What the beauty industry won’t tell you — from a reporter on a mission to reform it. Subscribe for free today!
Let the record show that as the globe warmed, we glowed. As the collective suffered, we catered to our complexions. As the world went to shit, we looked really, really shiny.
I’m talking, of course, about slugging, the beauty industry’s delusional skincare trend du jour, in which enthusiasts coat their faces in a layer of petroleum jelly or mineral oil — usually Vaseline or Aquaphor — in an attempt to “seal in” skincare products, prevent moisture loss, and/or appear as slimy as a slug.
But I’m talking about PEGs, too. I’m talking about propylene glycol, and sodium laureth sulfate, and every ingredient manufactured with ethylene oxide. I’m talking about the plastic surrounding our seven-step skincare routines. I’m talking about all the petrochemicals that keep the beauty industry dependent on the fossil fuel industry — you know, the primary driver of climate change — and I was thrilled to be able to discuss them in-depth with reporter Emily Atkin of the newsletter HEATED last week. I figured I’d share a bit of our conversation here.
Read on to learn more about dismantling beauty standards as an act of sustainability, how “clean” and “eco-friendly” brands utilize fossil fuels too, and why the petroleum industry is the worst thing to ever happen to human skin.
(As per usual, I couldn’t stop myself from adding some extras! After the interview, I share some of the most common questions and criticisms I get every time I write about fossil fuel byproducts in beauty — so if you’ve read this interview already via HEATED, just keep scrolling! There’s much more where that came from!!)
Emily Atkin: How are beauty standards connected to the climate crisis?
Jessica DeFino (me): Taking a broad view, what’s happening to our planet right now is derived from the same cultural forces that created beauty culture: patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. I often talk about those four things being the core roots of any beauty standard or beauty trend. Basically, anything that's happening in the industrialized beauty space can be traced back to one or two or all four of those forces. I think the same could be said for climate change.
More specifically, they are connected by consumerism. Mainstream beauty is very much about consuming, and looking like you've been consuming. If you look at some of the celebrities that we hold up as our beauty idols, they have this aesthetic of looking like they funneled money into their faces. The standard of beauty is just wealth, and wealth is just buying things and putting them on your body, or injecting them into your body. And buying things is directly related to climate change.
EA: You said the standard of beauty is wealth, and looking like you funneled money into your face. The first people I thought of when you said that were Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner. They were in the news a lot recently for their use of private jets as an environmental issue. But I wonder, is that really their biggest contribution to climate change? Could it be, say, the beauty products they sell, and their perpetuation of beauty standards?
JD: I haven't crunched the numbers, but I definitely think there's something there. Think of all the components that go into one tiny beauty product that you're going to use for like, 2 to 3 months at most. It's monumental.
Say we're taking one product from Kylie Skin. First of all, it's packaged in plastic. It's probably shipped to you in multiple plastic containers within each other, within a cardboard box with paper inserts and bubble wrap and whatever. Then there's the number of ingredients that go into a product, which is usually between 15 and 50. Then you have to think of the environmental impact of farming, harvesting, processing and extracting every actual ingredient that's being used. You have to think of the industrial production of each individual synthetic ingredient—the emissions from that product, the hazardous waste disposal from creating those cosmetic chemicals, and the supply chain that's involved in getting every individual ingredient in that product from their manufacturing facilities to the skin care manufacturing facility.
Then, there’s the production of the final product, mixing all of those individual ingredients together, packaging them up. And in the packaging, there's always non-recyclable parts. The pumps, the caps, those are too small to be recycled. They will never be recycled.
EA: True, I just recently ran out of something and was like, what the fuck do I do with this cap?
JD: You can't do anything. You [almost always] have to throw it out. And then there's the fossil fuel emissions that go into distributing the product, sending out samples, and the testing process. And when a beauty product is returned, it can't be resold. You can't even donate a returned product in a lot of cases. So there's just so, so, so much waste from getting the product into people's hands.
And then—I'm sorry, I'm going on and on, but you have to think about all of this—what happens to those ingredients when they're on your face? Most of them just wind up evaporating off of your face, so they're ending up in the air. Or you're washing them off your face and they end up in the water supply and in the soil. It’s a huge cycle, and every little individual ingredient in one of those products ends up having an impact.
