I know I am not the only one who doesn’t feel complete without mascara.
I once heard a woman refer to mascara as her “confidence.”
Every day after showering, dressing, and putting a comb through my hair, I treat it with the importance of regular hygiene and make sure to pack the tube in my bag in case of an “emergency,” which would of course, require reapplication.
Made-up eyelashes have been ingrained in our culture for so long, the perception of “ideal” eyelashes may be a part of human DNA at this point.
Ancient Egyptians darkened their lashes with kohl, a substance made by mixing powdered lead sulfide with oil. In the early 19th century, lash seekers underwent operations that involved transferring human hair to the eyelid with a needle and thread. Yikes.
We’ve come a long way since sewing on eyelashes as though we were mending a sock, but we seek the complete feeling of luscious lashes just the same through mascara and more easily applicable eyelash extensions.
Often in the back of my mind, I’ve wondered about the final resting place of this obsession. We wash it off and then it’s out of sight, out of mind. But as we know, everything is connected. We put something on our faces, it seeps into us and the remainder into the environment.
As mouths got covered up for the better part of the COVID-19 pandemic, eye makeup sales increased by over 200 percent. The eyelash extension market is projected to reach over 2.25 billion by 2028. All those eyelashes are ending up somewhere and I’m keen to know how it affects one of my favorite places—the ocean.
A simple Google search will tell us that of great concern amongst lash devotees is whether or not we can swim with eyelash extensions and if it makes sense to get them before a beach vacation. Forums assure those sporting lash extensions that they can have their fun in paradise, look good doing it—but conveniently, the “all about lash extension” guides fail to mention where they end up after they’ve detached from the eyelid. As many ocean lovers as we are in the world, perhaps we haven’t considered all the little daily habits that add up and end up there, including this “innocent” beauty habit.
Even a professional mermaid goes above and beyond to make her mascara waterproof and a woman embarking on an incredible, circumnavigation by sailboat without modern technology—a feat that several throughout history have attempted and failed—was asked by a reporter not about her skills but whether she packed waterproof mascara.
Since I am personally invested in making sure my eyes are always “ready” and I have a friend or two who are dedicated without fail to their professionally applied lash extensions, I did some digging to investigate the journey from washing off in the bathroom sink out into the marine ecosystem and found five unobvious, not-talked-about ways our lash fixation plausibly contributes to larger environmental damage done on a regular basis.
Five unobvious, not-talked-about ways our lash fixation plausibly contributes to larger environmental damage:
1. Faulty immune systems
What I’ve discovered through investigating how my eyelashes affect marine life is that waterproof specifically is a particular issue as the PFAS or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are used to create the waterproof quality cause health issues not only in humans but show up in the ocean for decades, never breaking down.
PFAS are used in many everyday items including non-stick pans, furniture, cosmetics, household cleaners, clothing, and most commonly known, fire extinguishers. Also known as “forever chemicals” studies have found PFAS in seabirds and plankton miles off the coast. They’ve been shown to impair immune and liver function in striped bass. Seeing as how striped bass is a versatile dish for humans, we are most certainly consuming the residue of that dysfunction.
Phased-out PFAS cause chronic immune issues in bottlenose dolphins, sea otters, and turtles years after being banned. In late 2021, Water & Waste Digest published “The Surprising Places PFAS are Being Found” and alas, they are reportedly being found in the Arctic “including in seals, waterfowl and even the brain tissue of polar bears.” I read that again. One of the most photographed animals in nature has altered brain tissue because we don’t want eggs to stick to the pan or runny mascara.
Some states in the United States have started to impose bills to regulate PFAS, including those in cosmetics, and the European Union commits to phasing them out “where possible.” Perhaps this is good news for us.
Of course, PFAS would have to be disclosed in product ingredients and a class action lawsuit from February 2022 claims that popular brands L’Oreal and Maybelline regularly fail to do this for the various mascara products they sell. Even so, I study the label to gain a better understanding of what’s in this product I claim I can’t live without.
2. Plastic poop
When I attempt to dissect the ingredients in my mascara, it’s disheartening. A not-so-sophisticated Nancy Drew, I first have to uncross my eyes to read the ingredients on the label. It looks like the most unfun word scramble of different chemicals and plastics.
Polyethylene, I discover, is one of the most abundant types of plastic found in the ocean and shows up in many mass-market mascaras (as well as eyeliners, face scrubs, lip gloss, and other cosmetics). It also has been shown to virtually never degrade in marine environments and disrupt the digestive tracts of marine life.
In a study of the prevalence of microplastics in fish and the feces of sea animals, polyethylene made up 28 percent of the particles found. So, that’s not to say that mascara makes up more than a quarter of microplastics found in the ocean, but it contains ingredients consistent with what is commonly found in the ocean, and more commonly found to never leave. Seeing as how plastic pollution contributes to endangering marine animals increasingly all the time, I’d like to think chipping away at any plastic-y obsessions reduces this impact—not just for the big stuff like the obvious plastic bag from the supermarket but the “little” stuff, like my daily mascara habit.
