, too. And it turns entire groups of people into trends.
Emily Atkin: That reminds me of what you were saying in the Weightless newsletter about the trend of “slugging,” which as I understand it refers to covering your face in Vaseline or some sort of petroleum jelly product to create like a barrier from environmental impacts outside, like pollution. You said there’s two problems with that. The first is that you're using a petroleum-based product to defend yourself from pollution most likely caused by the petroleum industry, so it’s a vicious cycle. The second is that the beauty industry is making that process popular by taking it from Black communities. Is that right?
JD: Exactly. I always say that beauty is one of the sneakiest ways that systems of oppression are reinforced, and the trends sort of directly correlate to systems being challenged. For example, we're seeing public pushback against fossil fuels as being a driver of climate change. Meanwhile, the number one skincare products in the U.S. is pure petroleum jelly. There's a reason that this is trending. It is in the best interest of the conventional beauty industry to distract from the fossil fuel arguments, because it relies completely on fossil fuels.
Yet within that, there are a lot of layers. For instance, Vaseline has been a staple in the Black community for decades. And a lot of people who are popularizing slugging —just coating your entire face and body in Vaseline—are using that as a justification for promoting it. “Oh, see this? This comes from the Black community. So this is a diverse trend that we’re elevating.” But in reality, popularizing a product that is derived from fossil fuels reinforces the harm of fossil fuels, which disproportionately affects the Black community and people of color. So it's just a really interesting justification that the beauty industry is is trying to make right now.
EA: On that note, let’s look at the environmental impacts of fossil fuel pollution on human skin. I took a quick look at the published research in this area before our interview, and I found a review of studies that compiled the various harmful effects of air pollution on human skin. What have been the most interesting things that you have found in that area?
JD: The fossil fuel industry is the worst thing that has ever happened to our skin. One example I like to cite is that air pollution’s effect on how we receive the sun has led to higher incidences of skin cancer. That is a huge concern in the beauty community and a huge focus of the skin care industry. So I think it is helpful to recognize that the fossil fuel industry is directly linked to these higher incidences of skin cancer.
Air pollution has also affected our skin microbiomes. The higher air pollution gets, the less diverse our microbiomes are. The skin microbiome, similar to the gut microbiome, is a protective layer of microorganisms that carries out a lot of our biological processes for us. I would say the microorganisms on our skin are the original skin care products—they produce ceramides and fatty acids, and antioxidants which help us defend against pollution. There's certain microorganisms that eat sebum that comes out of your pores. There are microorganisms that eat your dead skin cells, so they're self-exfoliation.
We have all of this technology built into our skin. But air pollution is directly decreasing the amount that our skin can self-protect through the ways that it affects the microbiome. It also wears away at the skin barrier. When people are slugging, they're putting on a faux skin barrier. But your skin already has that. You don't need to slug if you have a skin barrier, and air pollution and sun exposure directly wear away at the skin barrier.
Exposure to pollution also causes almost all of the things that we typically associate with aging. Anti-aging is a complete scam. Most of what we're taught to believe is “aging” is actually “exposure.” It's exposure to the environment, exposure to the sun, exposure to stress, exposure to certain chemicals, exposure to skincare. So the oil industry's effect on the skin is that it causes pollution exposure, and therefore it causes what we see as aging. That's fine lines, wrinkles, loss of collagen, loss of iron acids, which are essential for your skin to protect itself. This is from exposure; it’s not from aging. And the more pollution we have, the more exposure that we have.
Emily Atkin: And it occurs to me that slugging, which is something done to decrease exposure, originates within the Black community, which disproportionately lives the closest to high-polluting sources like refineries and coal plants and all that. So there is a direct connection to environmental justice here as well.
JD: There is. And it's so backwards that we attempt to treat these skin issues with products, because the more products we produce, the more pollution we produce, and the more these issues are exacerbated by our environment. We are not going to be able to stop these things with products, because products are part of the cause.
