Scraping Sephora: Cruelty Free is Not Enough
Posted by Van Vu
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
The beauty industry has come a long way. There has been a lot more awareness of the harmful effects of certain ingredients as more information and research are brought to light. Though they were once considered acceptable in the beauty industry, ingredients like parabens, phthalates, and sulfates are now avoided by beauty brands and consumers. However, ingredients such as squalene, mica, and silicones, which are often used in skincare and makeup, are rarely talked about. Although these ingredients may not be harmful to their consumers, they can be linked to animal cruelty, child labor, and a negative environmental impact.
By scraping skincare products at Sephora.com and extracting products that have squalene, mica, or silicones, I hope to bring awareness to other consumers about these ingredients and urge beauty brands to take responsibilities in ensuring their supply chains are fair, responsible, and sustainable.
About the Data
Sephora is a multinational cosmetic retailer that carries over 3,000 beauty brands. Selenium was used to scrape skincare products, which included moisturizers, facial treatments, sunscreens, eye treatments, cleansers, and face masks. The following were scraped for each product: category, name, brand, price, size, details, ingredients, number of reviews, and star reviews.
Questions to Explore
- Which companies are using squalene, mica, and silicones?
- How do these beauty brands source their squalene? Is it plant-based?
- Do products with plant-based squalene cost more at Sephora?
I used to think “cruelty-free” meant a product was not tested on animals and didn’t include any ingredients derived from animals. To my surprise, “cruelty-free” only means the product ingredients were not tested on animals. For a product to be free of animal derived ingredients, it has to be labeled vegan.
Cruelty-free – the product and its ingredients were not tested on animals
Vegan – the product does not contain any animal products or animal derived ingredients
Clean at Sephora – free of ingredients that are known to be harmful to humans, as well as free of animal oil
Squalene in Cosmetic
Squalene is a natural oil that is produced by our oil glands to hydrate our skin, but as we age, our body produces less. Squalene and its more stable form, squalane, is often used in cosmetics to moisturize the skin and prevent wrinkles. According to Shark Allies, shark liver “is the cheapest and highest-yielding known squalene source,” and 2.7 million sharks are killed for their livers each year for the cosmetic industry. However, in recent years, there has been more plant-derived squalene made available to enable the industry to transition away from killing sharks for cosmetics. The plant version is also more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Squalene can be also sourced from plants including olives, sugarcane, rice bran, yeasts, and wheat germ.
Skincare Products that Contain Questionable Squalene
Below are brands at Sephora and their number of skincare products that contain squalene with unidentified source. They were not labeled as Vegan or Clean at Sephora. I decided to do a little investigation and contacted the top 10 brands with the most products of questionable squalene source. Seven out of 10 companies responded and indicated they used plant-based squalene in their products, though I can’t say anything about the three brands that did not respond to my inquiry.
Squalene Price Analysis
For each product, the price per oz. was determined to allow cost comparison among products with plant derived versus questionable source of squalene. The ones that did not guarantee that the squalene in the products was plant-based, vegan and Clean squalene, were higher-priced than the ones that did. The cost is yet another reason for brands and consumers to make the conscientious choice to use only plant-based squalene.
Mica in Cosmetics
Another ingredient of concern is mica. Mica is a group of minerals that are used in makeup products to give them shimmer and sparkle. Mica has to be mined by hand and is linked to child labor in least developed countries. Children as young as 4 years old work in dangerous, unregulated, and poorly ventilated mica pits for long hours to earn less than 40 cents a day. In 2016, the Dutch child protection group Terre des Hommes found up to 20,000 child laborers involved in the mining of mica in North East India. More recently, the group found that at least 10,000 children work in the Madagascar’s mica sector.
Below are brands at Sephora that used mica in their skincare products. In addition to its use for shimmer and sparkle in makeup, mica is added to many skincare products to provide a glow on skin after application. Products with mica offer no additional benefits to the skin and are rated about the same as products without mica, so it really can be eliminated from skincare products.