EA: I think most climate-concerned people recognize the problem of plastic packaging, as plastic is made of petrochemicals. But I don’t think many folks consider that some of the ingredients within these products are petroleum-based. Can you give an overview of some common ingredients in beauty products that are fossil fuel-based?
JD: The beauty industry, from skincare to makeup to haircare, is completely dependent on fossil fuel-derived ingredients. [These are called “petrochemicals,” and they are byproducts of oil production.] Even “sustainable” brands. Some ingredients are mineral oil, petroleum jelly, paraffin wax, polyethylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and isopropyl alcohol. And then there are ingredients that won't be listed as a recognizable petrochemical on the label, but are perhaps extracted from the source using petrochemicals. For instance, some essential oils are extracted using hexane, which is a petrochemical. So fossil fuels are involved in the process of creating some of these “natural” products. Even if it's not on the label, petrochemicals are really used every step of the way.
EA: But some of these products are used for staying healthy and for hygiene, right? So how would you differentiate the “I'm just trying to stay healthy and hygienic” products from “I’m participating in beauty culture” products?
JD: The problem is, a lot of what we have come to think of as “hygiene” or “basic grooming” is wrapped up in beauty culture. Beauty culture has made us believe that a certain number of steps is part of our health, where it really is not. It's just a product that was invented to sell something that got really, really, really integrated into our existence. And now we think, Oh, this is a health choice.
For instance, soap. Soap is terrible for the human skin barrier and the human microbiome. There's a really great book that I would recommend, Clean by Dr. James Hamblin, that talks about the skin microbiome, and how the introduction of things like soap and skincare products are actually harming our skin and harming the environment, and we don't actually really need them.
There's also a lot of presentability politics wrapped up in “cleanliness.” A few months ago, there was this big discourse about white celebrities saying they don't shower very often, like Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher. And that brought in a lot of beauty standards, specifically in regards to Black people and people of color who are held to a higher standard. I remember Roxane Gay wrote a piece about how a Black celebrity could never come out and say “I don't actually shower,” because there are different degrees of beauty standards and cleanliness standards that different groups of people are held to. But if we're looking at it from a purely health perspective, there's not much that you need at all.
EA: That reminds me of what you said earlier about how beauty culture is derived from the same forces as climate change, which are patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. How is what's happening with beauty culture derived from those forces? I think the capitalism one is kind of obvious.
JD: I mean, they're all obvious once you think about it. Patriarchy, for instance: Look at the beauty industry’s target market. Look at its consumer base. This is all sexism in its most basic form. These are all standards that women are held to, that men are not held to. These are products that are pushed on women and are very rarely pushed on men. We're seeing more of that happen—for instance, Joe Jonas is the new face of an injectable treatment—but by and large, this is an industry that focuses on women.
For white supremacy, I think the easiest way to visualize this is to look at like foundation ranges and concealer ranges, and look at what's available. You'll see probably 60 to 75 percent of the market is for lighter skin tones. That sort of spirit is imbued in every part of the beauty industry.
Colonialism is probably like the hardest one to illustrate, but I would say the skin care industry is a great example, because a lot of the skin care ingredients that are being pushed on us right now, like ceramides and hyaluronic acid, are ingredients that the body naturally produces. So the industry is literally mining our bodies for ideas and ingredients and selling them back to us in a bottle. And these ingredients aren't as effective when they're sold back to us. So they're mining our land and our bodies for profit and reaping the rewards.
I also think of plastic surgery culture and injectable culture as colonization of the body. Two of the biggest treatments of the past couple of years are lip injections and the Brazilian butt lift. These are examples of taking a feature that belongs to a specific race or ethnicity and grafting them on to white bodies. Specifically, if you look at Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner, it's stealing features that don't belong to you and putting them on your body and saying, I deserve this, too. And it turns entire groups of people into trends.