EA: Say I want to keep buying moisturizer, or keep buying hair gel, but I don't want it to have petrochemical-derived ingredients in it. Are there any like, “fossil-free” labels, or other mechanisms for people to know that?
JD: Not really. It does sort of fall on the individual to do their own research and check the labels and reach out to brands and ask questions of how certain things are derived. It is really hard, and that's why I advocate for divesting from industrialized beauty completely. It's not necessarily about finding a better version of the product. It's about lessening our reliance on products, because most of these products are really not serving us, and they are definitely not serving the planet that we're living on.
EA: That’s tough. Because while I do strongly believe the onus should be on companies that are profiting and gaining power from pushing these products, I also recognize that solving climate change will require us to make changes in our individual lives. But part of our individual responsibility is demanding more accountability from big companies, and it seems right now that most beauty companies’ voluntary climate accountability mechanisms are bullshit, right?
JD: Yeah, there are a lot of brands in this space that I think have good intentions, but it ends up being more of a marketing thing than anything. For instance, this beauty sustainability organization, Planet A, has over 200 beauty and wellness brands involved in it. But really all they're doing is flipping the onus back onto consumers. They're asking anyone who follows to “call your local legislator and ask for X, Y and Z to regulate fossil fuel use.” And that's fine, I guess. But these brands could regulate their own fossil fuel use easily.
EA: Well, it’s not like they’re unique in that regard. Most companies, regardless of industry, use climate pledges as a way to market rather than a way to meaningfully improve.
JD: Maybe this is naive, but I do think consumers have a ton of power in the beauty industry. If we stop consuming, if there's not a market for all of this unnecessary stuff, the stuff will stop being made. I know that's a huge dream of a goal to get everybody on board with “just stop buying so much.” But I mean, how else are we going to do it?
EA: Right, and I think climate-concerned people understand the power of consumer pressure, because that's helped to change a lot over the last decade. But I do think that beauty culture is a particularly tough one to get people to divest from, especially because we do live in a society that rewards people—women in particular—for adhering to beauty standards, and actively punishes you if you don't.
JD: Yes, exactly. It is very hard to to divest when real there are real consequences to it. Your livelihood sometimes is on the line. But I think there are ways that we can pick and choose where we as individuals want to divest, and can afford to divest, from beauty culture. For instance, cis white women have a lot of leverage. The beauty standard is gendered whiteness first and foremost. So cis white women can at least stop engaging in some behaviors, experience very little consequence, and help move the needle towards a better beauty culture.
EA: And cis white men can stop judging women based on how dewy their skin looks.
JD: One hundred percent.
EA: I worry people might read all this and get frustrated, like “oh God, now there’s another thing I have to worry about with climate change.” But I sort of think about it like, “No, this is just another potential route for you to take if you want to be a climate activist.” You don’t have to do it, but you could, if it makes you feel passionate.
JD: Right, and by doing it you’re also saving money, and saving your skin barrier because you're not exposed to so many products and ingredients. There are a lot of upsides to divesting from beauty culture.
I will often get the question of, “What's the point of doing all of this? Beauty makes me feel better. I consider it part of my self-care.” Of course, those arguments can be valid. But what I like to point out is that beauty products can only replace the confidence that beauty standards steal. Beauty standards start us at a confidence deficit, so that we consume our way into “happiness” and “confidence.” And because we get that initial dopamine hit from our products, or we feel good when we're adhering to the beauty standard as much as possible, it reinforces this idea that, “This is part of my happiness. This is part of my self-worth. This is part of my confidence.”
But the data tell a very different story. Beauty culture is associated with higher instances of anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, facial dysmorphia, self-harm, disordered eating, even suicide. So this system that we're participating in is not serving us any way. It is actively harming our mental health. And that's just our mental health. Beauty culture is a public health issue, and although it can seem counterintuitive divesting from some of these cosmetic coping mechanisms, it actually leads to a higher quality of life overall for you personally.
EA: Man, I really feel like you’re calling me out with the whole “cosmetic coping mechanisms” thing! Like, it’s only after I put on mascara and do my eyebrows in the morning that finally I feel like “OK, I can operate now.”
