Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” body wash, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
We all need to get clean—and a lot of us choose body wash to do it. But how can we lather up in a way that’s not only better for our skin, but also better for our planet?
WHAT TO BE WISE ON:
Think of your body wash as a journey (and no, we don’t just mean because the scent is called Tropical Vacation). Choosing a more sustainable body wash comes down to understanding its full journey: where it’s coming from, what it’s made of, and where it’s going to go next. The environmental impact of body wash is shaped by the presence of ingredients like palm oil, the production of which can lead to significant deforestation, and its high water content, which results in higher transportation emissions. And at the end of the day, you have to remember whatever’s inside that bottle is all going down the drain—and into aquatic ecosystems.
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FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
Palm oil is prevalent in body washes, soaps, and shampoos. It’s great at helping to remove dirt and oil, and it’s also a great source of vitamin E and antioxidants.
But, it’s not all great. Around 90% of the world’s palm oil trees are grown on just a few islands across Malaysia and Indonesia. As the demand for palm oil-based products expands, so too does the demand for palm oil plantations. That means these areas are disproportionately affected by the problems caused by the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations, including mass deforestation, air pollution from burns to clear vegetation, and the threat of habitat loss for native plants. Worldwide, the production of palm oil 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.
That said, palm oil requires less land than other vegetable oils to produce, so replacing it with another oil can potentially cause greater environmental harm.Animal tallow, for example, is sometimes used as a replacement for vegetable fats and comes with increased carbon emissions from raising and transporting cows, as well as concerns about animal welfare. Plus, it definitely isn’t vegan-friendly.
Parabens are used as preservatives in many cosmetics and hygiene products, including body wash, as a way to prevent the growth of mold and harmful bacteria. After a 2004 study concluded that the presence of parabens may spur the growth of breast cancer cells, public backlash led some cosmetic companies to start removing parabens from their products. However, additional studies of the effect of parabens on our health have proved inconclusive, and the FDA currently approves the use of parabens in cosmetic products.
Synthetic Dyes and Fragrances
Certain body washes contain synthetic dyes and fragrances. If your body wash is electric blue or cotton candy scented, it’s safe to bet it contains synthetic ingredients. The manufacturing of such dyes and fragrances uses significant amounts of water and creates wastewater pollution that can be harmful to fish and other aquatic plants and wildlife.
Foaming and Exfoliating Agents
To make your bathing experience more fun and luxurious feeling, you may opt for a body wash that’s extra foamy or works to exfoliate your skin. Alkyl Sulfates such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) act as foaming agents in body wash, and they can be harmful to aquatic ecosystems. Similarly, many exfoliating agents in body washes are really just microplastics in disguise (yes, we’re talking about microplastics again). Look for body washes that contain exfoliating ingredients like sugar or coffee grounds instead of those tiny plastic beads as a more sustainable option.
Generally speaking, the #1 ingredient in body wash is water. And water is heavy. Heavy products require more fuel to ship, resulting in higher emissions during transportation. So, the farther your body wash has to travel to finally reach your shower, the larger its carbon footprint could be. When possible, opt for products produced locally to cut down on long-distance transportation-related emissions.
In most cases, all those ingredients are bundled up and shipped in—you guessed it— plastic bottles. More single-use plastic bottles inevitably mean more plastic waste; EPA records show our plastic consumption goes up nearly every year and almost 70% of that plastic ends up in landfills. (Just think about how many bottles of body wash you need to shower for a year...) If your body wash comes in a plastic bottle, try reducing plastic waste by buying larger volume bottles and checking the label at the bottom to learn how it can be recycled.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS:
As always, be wary of labels claiming a product is “all-natural.” It’s not a regulated term, and “natural” and “sustainable” are not the same thing. While you’re at it, watch out for palm oil sustainability certificates on body wash. The jury’s still out on whether or not RSPO-certified products actually mark a significant difference in sustainability for palm oil production.
To avoid single-use plastic waste while getting clean, consider brands that use recyclable packaging, or use refillable glass or aluminum bottles to make your body wash containers as sustainable as the soap itself.
Finally, remember that what you put on your body in the shower is eventually going to go down the drain. And what goes down the drain unfortunately has a strong chance of ending up in our water supply, or in our planet’s watery ecosystems. Consider what you’re putting on your skin… and where it’s going to go when you wash it all off again.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“Is using body wash or bar soap better for the environment?”
Generally speaking, bar soap is not as heavy to ship as body wash and is more likely to use paper rather than plastic packaging. But it’s always important to check the ingredients of anything you’re putting on your skin (and washing down the drain).
“Is body wash biodegradable?”
Well, it depends on what you mean by biodegradable, because the term is very, very broad. Basically, biodegradable just means that items break down into organic matter, but that depends on everything from the facilities available to process the waste to the containers themselves. A better question to ask is “what body wash (including the packaging!) will have the least negative impact on people and the planet?”.
“What’s the most eco-friendly body wash?”
“Eco-friendly” is a loaded term. As we’ve already discussed, the ingredients in body wash definitely have environmental impacts, whether it’s the raw materials used or their effect on water-based ecosystems after we wash them down the drain.