Mica is not only used in makeup. It is used extensively in skincare products such as moisturizers and eye treatment as shown in the graph below.
Silicones in Cosmetics
Silicones are a group of synthetic semi-liquid substances derived from silica, a major component of sand. They are extensively used in beauty products to make hair and skin look smooth and silky without actually improving skin health. Other common names for silicones in cosmetics include siloxane, dimethicone, cyclomethicone, cyclohexasiloxane, cetearyl methicone, cyclopentasiloxane. Silicones are “bioaccumulative,” according to Healthline. They are not easily biodegradable in the environment, and the buildup in oceans and waterways can be toxic to aquatic organisms. The American Chemical Society reported that scientists had found traces of these compounds in soil, plants, phytoplankton, and krill in their study. Almost every major brand uses silicones in their products as shown below. Dermatologists point out that silicones do not harm our skin, and therefore they do not consider them harmful in skincare products. However, for the sake of our environment, silicones should be eliminated from cosmetics.
Many cosmetic brands at Sephora use squalene, mica and silicones in many of their skincare products. It is up to us, the consumers, to urge beauty brands to ensure their supply chains are fair, responsible and sustainable. Significant number of brands do not disclose the source of their squalene. Now that plant-based squalene have become more available and affordable, there is no excuse not to ensure that their source of squalene is not from shark liver. Although not all mica is linked to child labor, more work needs to be done to ensure fair labor. More guidance on ensuring responsible and fair labor in mica sourcing can be found at Responsible Mica Initiative. Though studies are still inconclusive about the effects of silicones on ocean life, silicones have shown to be bioaccumulative and may take hundreds of years to break down. The potential harmful effects to the environment outweighs its benefits.
For future work, I’d like to do the following:
- Filter products that list squalene or squalane as one of their top 5 ingredients to perform a more accurate price analysis, as there is no way of knowing the exact quantity of squalene in each.
- Analyze products that have palm oil and its derivatives in their ingredients.
- Create a web app that users can use to find the names of products and companies that use such ingredients so that they can make an informed choice about sustainable and fair-trade purchases.
- “What is Squalene.” Shark Allies. https://www.sharkallies.com/shark-free-products/cosmetics-what-is-squalene. Accessed November 6, 2020.
- Lexy Lebsack (May 4, 2019). “The Makeup Industry’s Darkest Secret Is Hiding In Your Makeup Bag.” Refinery29. https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/05/229746/mica-in-makeup-mining-child-labor-india-controversy. Accessed November 7, 2020.
- Maryanne Buechner (November 15, 2019). “How UNICEF Supports Families to Prevent Child Labor in Madagascar.” Unicef USA. https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/how-unicef-supports-families-prevent-child-labor-madagascar/36676. Accessed November 7, 2020.
- Lisa Cavazuti, Christine Romo, Cynthia McFadden and Rich Schapiro (Nov. 18, 2019). “An Army of Children Toils in African Mines.” NBC News. www.nbcnews.com/news/all/army-children-toil-african-mica-mines-n1082916. Accessed November 8, 2020.
- Responsible Mica Initiative. www.responsible-mica-initiative.com. Accessed November 9, 2020.
- Jessica L. Yarbrough (October 14, 2020). “6 Reasons Why People Avoid Silicones in Skin Care.” Healthline. .https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/silicones. Accessed November 9, 2020.
- Rebecca (April 18, 2016). “7 Cosmetic Ingredients that are Bad for the Environment.” CV Skinlabs. https://cvskinlabs.com/7-cosmetic-ingredients-that-are-bad-for-the-environment/. Accessed November 9, 2020.
- Heather Webb (February 16, 2017). “The Problem with Mica.” Ethical Consumer. https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/health-beauty/problem-mica. Accessed November, 2020.
Data science fellow with a background in clinical pharmacy. Demonstrated commitment in reducing hospital readmissions and improving patient health outcomes. Showcases expertise with over ten years of experience in healthcare. Eager to combine clinical expertise and data science abilities to analyze complex datasets and transform them into solutions.View all articles