Q. It is time to purge all the toxic beauty products that I quickly accumulated but slowly phased out without finishing off the bottles. They are lining my cabinets, telling the story of the days when I bought into the straight-for-days and no-frizz hype. As the new year is upon us and all the resolutions to simplify come to fruition, I need to know how to best dispose of the products I should never have wasted money on in the first place without destroying the environment. Is it better to run the products down the drain and recycle the bottles, or collect all the toxic sludge into a single container and trash it, recycling the rest?
A. Dearest Leigh,
I love the image you paint of these ill-gotten bottles serving as a memoir of your younger days. Just think: Every time you open your bathroom cabinets, you’ll be reminded of that bygone era of hair-straightening and frizz-fighting. Perhaps you’d prefer to keep them around for nostalgic purposes? Or as a cautionary tale for offspring?
Of course you wouldn’t. You want these chemical-y products off your shelves and out of your life so you can move on to a cleaner, greener you. And I think that’s a lovely new leaf to turn over for 2015.
As you’ve figured out, Leigh, loads of our personal care products — shampoos, hairsprays, makeup, shower gels, and their ilk — come laden with substances of concern. And they pack a double whammy: One, they can pose health risks from ingredients like parabens (endocrine disruptors), phthalates (endocrine disruptors again), and sodium laureth sulfate (skin irritant). Two, these ingredients travel down the drain, through the wastewater treatment plant, and out into local waterways, where they can harm aquatic life. Somehow, I don’t think this is what we meant with that “suffer to be beautiful” thing.
So it’s not only the use of personal care products that should concern us, it’s also their disposal. If those hair potions do contain truly noxious or irritating ingredients (look to see if they’re listed as highly toxic on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database) do not dump them down the drain or toilet. We can safely assume at least some of their troubling ingredients will end up in the water supply, as sewage plants aren’t set up to screen these substances out of circulation.
If they’re not toxic, might you consider just using them up? “When the risks to health and environment are low, and the ingredients aren’t egregious, we encourage using up those products,” says Samara Geller, database analysts for the perennially helpful EWG.
Back to disposal. Unfortunately, your plan B — pour the contents from each rejected bottle into one container, throw it away, then recycle the bottles — is not without its problems. It’s looking like landfills won’t contain these chemicals, either. Recent research by the United State Geological Survey found that the leachate (that’s the totally gross liquid that seeps through landfills and out into the world) from sampled sites contained 129 different chemicals, including BPA, and camphor from medications and lotions, and DEET from bug spray. The EPA is also checking out whether endocrine disruptors from our beauty products are getting in on the party, too. Ick.
Our choices appear to be 1) damned if you do, or 2) damned if you don’t. But there may be a third way, Leigh. Your knights in shining armor: The good folks down at the household hazardous waste facility. Some HHW operations accept cosmetics, makeup, and perfume right along with paint thinner and pesticides. And if it’s an option in your area — you’ll have to call your local pros to be sure — then that’s the best course of action.
If not, we’re left with the imperfect solution of landfilling the leftovers. Whatever you decide, this tip from Geller may help alleviate any guilt about buying these products in the first place: Rather than recycling the empty bottles, use them to buy your next (natural, less-toxic) products in bulk. A healthier you and less packaging — now that sounds beautiful to me.