Zero-Waste Skincare Can Solve Beauty’s Plastic Problem

Photo shows two women doing their makeup in a mirror. Can zero-waste skincare save the beauty industry from its plastic problem?

“What’s the point of ‘beauty’ if it only spreads ugliness elsewhere?” asks HiBAR co-founder Dion Hughes.

There’s something oddly satisfying about unwrapping a beautifully-packaged product to reveal a new beauty buy. But all of that single-use packaging (read: the shrink-wrapped outer box, cardboard box itself, inner lining, and plastic seal) typically gets tossed minutes after purchasing, and it has a major environmental impact.

According to Zero Waste Week, the global cosmetics industry creates 120 billion units of packaging a year. The staggering figure plays a role in the loss of 18 acres of forest annually, as many of the cardboard boxes that secure fragrances and serums are sourced unsustainably. As of 2015, approximately 6,300 metric tons of plastic waste had been generated, only 9 percent of which was recycled. And the rest was incinerated or sent to landfill.

Needless to say: We need to do better. And we can do better. Incorporating a zero-waste beauty routine into your life can help you eliminate excessive packaging from your day-to-day routine, and introduce you to fun, new innovative products.  

The key principles of a zero-waste beauty routine

Zero-waste beauty means that nothing in a beauty product’s lifespan from cradle to grave is wasted—from the packaging it’s housed in to the product itself. There are a few fundamental virtues of zero-waste beauty.

Reduce anything that’s unnecessary

This could be  specific steps in your routine or the amount of products you buy. Something as simple as finishing up a product before purchasing another can mean your backup stockpile of expired face serums won’t end up in the trash before you even get a chance to use them.

Reuse where you can

Can the jar or tub your product came in be repurposed for something else? How can you minimize your use of single-use products (disposable items like cotton rounds, sheet masks, and makeup wipes) that are used once and then tossed out?


Many brands reinforce that their plastic packaging is recyclable, but it’s important to note the actual recycling rates of those materials, says Allison Teasdale, COO for sustainable beauty brand Unwrapped Life. While materials like glass, tin, and paper, have a much higher recycling rate—making them great zero-waste materials—it doesn’t mean the consumer will actually recycle it. This is why “reduce” and “reuse” come before “recycle”—it’s easier to get consumers to limit their intake of products and repurpose what they have than it is to get them to recycle.

Many beauty products can’t be recycled (due to their paper inserts, mirrors, etc.), so look for products that market themselves as actually being recyclable or that have the numbers 1 and 2 printed with arrows. TerraCycle, a recycling company, allows you to recycle everything from your body wash caps to your mascara tubes—just request a label from their site, pack up your items, and ship.

Photo shows a woman washing her face in the bathroom. Can zero-waste skincare save the beauty industry from its plastic problem?
Waterless products like shampoo and face bars can help keep your beauty routine zero-waste. | Ron Lach/Pexels

How to adopt a zero-waste beauty routine

More brands are attempting to right the wrongs of the beauty industry’s waste problem, but Hughes says big players are slow to change. Their business models have been built around convenience and maximizing profitability. He believes “change will not be led by business, it will be led by normal people actively looking to make a less negative impact on the environment.”

Thankfully, many niche brands are passionate about making positive improvements in their sustainability efforts. Refillable systems for things like palettes, mascaras, and lipsticks are more common—all you have to do is buy the initial product and when you run out, purchase a refill of the formula without ever having to buy a new tube or jar. Brands are also forging partnerships with private recycling companies that allow consumers to return packaging so it can be reused. And use of more sustainable materials such as aluminum and glass is gaining traction. Plus, more brands are committed to reducing the use of plastic bottles, tubes, and tubs altogether. Below, we’ve rounded up a few simple ways you can make your everyday beauty routine more eco-friendly. 

Minimize single-use products: Along with scaling back on product use and simplifying your routine, skipping single-use products is a great first step to achieving a zero-waste beauty routine. Instead, go for reusable alternatives like cotton rounds and makeup cloths. Product packaging is generally single-use, so opting for things like packaging-free shampoo bars, face bars, and refillable systems can help reduce the amount of waste that ends up in the landfill.

Look for biodegradable products: Using products with biodegradable materials also falls under the umbrella of zero-waste beauty. “Biodegradable products are those that are capable of being decomposed (broken down), either by bacteria or other living organisms,” explains Teasdale. “When we look at a material like paper, it will biodegrade into the soil eventually if left in nature. As a comparison, plastic isn’t biodegradable, but will eventually, with enough time (more than 400 years), ‘degrade’ into smaller bits of plastic.” When it comes to beauty products, sheet masks, for example, are generally not biodegradable and if they are, they’re typically housed in plastic packaging, sold individually, and meant to be single-use. Swap your nightly sheet mask with a product that’s contained in recyclable or reusable packaging.

Try waterless products: Waterless formulas refer to things like solid hair and body bars, which are manufactured in a way (solid!) so as to not require water in the finished product, says Teasdale. As consumers, we add the water at home when we’re ready to lather up, but by removing the water from the formula (which, for most shampoos and conditioners, can make up 80% or more of the product), the end product requires less complex packaging (no plastic) and is smaller and lighter, creating a smaller carbon footprint for transportation and storage, says Hughes. Plus, since water is also a scarce resource, limiting its use where possible is a great win for the planet.

Use multipurpose products: One of the main pillars of zero-waste beauty is to limit the number of products used. Using multipurpose products that serve more than one function (think: a stain that can be used on the lips and cheeks) is a more sustainable option than buying multiple products. (Plus, it makes getting ready during busy mornings more manageable and less time-consuming.)

Go slowly: Throwing all of your products out and starting over isn’t the intention. Instead, start slow and pick out two to three products to swap out when you’re finished using them. Everyday items that can be washed and reused multiple times is a good starting point.

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