Emily Atkin: That reminds me of what you were saying in the Weightless newsletter about the trend of “slugging,” which as I understand it refers to covering your face in Vaseline or some sort of petroleum jelly product to create like a barrier from environmental impacts outside, like pollution. You said there’s two problems with that. The first is that you're using a petroleum-based product to defend yourself from pollution most likely caused by the petroleum industry, so it’s a vicious cycle. The second is that the beauty industry is making that process popular by taking it from Black communities. Is that right?
JD: Exactly. I always say that beauty is one of the sneakiest ways that systems of oppression are reinforced, and the trends sort of directly correlate to systems being challenged. For example, we're seeing public pushback against fossil fuels as being a driver of climate change. Meanwhile, the number one skincare products in the U.S. is pure petroleum jelly. There's a reason that this is trending. It is in the best interest of the conventional beauty industry to distract from the fossil fuel arguments, because it relies completely on fossil fuels.
Yet within that, there are a lot of layers. For instance, Vaseline has been a staple in the Black community for decades. And a lot of people who are popularizing slugging —just coating your entire face and body in Vaseline—are using that as a justification for promoting it. “Oh, see this? This comes from the Black community. So this is a diverse trend that we’re elevating.” But in reality, popularizing a product that is derived from fossil fuels reinforces the harm of fossil fuels, which disproportionately affects the Black community and people of color. So it's just a really interesting justification that the beauty industry is is trying to make right now.
EA: On that note, let’s look at the environmental impacts of fossil fuel pollution on human skin. I took a quick look at the published research in this area before our interview, and I found a review of studies that compiled the various harmful effects of air pollution on human skin. What have been the most interesting things that you have found in that area?
JD: The fossil fuel industry is the worst thing that has ever happened to our skin. One example I like to cite is that air pollution’s effect on how we receive the sun has led to higher incidences of skin cancer. That is a huge concern in the beauty community and a huge focus of the skin care industry. So I think it is helpful to recognize that the fossil fuel industry is directly linked to these higher incidences of skin cancer.
Air pollution has also affected our skin microbiomes. The higher air pollution gets, the less diverse our microbiomes are. The skin microbiome, similar to the gut microbiome, is a protective layer of microorganisms that carries out a lot of our biological processes for us. I would say the microorganisms on our skin are the original skin care products—they produce ceramides and fatty acids, and antioxidants which help us defend against pollution. There's certain microorganisms that eat sebum that comes out of your pores. There are microorganisms that eat your dead skin cells, so they're self-exfoliation.
We have all of this technology built into our skin. But air pollution is directly decreasing the amount that our skin can self-protect through the ways that it affects the microbiome. It also wears away at the skin barrier. When people are slugging, they're putting on a faux skin barrier. But your skin already has that. You don't need to slug if you have a skin barrier, and air pollution and sun exposure directly wear away at the skin barrier.
Exposure to pollution also causes almost all of the things that we typically associate with aging. Anti-aging is a complete scam. Most of what we're taught to believe is “aging” is actually “exposure.” It's exposure to the environment, exposure to the sun, exposure to stress, exposure to certain chemicals, exposure to skincare. So the oil industry's effect on the skin is that it causes pollution exposure, and therefore it causes what we see as aging. That's fine lines, wrinkles, loss of collagen, loss of hyaluronic acids, which are essential for your skin to protect itself. This is from exposure; it’s not from aging. And the more pollution we have, the more exposure that we have.
Emily Atkin: And it occurs to me that slugging, which is something done to decrease exposure, originates within the Black community, which disproportionately lives the closest to high-polluting sources like refineries and coal plants and all that. So there is a direct connection to environmental justice here as well.
JD: There is. And it's so backwards that we attempt to treat these skin issues with products, because the more products we produce, the more pollution we produce, and the more these issues are exacerbated by our environment. We are not going to be able to stop these things with products, because products are part of the cause.
EA: I worry people might read all this and get frustrated, like “oh God, now there’s another thing I have to worry about with climate change.” But I sort of think about it like, “No, this is just another potential route for you to take if you want to be a climate activist.” You don’t have to do it, but you could, if it makes you feel passionate.
JD: Right, and by doing it you’re also saving money, and saving your skin barrier because you're not exposed to so many products and ingredients. There are a lot of upsides to divesting from beauty culture.
