The Lowdown on Petrochemicals in Beauty Products

At Rabbit Brush, we’re always discussing the importance of our products being non-toxic, and how sustainability and environmentalism are at the forefront of our values.

It’s crucial that we discuss why our products are non-toxic, and how they serve to support better environmental practices. We know that not everybody understands exactly what it means for a product to be “non-toxic,” or why it’s imperative that as consumers, we need to conduct our own research to recognize what ingredients are worrisome in our makeup, skincare and hair products.

In this post, we’ll take away some of those unknowns and give the lowdown on petrochemicals, some of the most abundant toxic chemicals that can be found in beauty products, why they’re bad for us, our environment and what we can do to limit our exposure to them.

What are petrochemicals?

Petrochemicals are attained from petroleum (crude oil) for manufacturing purposes, most commonly to make plastic, polyester and nylon. [1] There are six basic petrochemicals: propylene, ethylene, benzene, toluene, butylenes and xylenes. [2]
These chemicals are pivotal in the manufacturing sector and their byproducts are used to make practically everything; you can find them in furniture and appliances, clothing, medicines, paints, cars, electronics and of course, cosmetics. [1]

Why are they harmful?

Although oil companies claim that petrochemicals are valuable to society, it comes at a major cost. The process of making petrochemicals is one of the leading causes of pollution and CO2 emission, and there have been major studies in recent years that have uncovered known and potential health complications that are linked to long-term exposure to these chemicals.
While petrochemicals aren’t inherently bad for our health, it’s the method in which they’re refined, especially in the US, that makes them a human health hazard. [3]

Unlike the FDA, the European Union mandates that all petrolatum, one of the most abundant petrochemicals, must be proven safe with a complete refining history [4] before any beauty product hits the shelf. This is because, during the refinement process, petrolatum is often contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a cluster of 100+ chemical compounds that are classified by The National Toxicology Program (NTP) as probable carcinogens. [5]

Petrochemicals are, predictably, hazardous to our environment as well. At large, their carbon footprint is incomprehensible— this is the oil industry we're talking about here, they're not exactly celebrated for their strides toward environmental protection and preservation. The production of petrochemicals is one of the leading contributors to climate change and pollutes our water, air and soil, [6] with oil giants BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell contributing over
10% of total carbon emissions alone since 1965. [7]

These companies are not only blatantly aware of the damage they are causing to the environment, but they are constantly putting down efforts dedicated to slowing the effects of global warming.
In an attempt to compete against technological innovations (think wind and solar energy sources) and beat the governments promises to reinforce environmental regulations, big oil is planning to dump $400 billion toward plastic production through construction of new, major plants overseas, despite plastic making up only 9% of their total profits. [8]

Additionally, petrochemicals are especially harmful to POC and low-income communities. Pledging to bring an abundance of economic growth, petrochemical companies prey on these communities by building their plants in small towns, forcing independent businesses to close and lifelong residents to either move or, usually stay, which significantly raises their risks of developing diseases such as cancer and asthma. [9]

Health risks associated with petrochemicals

Petrochemicals are certified sketchy— they are known carcinogens, meaning they contain cancer-causing properties, and have also been linked to reproductive toxicity, premature aging, reduced cell development, poor skin function (think increased acne, clogged pores and dry skin) and respiratory dysfunction. [15]

A study conducted in 2019 confirmed that on average, American’s are consuming between 39000 and 52000 microplastic particles annually, that number bumping to as high as 121000when counting environmental exposure. The study also revealed that people who drink primarily from plastic water bottles are consuming roughly 86000 more particles than those who don’t; as if the fact that 38 billion of them end up in landfills annually in the US wasn’t enough to make the switch to a reusable option. [10] [11]

Perhaps one of the most alarming misconceptions regarding beauty products is that because they are used externally, there are no health risks involved with their use, as microplastics aren’t being directly consumed. This is false; the skin is the body's largest organ, and daily, the products we use are absorbed into our bloodstreams. [12] Just because we aren’t actively ingesting these products, doesn’t mean we aren’t being exposed to them. And hey, I’ve ‘accidentally’ eaten some of that scrumptious pumpkin pie spice scented chapstick before.

