I’m being haunted by a seahorse. Ever since I saw Justin Hofman’s viral photo of that sad little ocean pony clinging to a plastic cotton swab, I’ve been aware of just how much plastic waste my beauty routine creates. Since the advent of plastics, humans have made 8.3 billion metric tons of the stuff. Of that, 6.3 billion metric tons have already been thrown out and 91 percent of that waste has not been recycled. I’m just one person contributing to a garbage mountain that threatens to suffocate the planet. So when Allure asked me to try a sustainable beauty routine with no single-use plastic, I was all in — as long as it wasn’t too hard.
Because let’s be honest: I’m a beauty writer, constantly surrounded by lotions and potions and serums, and all of the packaging that entails. I’m never going to be one of those zero-waste people who can fit all their garbage for the year in a mason jar. What does “sustainable” even mean? Natural ingredients? A low carbon footprint? Renewable resources? Recyclable and biodegradable packaging? Fair wages for workers? In the broadest sense, it means doing no harm — to people, animals, and the planet.
There are a zillion ways to get involved in meeting that goal, and there are haters out there who will make you feel like a bad person no matter what you choose to do. Rather than moving to a treehouse and using only coconut oil for all my beauty needs, I decided to mindfully look at my beauty routine and try to do better for a month; to determine just how much sustainability my beauty routine could take and still be sustainable for me.
One look at my brightly-colored plastic toothbrush and name-brand minty toothpaste, and it was clear that this was already not going well. Landfill City, population: me. Enter my new replacements: a Humble Co. bamboo toothbrush (when it gets manky, you remove the bristles with pliers and toss the bamboo handle into the compost bin or garbage, where it will naturally break down), and Fig + Yarrow Cornmint Lavender Tooth Powder, housed in a little recyclable/reusable glass bottle and made with white clay, sea salt, baking soda, and antibacterial essential oils.
I swapped my usual moisturizer for Mad Hippie Face Cream. It’s lightweight, absorbs quickly, and I’m into its fresh, citrusy scent. It has a bottle and pump that, unlike basically every other one on the market, is actually recyclable since it’s entirely made of plastic resin. A tip: You should generally take apart this kind of bottle and throw away the pump before recycling. They nearly always have metal springs inside that can’t be recycled, so the whole thing could wind up in a landfill or the ocean. Do you want to be responsible for any more seahorse distress?
My non-negotiable product is sunscreen, and I’m super picky. It can’t leave my skin sticky, covered in a white cast, tacky, oily, or congested. I simply couldn’t find an SPF that I would wear that met my sustainability requirements. (Sorry, Earth.)
I don’t wear foundation, but if you do, a gorgeous option is Kjaer Weiss Cream Foundation, which is housed in a high-quality metal compact that can be refilled.
After putting in my daily contact lenses, I’d already produced more waste: the packaging each set comes in. Crap! The fix: Try the biweekly version instead to cut down. Another solution? Terracycle has a partnership with Bausch & Lomb that recycles contacts, blister packs, and the top foil. You save your garbage, buy the box, send it to them, and they do the rest. Actually, now’s a great time to mention Terracycle’s partnership with Garnier, which recycles literally any hair care, skin care, and cosmetics packaging. (Is it worth it to devote the resources to ship a box of garbage across the country to be recycled? You make the call.)
Instead of my usual landfill-bound squeeze tube of concealer, I tapped RMS “Un” Cover-Up on my dark circles with a fingertip. It comes in a small, glass pot that’s great for reusing during travel, and it erases my circles in two thin layers. I’m too lazy for brushes, which is also very sustainable stance, since you don’t have to dispose of them. (If you’re a brush person, try EcoTools brushes, which are made from recycled bamboo, recycled aluminum, and some recycled plastic.)
Wood-case eye pencils are the most sustainable eyeliners since they’re made with renewable material and get sharpened down to nothing. However, I wear liquid liner. Luckily, my favorite one happens to be the only refillable one I can think of: Surratt Beauty Auto-Graphique Eyeliner, which has a calligraphy-inspired tip and uses refillable ink cartridges so it lasts forever. Mine is still going strong after three years.
I stick with my usual, Nars Velvet Matte Lip Pencil; it’s plastic-free, so I feel like high-fiving myself for having it even though it’s also not a traditional green beauty brand.
I swapped my usual push-up antiperspirant in the plastic applicator for a biodegradable paperboard one via Meow Meow Tweet Baking Soda Free Deodorant Stick. It does the job, and it smells like grapefruit.
