Ask G

Ask G: Cosmetic concerns

Should we use plant-based cosmetics?

I read that should we avoid cosmetic products made from petrochemicals and use products derived from plants instead. Is this because of health or environment reasons?
-Hoe Yin, NSW


Not all plant-based cosmetics are better for the environment.

Credit: Wikimedia

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The advice you've mentioned is often given for health reasons - petrochemicals can be irritants for people with allergies and sensitivities.

Having said that, remember that nature is not always kind. Cyanide and arsenic are both natural - and are popular poisons in Agatha Christie novels. Alpha hydroxy fruit acids in face creams are also commonly advertised as natural or non-toxic ingredients, but are not recommended for sensitive skins and can increase UV-sensitivity.

Also remember that chemical sensitivity is a highly individual thing, so no product can offer an absolute guarantee that you won't react to it.

People are also told to avoid petrochemicals more broadly for environmental reasons as the extraction of crude oil and the production of petrochemicals can damage ecosystems and cause pollution. However, natural alternatives are not without their impacts.

Palm oil is often used as an alternative to mineral oil in cosmetics and cleaning products and as a biofuel.

The growth of the biofuel market has seen vast tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest converted to lucrative palm oil plantations, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases and destroying the habitat of endangered animals, such as orang-utans.

Ask cosmetic companies about where they get their palm oil from to stimulate the development of better palm oil standards.