Since 2009, over 500 cosmetics manufacturers have admitted to using petrochemicals that are linked to cancer, hormone and endocrine disruption, reproductive harm and birth defects in their products. [12] PAHs in particular are known to accumulate inside fat cells and have been heavily associated with the development of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. [13]

People assigned female at birth are 100 times more likely to develop breast cancer than men [14], and with women being the main target of these companies, that makes educating the dangers of petrochemicals all the more paramount.

So, why are they used in beauty products? Maybe I’m the odd one out, but it’s hard for me to comprehend why the same materials that are used to make phones, seatbelts and plastic packaging are also found in my lipsticks and body lotions. Why are cosmetic, skincare and haircare companies depending on big oil for their ingredients, and why have I willingly been putting this stuff on my body, and sometimes in it, for years?

It turns out that petrochemicals are often incorporated into cosmetic products for smoothing purposes; think of any balm or pomade, it most likely got its spreadable, buttery texture from paraffin wax or petroleum. [3] Petrochemicals are a popular choice for skincare bands due to their long shelf life and widespread availability. They can also be used as a preservative, filler or to disperse fragrance in an attempt to keep production costs low, and profit margins high.

What to look out for

It’s unacceptable that toxic chemicals are being pumped into our beauty products without our knowing, and more often than not, it’s for brands to save a quick buck. There are hundreds of petrochemicals out there, but these are some of the most common that you can find on cosmetic, skincare and hair care labels: [3], [16]

Isopropyl alcohol
Mineral oil
(Mono)propylene glycol (MPG)
Parabens (often listed as Propyl, Benzyl, Methyl, Butyl)
Paraffin oil/wax
Petrolatum, Petroleum or Petroleum jelly
Polyethylene glycols (PEGs)
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)

What are some alternatives?

Petrochemicals are everywhere, and with brands giving peanuts about the sourcing of their ingredients,

how are we expected to navigate shelves safely?

Unsurprisingly, it’s harder to avoid petrochemicals when shopping at big box stores. Foundation, shampoo, everything you put on your body daily most likely has at least one petrochemical in it. Perhaps some of the trickiest products to find safe alternatives for are hair pomades, as they often rely on paraffin wax for its texturizing and smoothing properties— this means that they typically
contain higher amounts of petrochemicals in general, as paraffin wax is higher up on the ingredient list.
One of my favorite alternatives is our Pocket Pomade which uses vegan candelilla wax in place of paraffin wax. Candelilla wax doesn’t serve as just a replacement here— this high-quality natural alternative is praised for its ability to hold hair in place while locking in moisture. It has a lightweight feel, long-lasting hold, and a little goes a long way! [17]

To find other alternatives to your favorite products, check out the Skin Deep database from the Environmental Working Group for a quick and easy method to find what brands are free of petrochemicals, and which aren’t. I recommend making a short list of your favorite brands and products beforehand, that way you can easily check off which products you want to keep, discontinue or even try out!


Though we can’t always prevent our exposure to petrochemicals, we can continue to educate ourselves about which products are safe, and which aren’t. With databases like SkinDeep openly exposing the harmful ingredients in beauty brands, it’s becoming more accessible than ever to find safe alternatives.
The FDA currently does not regulate what’s pumped into our beauty products, so it’s key that we take matters into our own hands and advocate for more transparency from cosmetic, skincare and haircare companies, many of whom remain guarded about the safety of their products and the potential health risks associated with their use.

It’s important that we remember the negative impact they have on our environment and POC/low-income communities as well— keep the conversation on big oil and petrochemicals going, and as always, support independent, local brands whenever possible.

At Rabbit Brush, we will never risk the health and safety of our customers for a higher profit margin. That’s why we steer clear of petrochemicals and choose locally sourced, cruelty free & non-toxic ingredients that are safe for everyone, every time.


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