In recent times, I can say the highlight of my life was getting my scuba diving certification. I can’t look at a sea turtle with awe and adoration and not acknowledge the fact that I had mascara on under my mask (I did). I don’t care for my habit to show up in the digestive waste of a beautiful animal.
As I look at my desirable lashes in the mirror, I question the ideal standard of beauty.
3. Mink slaughter and emissions
With the choice between synthetic and natural eyelash extensions, it might first appear that the choice is simple if we want to both be able to flutter our adoration at someone and preserve our oceans at the same time. Unfortunately, despite being biodegradable, the mink farming that exists in conjunction with producing soft, natural fur lashes is one of the most cruel, violent practices that exists in order to serve the fur industry.
Emissions from mink manure have proven to be problematic around the world, affecting waterways and having at least five times and up to 28 times the effect on climate change as the production of other textiles.
Byproducts of the runoff lead to a reduction of available oxygen in the water and an increase in mercury. Less and less oxygen in the water means more and more strain on marine life and puts the environment on track to suffocate them.
This is where it gets dicey because then we are falsely led to believe that a “vegan” option is better in order to “ethically” keep up with our beauty routine. As compassionate beings, I’m certain the last thing we want to do is suffocate anything to death.
4. Vegan forever…and ever…and ever…
Synthetic lashes, the vegan-but-not-better option, tend to be made from, not so surprisingly, plastic. Specifically, a type called polybutylene terephthalate (PBT), this product doesn’t biodegrade but offers the gold standard of covetable lashes—the ability to hold a beautiful curl. A curvature that ends up broken into the bitty microplastics continuously showing up in the intestines of marine life.
As a research article deep diving the lifecycle of false eyelashes mentions, a lot of the information seems to be missing when following what happens to a false eyelash from the eyelid to the seafloor, except for the fact that they are made out of plastic. This makes it difficult to understand the full scope of the lifecycle of false eyelashes.
It may be difficult to get the full picture of the complete journey of extensions once they detach from the eyelid, but we do know what type of plastic they are made from and what types of plastic are found in the ocean and its inhabitants, and it is consistent with both. For reference, in the aforementioned study, PBT made up 6 percent of the microplastics showing up in marine animal feces. Seeing as how it is also engineered for electronic and auto parts, I’m surprised it isn’t more.
Previously, I was happy to take most things with vegan label as a comfort. “Well, at least no animals are harmed,” we might think—but that’s not the case. If the end result never degrades in the environment, many animals are being harmed and the proof is in the poop.
Single-use plastic is estimated to make up almost half of the plastic packaging in the world. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s so typical to open up cosmetics from plastic packaging and immediately put it into the garbage that I don’t even realize it is happening most of the time.
Much of plastic packaging is made from PET, which we are led to believe is 100 percent recyclable and not single use. However, the complications that come with recycling different types of plastic tell a different story and there is a lot of controversy over whether it actually gets recycled.
There has been an uptick in brands offering recycling programs that ask customers to send back their old cosmetics in order to reuse the materials for new products. That is all I need to hear in order to jump on a brand immediately. I have been happy to pay significantly more for products that do this. I’ve learned that something to be aware of is a trend called “greenwashing” meaning, in this case, the plastic isn’t always 100 percent recycled, and ends up destroyed and disposed of anyway.
As with most things consumer-related, it’s on us to investigate the brands we are interested in supporting. There are many ways which we unknowingly act unsustainably. When a cosmetics brand, specifically for mascara or otherwise does this, they sacrifice the environment for their brand image.
What to do?
It seems the most concrete way to eliminate my personal impact would be to drop the mascara habit completely. I can admit that I’ve never seriously considered this. Women write about going barefaced altogether, and this for many, including myself, is a shocking sentiment. I have massive qualms about the thought of ditching mascara. I even wore my favorite ones on nature excursions during a life-changing trip in Costa Rica. In fact, the one jungle adventure I didn’t wear it on are the photos I don’t like my appearance in. I gained far more from that day in the wilderness than mascara could give me in a lifetime, anywhere, and still it feels like a massive undertaking to get rid of it.
A search for eyelash salons in New York City will bring back more than 3,000 results, a trend that is going nowhere but up, and so, it appears that many other lash lovers also ride this train.
There are ways we can curtail our habits. I’m learning the ropes. I’m inquiring when I don’t know the answer, and frankly, I’m being suspicious. It’s not enough to take a label at face value.
I always say to myself that I hope it’s enough to do the best we can. I’ve been spending more on brands with cleaner ingredients and seemingly eco-friendlier packaging. I’d rather give my mascara wands and tubes to organizations that use them or recycle them than put them in the bin with my own hand anymore.
I’m far more informed than I was before. We may share the same preoccupation as the lash lovers of ancient Egypt, or the lash surgeons of the 1800s, but we have to do more to care for our dependency.
Until the day I can release the image of how I think I like my lashes, I will do the best I can.