JD: We all do it. We all need it. But it's worth keeping in mind that a lot of our beauty behaviors are a response to the pain of beauty culture.
JD: It’s a coping mechanism.
EA: It’s true.
JD: And it’s cool to have them. But it’s also cool to work through your need for them.
EA: Right, and the operative word there is work. Personally, my need to darken my eyebrows is going to be one of the hardest beauty coping mechanisms for me to address. So I don't need to tackle that one tomorrow, or maybe ever. I can choose another beauty product to divest from, then work towards the more difficult ones.
JD: Yes, and I never want to seem like I'm passing judgment on people who are very into beauty, or relying on beauty for feeling good or having confidence. It's not our individual fault that we rely on these things so much. This is the system that we're in. But part of what I ask myself every day is, OK, this might be the system that I’m in, but is this the system that I want to perpetuate?
EA: We have this same conversation all the time in the climate spaces when it comes to owning a car, or eating meat, or flying. We're trying all individually to divest from fossil fuels in different ways, but we understand that this is a systemic problem that requires systemic change. So we pick and choose what we can do, what means the most to us, and what we can talk about most easily and confidently. And through those individual choices, we create cultural pressure that helps chip away at the larger system.
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Links to learn more:
How White Supremacy and Capitalism Influence Beauty Standards. Teen Vogue, 2020.
There Is No 'Planet A': A look at the beauty industry's empty climate activism. The Unpublishable, May 2022.
Climate Change is the Symptom. Consumer Culture is the Disease. The New Republic, 2019.
When skin’s defense against pollution fails. Nature, 2018.
NEWS WE CAN USE: Last week, after two issues exploring the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to replace struggling local news sites with their own industry-funded “news” outlets, I asked HEATED readers to suggest real local newspapers that could use our support. Here’s what we got:
“The Omaha Reader, Nebraska's only nationally-recognized alternative publication. Despite being the 39th-largest city in America, Omaha STILL doesn't have an official climate action plan. We've been covering the impact of the climate crisis on our town, including just recently with an article about a road that's been a flooding hazard for more than half a century. Give us a look, and if you like what you read, we'd appreciate your support.” -Arjav Rawal
“The Land is doing an outstanding job providing independent and high-quality local news coverage for Cleveland, Ohio. They deserve support.” -David Goodman
“The River is an online paper in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region of New York, with some excellent climate reporting.” -Delia
“The Red Hook Daily Catch is a local online paper in New York's Hudson Valley that is doing an excellent job of reporting local and regional news.” -J. Korn
“The Lake Oswego Review [in Lake Oswego, Oregon] … Very supportive of sustainability and very independent. We are fortunate!” -Lisa Adaatto
“48hills, independent San Francisco news … They are entirely community supported. Their mission is to ‘amplify marginalized Bay Area community voices, uplift local arts and culture, employ local writers and editors, and deliver in-depth reporting, breaking news, and analysis of city issues from a non-corporate, hyperlocal angle.’” -Melissa
“The Addison County Independent in Middlebury, Vermont does fantastic local journalism, including coverage of environment-, energy- and climate-related topics.” -Gregor Clark
“@BucksCoHerald, @LancasterOnline, @SpotlightPA work hard to fill local news void after Alden bought & shattered Main Line newspapers, in Greater Philadelphia (King of Prussia, Pottstown, Lancaster, Allentown).” -@annamelegh
“@StreetRoots does amazing local coverage in Portland OR, especially but not limited to houseless folks. Also @portlandmercury's reporters have done great work with local issues, including fossil fuel, local city government, and anti-fascism.”-@barbaraeford1
CATCH OF THE DAY: Fish hasn’t stopped by himself for a while, so he’d like to say hello from his sunny porch in Pennsylvania. He wears a nice coat of fur to protect his skin from the sun, and recommends you cover up when you’re out there, too. (Or wear SPF, which is, for the most part, a non-scam product).
Want to see your furry (or non-furry!) friend in HEATED? Send a picture and some words to email@example.com.