Quiet Contamination of Our Waters

K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

Students learn about the toxic ingredients in personal care products and take action to protect local waterways from the effects of the chemicals.

Adapt this one-period lesson plan for any grade level and follow it with a simple and powerful service project. The reflection brings learning and service impact together.

Photo Credit: IMG_2925 by Dan Jeffrey is licensed under CC by 4.0 

PrintOne class period, plus time for a project

The students will be able to 

  • identify chemicals in personal care products.
  • state the harmful effects on the water system of chemicals in pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
  • raise awareness of alternatives to allowing chemicals to pollute waterways. 
  • samples of personal care products
  • copy of the PowerPoint slide show to facilitate this lesson (below)
  • student copies of Analyzing PCPs handout (below)
Teacher Preparation 

Gather a variety of products in advance (hair and skin care, cleansers and moisturizers, nail care, shaving cream) Note: You may ask students to bring in samples.


chemicals: form of matter that has constant chemical composition and characteristic properties, can be natural or manmade

contaminate: make (something) impure by exposure to or addition of a poisonous or polluting substance.

personal care products (PCPs): products used for personal hygiene or beatification and are as diverse as cleansing pads, colognes, cotton swabs, cotton pads, deodorant, eye liner, facial tissue, hair clippers, lip gloss, lipstick, lotion, makeup, nail files, pomade, perfumes, razors, shaving cream, moisturizer, talcum powder, toilet paper, toothpaste, and wet wipes.

pharmaceutical (P): a compound manufactured for use as a medicinal drug.

US Geological Survey (USGS): a scientific agency of the United States government; the scientists of the USGS study the landscape of the United States, its natural resources, and the natural hazards that threaten it.

waste water treatment plant (WWTP): a plant that completes the process to convert wastewater - which is water no longer needed or suitable for its most recent use - into an effluent- liquid waste or sewage discharged into a river or the sea- that can be either returned to the water cycle with minimal environmental issues or reused


Discuss the impact with partners then share out to the whole class.

  • Discuss observations of the impact of the campaign. Who saw the posters and PSAs? What was the response and action? Did anyone change habits? What did you learn?
  • Why is it important to protect our community’s water?
  • Why do we all need to be good stewards of our environment?  
  • Make a picture/word collage to summarize learnings and impact. Post these pictures in school. 

Resources for student research work:  


  1. Anticipatory Set (10 minutes)​ Ask the students to quietly brainstorm a written list: “What products do you use in your morning or evening routine?” (think of cleansers, hair products, dental products, cosmetics, moisturizers) Students meet with their lists in small groups and discuss:

    • What percentage of the people in your group has read the ingredient labels on their products? Looked them up?
    • What chemicals and active ingredients are in these products?
    • Where do the chemicals go after you use them?  
    • How do you think these chemicals affect us and our environment? 
  2. As a whole class, review the small group discussion observations. 

    • Talk about the variety of products we use to improve our appearance or health: Daily medications are called pharmaceuticals (P). Personal care products (PCP) include shampoo, soap, make-up and make-up removers, toothpaste, and moisturizers.
    • It is important to us to look and feel good, but we also have to be aware of the impact of our personal choices on others and the environment.
    • Ask, "Where do the chemicals in PPCPs go when we rinse them down the drain?" 
  3. Show the video: The Story of Cosmetics.  Discuss the content and solutions from the video.

    • Ask students what they can do to be an agent of change related to how pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) enter our environment.
    • What does it mean to be environmental stewards?
    • What is private citizen action for the common good? See the Glossary above.
  4. Students work in small groups with 2-4 samples of personal care products so they can read and analyze the ingredient labels. They complete the PPCP handout (below) with information learned about the chemicals that are in the given products.

    Discussion Questions:

    • What are some common ingredients in your products?
    • What is the purpose of those ingredients?  
    • How do they affect our environment and waterways? 
  5. Brainstorm ways to reduce our use of these PPCPs
    • Eliminate products you do not really need (or find healthy ways to dispose) 
    • Purchase or make your own natural products
    • Complete and sign a personal “Action Plan- Reducing my PPCP Waste” 
  6. Service Project:

    • Students may create PSAs, posters, or another format to teach people about using safe products for the sake of the environment. Promote the ideas from Part Three, above.
    • As a whole group, brainstorm important facts about PPCP in the water. Identify the most important and effective points. Reflect on the idea of personal action for the common good.
    • In small groups, students create their campaigns. Pictures and diagrams help the public better understand the importance of this topic and how they can act for the good of all.
    • Students share their campaigns. Put them up around your school, on social media, and in the community. Share them with the local media to get a bigger community outreach. 
  7. Service Project Variations:  

    • Work with the local community or nonprofit to create a pharmaceutical “Drop-Off Event.”  
    • Test local waterways for health levels. Purchase water-testing kits via a science supply company.  Lamotte is one brand used by teachers. Test for nitrates, pH, and other chemicals. 
    • Contact a local "river watch" project that may need help counting critters.
    • For younger students: Write a letter to local leaders the importance of clean water. Each student includes a drawing of what they enjoy most about clean water. 
Cross Curriculum 
  • Have students make their own alternative personal care products like shampoo, conditioner, or face cleanser, and use only those products for one week. There are a number of websites that can be researched by searching for “homemade personal care products.” They can journal about their experience on how easy (or not) and effective the natural products were compared to their store-bought counterparts. Have them consider cost, availability of ingredients, storage issues (lifespan), and time required to make and use.
  • Calculate the number of PPCPs that your class(es) is/are diverting and keep an ongoing total that can turn into a “green promotion” for your school’s efforts to restore the environment.
  • For younger students: Read these ideas to introduce how kids can help keep their water clean.  

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark MS.4 Describe the characteristics of someone who helps others.
    2. Standard PCS 03. Philanthropy and Economics
      1. Benchmark MS.5 Define <i>stewardship</i> as a trust of common resources held by a community for citizens.
  2. Strand PHIL.IV Volunteering and Service
    1. Standard VS 01. Needs Assessment
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Identify a need in the school, local community, state, nation, or world.
    2. Standard VS 02. Service and Learning
      1. Benchmark MS.1 Select a service project based on interests, abilities and research.