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Bright, shiny overpackaging cries out to us from the supermarket shelves – from soaps and lotions to hairstyling and makeup products.
But it’s important to remember the way products are presented is all designed by big companies to achieve one ultimate goal: to seduce us to buy their products. You might think the products you’re choosing to use in the bathroom are environmentally sustainable and beneficial to your health, but are you being duped?
Dr Trevor Thornton, Senior Lecturer at Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, expects bathroom products could come under fire in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC)’s current crackdown on greenwashing. Dr Thornton suggests we all need to be a little more informed – and should consider putting pressure on companies to improve product labelling.
‘Products often have toll-free numbers on them, or you can contact companies through their websites or social media. The more people who question them, the more companies are going to think they need to change,’ he suggests.
When it comes to personal hygiene and cosmetic products, ‘people often look at the labels but don’t look at the contents,’ Dr Thornton says.
‘It’s a good idea to start looking at the list of ingredients at the back and actually finding out about the composition of the item,’ he urges. ‘That way we can see if the product contains something that’s say, potentially carcinogenic or a known hormonal disrupter. Don’t just go for something that’s got “natural” or “sustainable” splashed on it.
You don’t have to be a chemical science expert to do an online search of a few ingredients. In a quick review of a popular body wash, Dr Thornton found it contained ‘several alarm bell ingredients’ yet no warnings or usage instructions.
In some regards, the rules around product packaging for personal care items aren’t as strict as labelling for food products – so beware of products that advertise natural ingredients yet contain a lot of chemical names. As a rule of thumb, Dr Thornton recommends, ‘if you don’t recognise a lot of the ingredients, be cautious’.
He adds: ‘unless you have a particular skin or respiratory condition, it’s likely the more environmental choice will be the better choice for your health, too.’
Dr Thornton shares a few general rules to apply:
‘If something smells nice, you’re actually breathing in some form of chemical that’s probably unnecessary to a product’s function,’ Dr Thornton points out. ‘They might be in very low concentrations but it you take the into account the use of chemicals over time, you don’t know what kind of reaction your body might have. Then all this stuff is going into the atmosphere, too.’
If recent cases of deaths from aerosol inhalation aren’t enough to put you off, Dr Thornton reminds us that products like spray deodorant are bad news for greenhouse gas emissions. Especially if you consider the build-up of using multiple cans over time.
‘While you might say, “if I get lung irritation is it from the deodorant or the other myriad things out in the world,” it’s a good idea to avoid things if there’s an alternative that’s safer,’ he says.
Small plastic particles that take thousands of years to decompose have been found to disrupt the health of ocean creatures and are even turning up in some of our food. Many cosmetic products, body scrubs and even toothpaste have been found to contain microplastics. While that’s not likely to be advertised on the label, there are online databases available to help consumers know which products to avoid.
‘The more a product is transported, the more it impacts the environment,’ Dr Thornton says. ‘How is it getting here? By ship? By plane? All these things we don’t know so we can’t calculate greenhouse gas emissions. Because of this “hidden impact”, if all the ingredients are the same, go for the Australian-made option if you can.’
Products packaged in recycled materials get the biggest tick from Dr Thornton because they ‘close the loop on using resources’ to create a circular economy.
If ‘made from recycled plastics’ isn’t an option though, buying in bulk is a good idea.
‘The largest size option will use less packaging for the amount that you receive,’ Dr Thornton explains.
‘Avoiding and reducing is always better than recycling,’ Dr Thornton says.
‘There are some products that might say they’re recyclable when in reality they might not be.’ For example, a popular deodorant can says, ‘made from recyclable aluminium’ on the label but contains a large plastic component.
‘It’s likely that won’t actually be recycled because we don’t have the technology to separate them,’ he suggests.
‘Sustainability is not about changing your lifestyle completely,’ Dr Thornton says. ‘It’s just about being informed and trying to do what you can. If there’s a more sustainable option, that’s what you should choose.’
Unfortunately, the ‘better’ choice sometimes turns out to be the more expensive one. But before discounting a product because of its price tag, Dr Thornton suggests considering whether a higher-quality product might actually last longer if it means using a smaller amount each time.
Plus, ‘there’s the hidden cost of environmental issues,’ he adds. ‘Someone has to pay to fix the damage – we might end up paying for that in our taxes anyway.’
He concludes: ‘If you’re using a problematic product, you’re impacting on your health, other people’s health and the environment. Perhaps you do have some responsibility to try to find out more about what you’re using.’
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