I will often get the question of, “What's the point of doing all of this? Beauty makes me feel better. I consider it part of my self-care.” Of course, those arguments can be valid. But what I like to point out is that beauty products can only replace the confidence that beauty standards steal. Beauty standards start us at a confidence deficit, so that we consume our way into “happiness” and “confidence.” And because we get that initial dopamine hit from our products, or we feel good when we're adhering to the beauty standard as much as possible, it reinforces this idea that, “This is part of my happiness. This is part of my self-worth. This is part of my confidence.”
But the data tell a very different story. Beauty culture is associated with higher instances of anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, facial dysmorphia, self-harm, disordered eating, even suicide. So this system that we're participating in is not serving us any way. It is actively harming our mental health. And that's just our mental health. Beauty culture is a public health issue, and although it can seem counterintuitive divesting from some of these cosmetic coping mechanisms, it actually leads to a higher quality of life overall for you personally.
EA: Man, I really feel like you’re calling me out with the whole “cosmetic coping mechanisms” thing! Like, it’s only after I put on mascara and do my eyebrows in the morning that finally I feel like “OK, I can operate now.”
JD: We all do it. We all need it. But it's worth keeping in mind that a lot of our beauty behaviors are a response to the pain of beauty culture.
JD: It’s a coping mechanism.
EA: It’s true.
JD: And it’s cool to have them. But it’s also cool to work through your need for them.
EA: Right, and the operative word there is work. Personally, my need to darken my eyebrows is going to be one of the hardest beauty coping mechanisms for me to address. So I don't need to tackle that one tomorrow, or maybe ever. I can choose another beauty product to divest from, then work towards the more difficult ones.
JD: Yes, and I never want to seem like I'm passing judgment on people who are very into beauty, or relying on beauty for feeling good or having confidence. It's not our individual fault that we rely on these things so much. This is the system that we're in. But part of what I ask myself every day is, OK, this might be the system that I’m in, but is this the system that I want to perpetuate?
EA: We have this same conversation all the time in the climate spaces when it comes to owning a car, or eating meat, or flying. We're trying all individually to divest from fossil fuels in different ways, but we understand that this is a systemic problem that requires systemic change. So we pick and choose what we can do, what means the most to us, and what we can talk about most easily and confidently. And through those individual choices, we create cultural pressure that helps chip away at the larger system.
NOW! Let’s dive into some of the most consistent comments and criticisms I get every damn time I talk about petrochemicals in beauty products, shall we?
“Petroleum jelly is safe for skin.”
Yes. Sure. Petroleum is typically purified before it’s incorporated into cosmetics, so topically, this trend doesn’t present much of a threat to the skin. It would be totally fine to slather purified fossil fuel byproducts on your face if your face were the most important thing in the world! But the world is the most important thing in the world, and fossil fuels are currently destroying that.
“Petrochemicals are byproducts of fossil fuels — the most eco-friendly thing to do would be to use them.”
There is currently a huge disinformation movement happening within the beauty industry to downplay the environmental impact of petrochemicals. This CNBC report, and this similar report from Salon, should be required reading for all the skincare influencers and journalists who insist that petroleum jelly and the many, many other petrochemicals used in beauty products don’t really affect the environment since they’re fossil fuel “byproducts.” They really do. “Petrochemicals are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil demand,” according to According to a 2018 International Energy Agency report. More recently, CNBC reported that byproducts are the oil industry’s “next major growth market.” The outlet predicted that “every year through 2050, there will be 10 million metric tons of growth in the market for petrochemicals.” The increase in petrochemical production can be attributed to the decrease in fuel demand, as world leaders focus on funding clean energy options. In other words: As the fossil fuel industry ramps down fuel production, it’s ramping up petrochemical production to make up for financial losses. As such, divesting from fossil fuels must include divesting from petrochemicals. What’s more, since Big Beauty is a major supporter of Big Oil, the withholding of that support would likely reverberate throughout the petroleum industry. It would not only eliminate a significant source of income for fossil fuel corporations, but it would force them to incur the extra costs of waste disposal for those materials now — so that’s two huge financial burdens in one action. And that is enough to force change, because the oil industry does not want to take on those costs. Money is famously the only thing it cares about, remember?
