Much like the fashion industry, the beauty world has been dragged kicking and screaming into attempting to satisfy the sustainability agenda and it’s happening - sort of - extremely slowly. You probably know beauty products that come in plastic bottles are not ideal. Perhaps you’re also cautious about the chemicals used in some cosmetics. But did you know that there’s plastic in most mascaras and lipsticks? Or that some of those all-natural products that seem so good are sourced unethically, taking resources that leave eco-systems unbalanced?
Making your beauty routine eco-friendly is a minefield. Especially when there’s so much greenwashing and conflicting information. To be fair to cosmetic manufacturers they do also have a duty to keep their products hygienic, which can make eco-friendly packaging challenging. However, that’s about the only very mild support I’m willing to offer these unsustainable beauty brands because generally, they've earnt their bad reputation. They exploit people, preying on their so-called 'imperfections, and they've been exploiting the planet for years.
But what makes me the expert on sustainable beauty? Well, the truth is, I’m not. I’m not the ‘Queen Of Ethical Beauty Practices’ - though, if you’d like to call me that then please do go ahead. Seriously though, no one is an expert on this yet because making a beauty routine eco-friendly is extremely difficult. As you’ll find in this article, most of what we can do is still a compromise, not a complete solution. Still, better to make things better, if not perfect, than do nothing at all.
Here are a few things we can do to reduce waste and make our beauty routine eco-friendly(ish).
I’m starting with ways to make haircare more eco-friendly because the haircare industry has found some partial solutions, at least in reducing packaging.
If you're on a mission to make your beauty products eco-friendly then one option is to use hair care brands that offer refills. Brands like Faith In Nature and Bramley can be found in many refill stores where you can avoid excessive plastic packaging by refilling your existing bottles. Whilst it is possible to buy refill bags from various brands and refill at home, these often come in much smaller quantities than those delivered to refill stores and so it’s not such an effective reduction of plastic waste. Shopping at refill stores also supports the local economy and helps these independent shops increase orders which can drive down cost for everyone, making sustainability more accessible for all. Refilling hair shampoo and conditioner is not an option for everybody though and there is still some plastic waste because liquids arrive in stores in plastic containers.
Solid shampoo bars can be a more eco-friendly option. The reviews for hair shampoo bars are mixed and many people find they go through a few before finding one that best agrees with their hair. However, once you’ve found the right one there are many advantages. Shampoo bars are far more travel-friendly and some consumers even find that conditioner is no longer required. Shampoo bars are applied by being rubbed into the hair which is excellent for coverage but not always ideal for curly hair.
As with all products, one eco-friendly credential, such as less or zero plastic package, does not mean the product is environmentally friendly in every way. So make sure you check the ingredients and, if you’re really on a mission to make your beauty routine eco-friendly, have a check online too.
Make-Up And Microplastics
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastics less than 5mm in size. Practically invisible to the human eye. Too small to worry about maybe? Unfortunately not. And you wouldn't want them near your eyes, would you? As they are when you apply most mascaras. And you wouldn't want to eat them, would you? Although you're fairly likely to be doing so if you wear lipstick. Although big plastics can cause big problems for the environment, it’s staggering when you look at the impact of these almost invisible microbeads.
As microplastics are too small to be filtered out, they go straight into our water system, causing harm to marine life and underwater ecosystems. Inevitably, they end up in our food chain with a recent study finding that 90% of sea salt contains microplastics.
Cosmetics are the main culprits - toothpaste, body scrubs, shower gels, body glitter, and most make-up and lotions all contain microbeads. These are plastics that we unknowingly wash down the drain on a daily basis and most of us had no idea about until recently. It’s the realisation that I would carefully wash out cosmetic bottles ready for recycling, yet in the process put more plastic into the ocean, that makes me feel most betrayed. Even if the plastic swamp our ocean is becoming doesn't worry us, digesting plastic is highly troubling from a health perspective.
Buying natural products is a good way of avoiding microplastics but it’s not a guarantee. The problem with microbeads is it’s a highly intrusive issue and one that perpetuates quickly. The more rubbish that gets washed into our waters, the more we begin to find microplastics in our natural world too and therefore in all-natural products. Microplastics will become unavoidable if we don’t stop buying products that purposefully contain these. Goodness - it makes you want to go have a lie down in the dark, doesn’t it?
Before I do though, some practical advice because it's not all as hopeless as a chocolate teapot - Look out for product ingredients lists that contain the words ‘polypropylene’ and/or ‘polyethene’, this is a good indication of hidden plastics. You can also stay clear of anything listed ‘PEG’ which is a commonly used anagram to disguise the presence of microplastics. Buying natural does still increase the likeliness of avoiding microplastics and if the ingredient list is too long on anything, it’s best avoided. Huge lists of ingredients point to more expensive components being diluted which usually means all sorts of synthetic solutions are needed to make up for this.