Using bar soap instead of body wash is one of the easiest ways to use less plastic. I’m not ready to give up the liquid suds, so it’s Ren Atlantic Kelp & Magnesium Body Wash for me. The bottle is made of recycled plastic, 20 percent of which was collected from oceans, beaches, rivers, and lakes. Yay, seahorse!
My local recycling provider accepts all kinds of plastic including shampoo and conditioner bottles (check earth911.com to find out about yours), but I thought I’d do better by switching my usuals for bar versions from Ethique. The sustainable New Zealand company hates plastic bottles so much that none of their products come in one. I tried the Pinkalicious Shampoo Bar and Wonderbar Conditioner, which smelled great, and were a lot easier to use than I expected. Just run the bar down the hair shaft, lather, and rinse. My hair didn’t turn to straw — not even close. It was soft, clean, and pleasantly-scented. They last a lot longer than the bottled stuff, too. Using this duo prevented eight plastic bottles from being made and disposed of. I never really got used to the bar method, but my husband loved it instantly and promptly stole my bars.
Which gave me a chance to try another option: Seed Phytonutrients, a natural, sustainable brand from L’Oréal who offers liquid Daily Hair Cleanser, Lightweight Conditioner, and Hair and Body Oil in bottles made of post-consumer recycled paper that’s also recyclable and compostable (but magically doesn’t get soggy in the shower). There’s a bit of recyclable plastic lining the inside and a plastic pump to toss out, but they’ve devised a great way to get you used to disassembling it: They hid a packet of plantable seeds between the lining and bottle.
Post-shower, I used the WetBrush Go Green Detangler Brush, which is made of plant starch and designed to break down within five years. (No, it doesn’t disintegrate in water either.) When my hair needed some zshuzshing, I applied Davines The Spotlight Circle shine-boosting mask, which comes in a cute, squeezy graphic pouch — not the usual clunky plastic tub — that is recyclable and takes up less space during transport for a tinier carbon footprint.
I love makeup-remover wipes for the convenience. Unfortunately, according to the FDA, they can contain plastic fibers, which means they’ll be sitting in a landfill for eternity. There are biodegradable wipes on the market, but they’re still single-use, and I wanted to push beyond my comfort zone. I switched to the Take My Face Off Makeup Mitty, super-soft makeup remover cloths shaped like teardrops. Though they’re made of polyester, they’re reusable, so they may still be better than anything single-use. (Think of all the cotton that needs to be processed, bleached, and shipped to make cotton balls or rounds.) They dry fast, unlike washcloths which stay damp and gross forever. I hand-wash mine and drape over my towel to dry or just toss in the laundry.
I began an entirely new evening skin-care routine from Tata Harper, using natural (mostly organic) ingredients housed in green glass bottles that can be recycled again and again. The Nourishing Oil Cleanser removes makeup (even liquid liner), Concentrated Brightening Essence and Concentrated Brightening Serum banish dull skin, and Repairative Moisturizer hydrates. When I felt like my skin needed a little exfoliating action, I used a Wyld Konjac Sponge (compostable and made of plant fibers). This part of the experiment was a major success. After a month, my skin looked so amazing people started asking me about it.
I’m never going to be a perfect earth mama, but it’s way easier than I thought to reduce the amount of waste I produce. For me, quitting face wipes cold turkey was the hardest part. (I promise to only use biodegradable ones in the future and never flush them. Trust me — Google “fatberg” and you’ll see why.) When I open a new product, I’m sure to flatten the boxes and recycle them with their paper inserts every time. If you can’t seem to remember to do this, or you’re too lazy to walk to the recycling bin from the bathroom, just place a separate small trashcan in there for recycling.
Now that I’m aware that the pumps inside most spray bottles aren’t recyclable, I toss them before recycling the glass or plastic bottles. I’m not sold on bar shampoo and conditioner for every day, but it’s definitely an option when I travel. I’ll continue to seek out high-quality, natural products with reusable or refillable packaging whenever possible.
But there’s just one habit I can’t stop, won’t stop: cleaning my ears with Q-Tips. (Sorry, seahorse.) But hear this: Q-Tip brand swabs, made of cotton and paperboard, are both biodegradable and compostable; plus the cardboard box is recyclable if you tear off the clear window first. That’s progress!
The more we push the issue of sustainability with our beauty purchases, the more companies will start heeding the call and providing more eco-friendly options. It’s a self-perpetuating Möbius loop — kind of like the recycling symbol at the bottom of your shampoo bottle.
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