Think of it like fast fashion. (All beauty is “fast beauty.”) Inexpensive, mass-produced, widely available products often seem affordable, but there is almost always a hidden cost to financial affordability — and that cost is almost always paid by marginalized people and the planet. Plus, there are plenty of accessible non-petrochemical options! Focus on strengthening your skin barrier and you won’t need to slug with anything at all. But if your skin barrier still needs some topical support, as some skin barriers do, plain shea butter and plain jojoba oil are two affordable options I’d recommend.
“Fossil fuels are used in the production of everything in the beauty industry — even the gas that fuels the tractors that farm natural ingredients — so there’s no point in boycotting petrochemicals in the products themselves.”
Let me be clear: If this were a valid argument, no progress would be made, ever, in any field, and we might as well roll over and die right now to spare ourselves the coming decade of life-threatening climate disasters. Luckily, it is not a valid argument. It isn’t the beauty industry’s responsibility to pioneer clean energy options for farm equipment; it’s the beauty industry responsibility to reduce the beauty industry’s environmental impact.
“But petroleum jelly was invented by Native Americans.”
Some months ago, a TikTok video/Instagram reel made its way through the beauty community. In it, an industry insider explained that petroleum jelly was actually invented by Native Americans, and used social justice language to (overtly) illustrate how the lack of critical race theory erased this bit of Indigenous beauty industry history and (covertly) suggest that using petroleum jelly is somehow a way to honor the Native American community. This neoliberal weaponization of CRT, inclusivity, and intersectionality in service to fossil fuel corporations makes me want to cry, scream, throw up, and donate to Indigenous Climate Action (which “does not partner with organizations with an invested interest in extractive industries or climate-destroying initiatives, such as fossil fuel projects.”)
If you care about Native Americans, listen to Native Americans. Many are saying LAND BACK. Many are saying STOP DRILLING. Many are saying END FOSSIL FUELS. Many are protesting the oil industry. Many are dying due to the oil industry. When Native Americans invented petrolatum, they did not invent it with the intent of world domination. They did not invent it with the intent to hand it over to colonizers to mass-produce. They did not invent it with the intent of being exploited to the point of extinction. They did not invent it so that wealthy white beauty industry executives and their social media followers could all have weirdly wet-looking skin. Stop it with this nonsense. Please.
“Petroleum jelly is a staple in the Black community.”
See: the HEATED interview above. More on this here, too.
“I’m aware of the environmental issues but I still want to use petroleum jelly because it’s part of my community/my grandmother used it and taught me to use it/it’s important to me for some unspecified emotional reason/etc.”
Cool! You do you. That is a personal choice and I won’t argue with you. I would gently suggest that you resist evangelizing the aesthetic wonders of petroleum jelly or mineral oil to the rest of the internet, though. It’s understandable that you may have forged a personal connection with this product for whatever reason, but — given what we know about fossil fuels, petrochemicals, and climate change in 2022 — there’s no reason to influence others to start investing in a fossil fuel-derived product now.
“My favorite influencer, editor, dermatologist, or beauty brand founder is a fan of petroleum jelly and other petrochemicals and says they’re fine to use.”
That makes sense: You favorite insert-industry-insider-here is an industry insider, or was at least taught by an industry insider. And the beauty industry is typically not an unbiased source of information on the failings of the beauty industry!
It’s also worth noting that the petrochemicals used in beauty products are in no way necessary to the goal of functioning, supported skin. Human skin does not need them for survival. You don’t need them for survival. (And to be clear, that’s what’s at stake here in the petrochemical debate. Survival.) Petrochemicals are popular because they’re cheap for brands, they’re easy to formulate with for cosmetic chemists, and they’ve been integrated into the manufacturing process for decades. It’s a “this is how things have always been done” thing. If someone is defending petrochemicals, they are defending the industry. It’s that simple. Think about it. I bet you’re picturing two or three people who are known for defending the use of petrochemicals in beauty products. They’re cosmetic chemists and brand founders, right? Right. They care about the industry. They do not care about you, or your skin. Because you and your skin would be just fuckin’ fine without petrochemicals. I promise.
