How it relates to personal care products, the environment, and your health
The process of bioaccumulation goes beyond just carbon build-up in our atmosphere – the human body is also susceptible to this dangerous process. Personal care products that we use every day – skin care, shower gels, hair care – can contribute to this process, and trigger harmful effects to our bodies and the environment.
So what is bioaccumulation in beauty products? How do your products contribute to this process? The effects of bioaccumulation are often difficult to reverse, unless we stop polluting ourselves and the planet. Don’t stress just yet – we’ll break it all down for you!
In a general sense, what is bioaccumulation? According to Science Direct, bioaccumulation “occurs when an organism absorbs a toxic substance at a rate greater than that at which the substance is eliminated.”
Essentially, this means that a harmful chemical gradually builds up in a living being (such as animals or humans) or environment. The living being or environment is unable to get rid of this chemical as quickly as it builds up, leading to a dangerous accumulation of these compounds.
Animals, humans, plants, and natural habitats usually have some sort of filter for toxic ingredients. For us it’s our kidneys, liver, and lungs that filter and absorb the good stuff, while releasing the junk from what we eat, drink, or breathe.
However, certain “persistent” ingredients can resist degradation and are more difficult for our bodies to expel. What’s more, the effects of these can multiply if we continuously expose ourselves to the same harmful substances.
So how does bioaccumulation happen in the body or the environment? One prime example occurs when we pollute the ocean with persistent compounds like plastics and pesticides. The chemicals from these materials can leach into the ocean, making sea animals and plants especially vulnerable to constant exposure and bioaccumulation. As a result, food that we consume from the sea can, in turn, contribute to bioaccumulation in our body.
Industrial dumping is another culprit in pollution of our precious marine ecosystems – and is one of the leading causes of mercury bioaccumulation in fish. Certain types of fish are prone to mercury bioaccumulation, and are regularly consumed by humans. When we’re exposed to mercury, it’s difficult to remove from the body and can affect our central nervous system.
The CDC has released multiple studies on our exposure to environmental chemicals. Ocean conservation organization Sailors for the Sea cites a 2003 study by Centers for Disease Control, which analyzed samples from 2,500 participants. These samples showed traces of “mercury, lead, uranium, dioxins, PCBs, pesticides, herbicides, phytoestrogens, and cotinine (a by-product of nicotine).”
PRO TIP: Curious about which environmental chemicals you’re being exposed to? The CDC publishes regular national reports listing each of the most commonly bioaccumulative compounds.
Generally, one of the most persistent forms of environmental bioaccumulation we see is in the form of carbon emissions. Since we’re producing carbon at a rate beyond what plants and other organisms can consume, the carbon persists. It builds up, trapping heat in the atmosphere and contributing to the staggering effects of climate change.
How does bioaccumulation affect the beauty industry specifically? When we use skin care, body care, or hair care products, we expose our bodies to either good or bad chemicals. Our skin is able to absorb these chemicals – especially if we wear them for an extended period – so we have to make sure we’re using the right ones.
While some of these “bad” chemicals may be fine in low doses, the truth is that we’re not just exposed to one dose. We’re continuously exposing our body to these products with long term, repeated and regular use. The effects are compounded when we use multiple products with the same disruptive chemical. So what is this bioaccumulation doing to our bodies?
We need to actively avoid these ingredients because they build up easily, disrupt our endocrine systems, prove to be carcinogenic, and are shown to be toxic to our organ systems. Those include talc, coal tar, parabens, and phthalates.
[For a more in-depth read on what toxic ingredients to avoid, check out A Beginner’s Guide to Non Toxic Makeup.]
Some of the ingredients that bioaccumulate aren’t always disruptive to our body; sometimes we’re affecting the environment with the personal care products we use.
So, what is bioaccumulation in the environment and how does it work?
When we rinse products off in the sink or in the shower, they reach large bodies of water. While many ingredients break down through sunlight or bacteria, not all of them degrade naturally – or quickly. Despite complex water filtering systems, the most persistent ingredients can still bioaccumulate in ocean environments. Some examples are silicones, microplastics, and triclosan.
One of the best ways to avoid harmful ingredients is to read your labels. Look out for harmful preservatives, artificial fragrances, talc, mineral oil, phthalates, silicones, and triclosan. Physical scrubs with microplastics are another big culprit – opt for a finely ground sugar or salt scrub instead!
However, reading an ingredient list can be tiring and lengthy – not to mention, harmful ingredients can hide under aliases. Mineral oil, for instance, can be called paraffin, petroleum, or petrolatum. It can be time-consuming to learn every name and alias under the sun.
A way to simplify this process is to buy from brands that are committed to choosing safe, all natural alternatives to mainstream cosmetic ingredients. Find a brand whose values align with yours, so you can rest assured that you’re using safe, quality ingredients.
An alternative is to copy and paste the ingredients list into an analyzer like this one from SkinCarisma. You can get a breakdown of ingredient health ratings, and pinpoint any ingredients that should be avoided (like parabens).
Another way to avoid harmful ingredients is by choosing products that are USDA Organic. This makes it less likely that synthetic contaminants will affect your health, and the health of the environment. Artificial colors in makeup, for example, can contain contaminants like lead.
Look specifically for the USDA logo. This means a brand is actually certified organic and not just making vague claims on their packaging.
Now that we’ve answered the bioaccumulation question, we hope you’ll take the time to look through your cosmetics, skin, and hair routine. Pinpoint any products that contain bioaccumulative ingredients, and replace them with natural, plant-based alternatives. Be sure to read and analyze the ingredients list – it’s the most surefire way to get the safest product possible!
We carefully hand-select products based on strict purity standards, and only recommend products we feel meet this criteria. 100% PURE™ may earn a small commission for products purchased through affiliate links.
The information in this article is for educational use, and not intended to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should not be used as such.