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How to swap out your single-use beauty products and save the planet

TextSophie Benson

Reuse, Refill, Recycle: We uncover how to make your beauty routine more sustainable and why these changes aren’t possible for everyone

Whether you’re into it or not, sustainability is out there in the ether. We see more proof every single day of the different ways we’re fucking up the planet. Plastic straws and takeaway coffee cups became symbols of our wasteful ways in early 2018, and as the conversation grows louder, our attention is slowly turning to what’s in our bathroom cabinets and makeup drawers. Turns out they’re full of single-use items that we’ve been happily sending to landfill without a second thought. 

Single-use (Collins Dictionary’s word of the year in 2018 to give you an idea of how big the topic has become) simply means something that is made to be used once and thrown away. A quick mental tour of your beauty routine is likely to throw up a handful of single-use items in rotation. Sheet masks are a big one, particularly as they had a major surge in popularity last year, but there are plenty of other culprits too. Face wipes, blotting sheets, hyaluronic ampoules, hair masks, wax strips, under-eye patches, ceramide capsules, cotton buds, even those gross-but-satisfying looking foot peeling socks are all examples of single-use products lurking in our line-ups. 

On top of that our conditioner bottles, lipstick tubes, mascara wands, dry shampoo, and eyeshadow palettes might technically be used more than once but they still have a limited lifespan and once they’ve been used up, off they go to landfill to join the rest. 

Research carried out by Garnier and TerraCycle last year revealed that while 90 per cent of kitchen packaging is recycled, only 50 per cent of bathroom packaging is. Given that the global cosmetics industry produces 120 billion units of packaging every year, very few of which can be recycled at the kerbside, that’s a lot of waste. Shocked by the stats and freshly aware of the impact of their beauty routine on the environment, many are turning away from single-use products and seeking out alternative options. 

Diana Szpotowicz, founder of The Weekly Shop, adopted a plastic-free lifestyle two years ago and changed her beauty products to match her new ethos. “My beauty routine was pretty typical, I had toiletries for cleansing, moisturising, and skincare,” she says. “I wanted to turn away from single-use beauty products like disposable cotton rounds and sheet masks. The first thing I did was stop buying any new products and committed to using up all my toiletries, even hotel samples. It took months and months to use up every last drop but by then I was fully on board.” While cotton rounds, sheet masks, and wipes were easy to replace, Szpotowicz did struggle to switch certain make-up products like mascara.

Sophie Davies looked more closely at her routine after she’d already minimalised her clothes and possessions. “I streamlined everything but then I learned how much waste is caused by single-use beauty products,” she says. “Most of the products I was using I didn’t really need to so stopped using them and started looking for more eco-friendly alternatives.”

Like Szpotowicz, Davies found the process wasn’t quick, and it took her over a year to find the right products. Now she uses Nathalie Bond skincare and Tropic make-up, both of which come in reusable packaging. “Since reducing the amount of products I use, I’ve noticed I don’t have any issues with my skin at all. It’s less prone to being irritated or breaking out.” Davies also found it difficult to replace all of her make-up, with mascara coming top of the list for the most difficult item to replace. 

 “I wanted to turn away from single-use beauty products like disposable cotton rounds and sheet masks. The first thing I did was stop buying any new products and committed to using up all my toiletries, even hotel samples. It took months and months to use up every last drop but by then I was fully on board” – Diana Szpotowicz, founder, The Weekly Shop

But there is headway being made where make-up’s concerned. Lush for example, have massively expanded their ‘Naked’ packaging-free selection which now makes up 50 per cent of their core range. The latest drops include wax-covered lipstick refills which slot into their refillable lipstick cases. Lush was once the only real option for those who wanted to ditch single-use products, and a host of new brands and online shops are cropping up in response to growing demand. 

Hanna Pumfrey launched Acala in April 2018 as a platform for other plastic-free brands, selling things like washable cotton rounds, refillable make-up (including mascara), Konjac sponges, shampoo bars, and toothpaste tablets. There is now with an own-brand offering too. Pumfrey recommends starting with easy alternatives. “Super simple swaps include bamboo toothbrushes and refillable floss,” she says.

When branching into make-up, find what works for you via the testers, she says: “Take it one step at a time. All the make-up brands we stock, such as Zao, Love the Planet, and Angel Face Cosmetics have testers in compostable packaging. This keeps it manageable.” The brand has a DIY beauty section where you can make and mix your own products and they’re also looking into launching a closed-loop refill system in the future. 

There may be an increasing number of alternatives out there, but not everyone is embracing them. Many people cite time as the main reason they haven’t made the change but for Natalie Drenth, it was her skin that put the brakes on. After seeing a photo on Twitter of a man pulling a lump of face wipes out of the sea (“literally it was the size of a small boulder!”) she tried out a muslin cloth and cleanser routine. But it caused her to break out, having always had clear skin, so she went back to Johnson’s wipes. 

Alongside sheet masks, face wipes were the product that came up time and time again, with most people, Drenth included, saying they feel guilty about using them. Amy Jenkins agrees. “I use the Neutrogena singles make-up remover. It makes me feel bad because of all the packaging. I keep trying to stop but it’s just so easy in a busy lifestyle to keep using them,” she says.

Single-use products may be a source of guilt for some people but they’re also a lifeline and a tool for independence. Michaela Hollywood is Trailblazers Campaigns Officer at Muscular Dystrophy UK and she relies on single-use products in her routine. “I use baby wipes and facial wipes daily, and others like single-use razors as well,” she says. For Hollywood, having lightweight, easy-to-use products is essential for her independence and, as a result, her wellbeing. “It’s also important to remember that for those of us with carers and personal assistants, not all of them will be comfortable using an alternative. I have to use the best products to match their skills.”

Hollywood has transitioned to alternative products wherever possible. She uses shampoo bars and face masks that come in reusable tubs that she recycles in-store, but despite making changes where she can, Hollywood is often made to feel guilty. “Everyone has forgotten that many of the single-use plastics around today were originally developed for use by disabled people specifically and our needs for them have not changed yet. (The guilt) can and does have a negative impact on mental health and body image. A lot of disabled people are experiencing this at the moment,” she explains. 

The waste created by single-use beauty products is no joke and although it can take months or even years to change a routine fully, it’s worth making the change if you can. It’s great for the planet and, on the whole, great for your skin too. And if you can’t make the change? Look out for in-store recycling schemes, drop your used packaging at a TerraCycle recycling point and repurpose your packaging. Tweet, email or write to your fave brands and encourage them to invest in offering a wider range of package-free, refillable, and reusable options that are accessible to as many people as possible.

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