“But petrochemicals are sometimes necessary in medical settings!”
Yes! That’s true! There are plenty of life-saving and life-enhancing prescription products and medical tools in which plastics and plastic derivatives are used and should still be used, by doctors, or doctor recommendation, when appropriate. Your daily skincare routine is not an acute medical setting. (If you think it is, you can thank the medicalization of beauty standards — a tactic used by the industry to pathologize totally normal skin reactions and legitimize the sustained use of unnecessary products under the guise of “health” and “wellness.” Very often, the “science of skincare” is nothing more than the science of aesthetic manipulation.)
“If petrochemicals are so widespread, even in clean and natural brands, what brands am I supposed to buy from if I want to be eco-friendly?”
You can scan the labels of products you’re considering and avoid any brands that formulate with the following petrochemicals:
petrolatum / petroleum jelly
PEGs (polyethylene glycol compounds)
Butyls (butyl alcohol, butylene glycol, etc.)
Propyls (isopropyl alcohol, propylene glycol, etc.)
But honestly, the best thing you can do for the environment — if you don’t want to give up on topical skincare, that is — is support local businesses rather than large corporations and conglomerates. Domination of the global or national market is completely incompatible with climate action. Long-term sustainability means small, meaningful brands servicing small, meaningful communities. (Here is how I suggest brands begin to degrow and divest from fossil fuels.)
“Me personally divesting from petrochemicals in beauty products as an individual definitely won’t have an impact on the beauty industry’s use of petrochemicals overall.”
Refusing to buy and use petrochemicals can and will work! Let’s use parabens as an example. Parabens are another much-debated class of cosmetic chemicals: Some experts believe these preservatives are linked to endocrine disruption and certain cancers; others believe parabens are 100% safe. That debate is irrelevant to this particular conversation, so I won’t be addressing safety claims right now. The point is: Years ago, advocates for safer cosmetics created ad campaigns to educate consumers about the potential risks of parabens (which, at the time, were very widely used — they were the industry standard). The campaigns worked. Soon, “paraben-free” became a selling point for the clean beauty industry. Eventually, it became a selling point for the entire industry, since conventional beauty brands did not want to lose customers to clean beauty brands. Today, even brands that believe parabens to be totally safe and effective often won’t formulate with them, either.
Take, for instance, the popular brand Dieux Skin. The Dieux site states that the brand is paraben-free — but only “because the market dictates it.” Though the brand’s founders think that “parabens are demonstrably safe in cosmetics,” per the FAQ section, they “had to make a business decision to choose other preservatives.”
In other words, activists made such a fuss about the use of parabens, and spread that message so far and wide, that consumers stopped buying products with parabens, and it effectively made parabens unusable in the industry. If a brand uses parabens now, their profits are at stake — and that is due to mass consumer divestment. The campaign against parabens proves that consumer concern can change the beauty industry’s formulation practices. We can absolutely do the same thing with petrochemicals. (Especially since the science on fossil fuels is settled. There is no debate here! They are destroying life on earth.)
“Slugging makes my skin look good!”
There is no such thing as good skin on a scorched earth. And if there’s any hope for a not-scorched earth in our future, it will be (mostly) fossil fuel-free. You might as well learn how to get by without fossil fuels on your face now.
Essentially, any pro-petrochemical argument in the beauty space can be countered with this: Your complexion is not more important than climate collapse.
Keep beating the “beauty products can only replace the confidence that beauty standards steal” drum. You’ve also said that the industry will create an issue and then sell you something to “fix” it.
I appreciate the grace you give to those of us realizing we’ve been lied to and slowly working our way out.
I find angry reactions to your work So Fascinating. It's such a projection of guilt and shame and ego, which is why you're so astute to connect beauty standards to whiteness the way you do. That kind of "protection/attack/why are you being mean to me" reeks of white fragility. It's not like you're coming into anyone's house and throwing out their bathroom products! Really interesting overlap and there's a lot of psychological meat there. Thanks for a great read! Gonna go read the ingredients in my moisturizer next :]