The other thing you can do is become an activist. Sounds like a lot of work right? Never fear - you don’t have to live in a tree or even give up much time at all. Simply follow the work of Greenpeace or other environmental organisations in their fight against plastic, and support them by signing the occasional petition. This can result in real governmental, systematic change so that the pressure's not always on the consumer to do right. Or try to work out what's right.
Also, why not join me in making some of your own products? It’s really fun I promise. Look - here’s a Sugar & Coffee Facial Scrub to get you started. Check out the recipe.
Best Brands For Eco-Friendly Beauty
Now that sustainability has become a concern to the majority of the population and is of utmost importance to Generations Y and Z, the beauty industry cannot ignore it. Hence, we're seeing fewer ‘chemical facts’ and more images of ‘natural ingredients’. We’re also seeing recyclable packaging and investment in tree planting and other eco enterprises. How much some of these big brands are actually changing their practices or the chemicals used in their ‘miracle formulas’ is relatively unknown, but the PR machine has been kicked into motion. The difficulty for these larger beauty brands is that they’ve created huge businesses by convincing people they need their scientific solutions and they need their full range of products and more make-up than Dolly Parton. They trade in the idea of abundance. They aren’t about to tell you to buy less.
So, will the beauty industry ever be sustainable? I’m an eternal optimist so I’d love to say yes. But actually, it’s not the big players in the beauty industry that give me hope, it’s what I see on the fringes. The small brands built from ethics, built by people who believed we could find a way to enhance our earth-given gorgeousness without hurting the planet.
When looking to make your beauty routine eco-friendly, turn to the companies that started with ethics and then developed products. Not those who did it the other way around. Generally, there’s less greenwashing going on in companies that hang their whole far-more-delicate reputations on their planet-friendly values. Of course, these companies are harder to find and tend to exist more online than in stores. However, what you find is that algorithms and online marketing work in your favour here because once you enter the world of sustainable shopping, a chain begins to form and you’ll find that world magically opening up to you.
How do I know it’s possible to build an eco-friendly beauty brand? Because I’ve done it. I have built an eco-friendly range of moisturisers, face oils and foot creams handmade from natural ethically-sourced ingredients. My packaging is recyclable and the products are vegan and palm-oil free. I have not branched out beyond my range partially because I create only what I believe is necessary in the world. After all, the enemy of the environment is abundance. Also though, I have not yet found a way to make other cosmetic products as eco-friendly and I won’t add any new products to my brand that don’t completely align with my values.
Learn To Love Your Natural Self
I’m going to say this until I’m so red in the face that I’ll have to become a hypocrite and slather on some foundation - the most you can do is less. Less buying of unnecessary beauty products. In fact, check out my blog on the 5 Totally Unnecessary Products In Your Cosmetic Bag.
I recognise that I’m an enigma as a beauty brand owner telling you not to buy too many beauty products, but truthfully there isn’t much that you need. Your skin benefits from moisturiser, oils, a scrub and a face mask. The latter two you can make yourself (subscribe to be notified when I add recipes). Beyond that, most other products are unnecessary.
Then we come to make-up. Now, I know many women who wore make-up every single day before pandemic-related lockdowns. They would swear they’d never show their naked face in public and that they just didn’t ‘feel like themselves’ without a coat of skin paint to face the world with. However, fast forward to now and they’re regularly without make-up. Now, they’re raving about the time they have got back, the money they save and the confidence they didn’t know they had. I would urge anybody to give going make-up free a try for at least a week and see how you feel. You might even find that people don't run screaming from you. Or that the time you save applying your make-up each morning can be used on more interesting activities such as learning to juggle or reading more of my lovely blog.
To be fair, I do understand that make-up is about more than hiding so-called imperfections. It’s an age-old tradition of playing with our physical appearance as a form of artistic and conscious self-expression. So basically, it’s fun. If make-up is an important part of your world I’m not advocating that you reject it all. What we can all do though is limit what we buy and where we buy it from. It’s not just the packaging that gets thrown away. Data suggests we discard much of the contents too, with an estimated 20-40% of beauty products ending up as waste (Vogue Business). The wider issue is that much of the beauty industry relies on convincing you their product can help you achieve ‘perfection’. Or simply hinges on making you feel bad by showing you photos of airbrushed models and presenting these as ‘normal women’. As a result, we often buy beauty products on impulse and end up with more than we need. Therefore, making your beauty routine eco-friendly is as much about philosophy as it is about sustainable shopping and eco-friendly cosmetic brands. It’s about changing your mindset.
So, I’ll leave you with Soap & Glory's mantra;
“While beauty absolutely matters, it doesn’t matter absolutely”.