It's Time to Fight the Beauty Industry's Waste Epidemic

We criticize single-use plastics in the kitchen, so why not the bathroom?

eco-friendly beauty products

Getty Images / Anna Efetova

Rummaging through my bathroom cabinet last week, I came across a pack of cooling under-eye strips, left over from a bridesmaid gift I received three years ago. I decided to give them a try. On went the wet gloopy strips. Ten minutes later, they were in the trash, along with their plastic packaging. My eyes may have looked less puffy (I couldn't tell), but all I could think was, "So much waste!" And all for something that could have been done with a few slices of cucumber.

These strips are just one example of the single-use products whose popularity is booming in the beauty and skin care industries. Despite a shift happening in people's kitchens and food shopping habits, as they move away from plastic in an effort to fight rampant pollution and contamination, the same connections are not being made in bathrooms, where waste continues to dominate.

A New York Times article titled "This Is the Cost of Your Beauty Routine" argues that single-use products are growing in popularity despite general awareness of plastic pollution being greater than ever. Writer Andrea Cheng describes a society that's flooded with non-biodegradable, non-recyclable disposable products.

"Not only is there an abundance of sheet masks, but there are also derivatives sold to target specific areas like laugh lines or your derrière or your nether regions. There are cleansing wipes available from nearly every brand on the market. And there are zit stickers that come packaged in multiple layers of plastic."

Recycling education initiatives tend to focus on the kitchen and food-related packaging, so that's what people automatically think about when they want to reduce waste – beverage bottles, empty cans, takeout food containers, and more. But bathrooms matter, too, and need to become part of the broader conversation about fighting superfluous waste.

Ideally, single-use masks, wipes, and, yes, even cooling eye strips would become as frowned-upon as straws, plastic cutlery, and disposable coffee cups now are. This does not lead to a reduction in the quality of one's experience, but arguably an improvement, as cleaner and greener reusable options exist for all of these same services. It does require, however, some deliberate behavioral changes, and therein lies the biggest challenge. 

People are fiercely loyal to their favorite makeup and skin care brands and reluctant to give them up. Brands are hesitant to make any changes that could lose them loyal customers. Freya Williams, CEO of Futerra North America, described the dilemma in the Times:

"Consumers think companies aren’t willing to change, and companies think consumers aren’t willing to change, so it’s a stalemate. Once consumers aren’t forced to choose between sustainability and performance, that’s when you’ll start to see solutions taking off."

While some interesting new beauty startups are embracing eco-friendly packaging and ingredients from the start, I've come to believe that bigger companies won't change until customers demand it. So the responsibility lies with us, the buyers of these beauty products, to show what it is we value by voting with our dollars. Only then will the beauty companies respond, and they'll be tripping over each other in their efforts to regain their loyal clientele by radically redesigning packaging.

In the meantime, some good news. There are more amazing beauty and skin care companies out there offering plastic-free, refillable, reusable, biodegradable, and/or recycled-content packaging than you could possibly try in a lifetime. There are also some straightforward steps you can take to regain control of your bathroom's waste output, just as you may have already have done in the kitchen. This is my advice to you.

1. Set Personal Packaging Standards

I get endless pitches from PR reps wanting me to write about their eco-friendly skin care products, but as long as those come packaged in hard-to-recycle plastic squeeze tubes that are nearly impossible to empty, I'm not interested. It doesn't matter whether or not they're "recyclable" (a cop-out, in my opinion); I want to know if the company itself is using 100% recycled content when making its containers, because that is crucial for the entire recycling industry to work. There must be a market for it. 

Look for paper, glass, and metal packaging whenever possible. The product in these containers is often more easily accessible than squeeze tubes anyway, meaning less goes to waste and you'll get more value from your purchase. Small companies that use glass often take back containers for refill, which is really the best option. 

2. Explore Waterless Beauty Products

The future of eco-friendly beauty, I believe, lies in bar-form. Remove water from the equation, and a world of opportunity opens up. It cuts down on bacterial growth, reduces shipping weight, eliminates the need for plastic packaging. Progressive companies are catching on to this because the market has started exploding in recent years. You can now buy fabulous shampoo and conditioner bars, lotion bars, facial scrub bars, deodorant bars, shaving bars, massage bars, and more. Best of all, most of these come wrapped in paper.

3. Embrace Reusables

Chances are, you already own many products that can be used in place of single-use ones. Think washcloths, towels, washable cotton pads, facial sponges, maybe even a menstrual cup or reusable cloth pads. Get a jade roller to reduce facial puffiness. Try the LastSwab, a reusable, washable version of the cotton swab. Get a safety razor, a metal nail file, or an alum stone for deodorant and aftershave.

4. Buy Better Products

The same philosophy applies to cosmetics and skin care as it does to clothing. If you buy higher quality items and are happy with the job these fewer products are doing, then you won't need or want as many. This will reduce overall packaging and save money that can be redirected toward the more expensive, higher quality products. With excellent skin care products, a little goes a long way, so you'll find it lasts longer, too. Try to think of your product and tool purchases as investments.

5. Embrace a Capsule Beauty Routine

The idea of "less is more" is mentioned in the previous point, but it's worth repeating. People have a tendency to stockpile beauty products, buying things on sale or on whims, and the result is a bathroom cabinet or drawer jam-packed with products, most of which will never get used up before they expire and are discarded. Resist this urge. Buy only what you love and reach for on a daily basis.

6. Use It Up

This is surprisingly hard to do because beauty and skin care products tend to last a long time and there's always something new and shiny on the market within a reasonable price-point. Commit to using up the products you buy, just as you might commit to wearing clothes until they wear out. Discover fun new looks by using products you find in your collection but overlooked in the past.

7. Talk About It

Waste reduction in the bathroom is not a common topic, especially when compared to how often people discuss it in the context of kitchens and food. It's time to change that. Mention to your friends and family that you're trying to cut waste out of your beauty and skin care routine. Use social media to contact brands and let them know you want better, greener, and less packaging. 

In my personal experience, I've found that people are very receptive to product swap suggestions. They want to make changes but are hesitant to walk away from brands they know. Whenever I share on social media about new zero-waste shampoo bars or skin care products, I get countless questions from curious viewers who say they want to try it, too. Being open about your experiences can help these products become more mainstream.