If you're reading this article, you've probably thought about being more sustainable with your makeup and your skincare choices. But when it comes down to making the jump, many of us are overwhelmed, we’re confused by what products we should choose, or we feel like it isn’t worth the investment.
In this article I’ll talk about what sustainable beauty is; I’ll discuss the disparity between products within the beauty industry; and I’ll explain why sustainable beauty is worth the investment.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
What is Sustainable Beauty
For many of us, it’s not exactly clear what sustainable beauty means. We have brands saying that they have “clean” ingredients, or that they are carbon neutral. But, the reality is, a truly sustainable beauty brand will tick all of these boxes:
- Ingredients that are sourced ethically and sustainably. Like certified organic, certified fair trade, wildcrafted, or locally-sourced; are safe to use, and are good quality—such as synthetic ingredients that are not known skin irritants, hormone disruptors, or known carcinogens.
- Packaging that considers the current state of the environment. Houston, we have a plastic problem. Virgin plastics are out. Post-consumer, recyclable materials, and a circular economy are in.
- A brand that minimizes their environmental impact in their operations. Things like carbon neutral or climate positive carbon offsets, or on-site recycling facilities that utilizes recycled water, for example.
If a brand does not tick all three of these boxes, then they are not truly sustainable, and are also not trying hard enough, in our opinion. If you need to go digging for information about whether or not a brand ticks all of these boxes, they are lacking transparency and you should seriously reconsider supporting them.
The Cost Disparity Between Beauty Products
I’ll be the first to admit that I do not like spending big bucks on skincare. The only time I do invest is when I go for a facial, but I’m paying for the therapist’s expertise as well as the products they use.
Good skincare should not be inaccessible to the masses. When I say “good skincare”, what I mean is, skincare that works, and is also sustainable and ethical. But I did some research the other day, and I have found the number one reason why most people do not buy sustainable skincare is that they think it is too expensive.
I don't want to disrespect anyone, as I understand my idea of expensive may be different to yours. But this blanket statement is not entirely true.
While there are plenty of sustainable skincare brands that can cost a lot more than conventional brands, there are also many sustainable skincare brands out there who are more affordable than the brands you’ll find at retailers like Sephora. Although, when we're talking about supermarket skincare, sustainable skincare is generally going to cost slightly more, but there’s a good reason why.
If you’re choosing skincare based on price alone, then sure, go for your supermarket cleansers. But the cost of supporting those companies is far greater than the cost of purchasing from brands that consider the planet in everything that they do.
I’m not talking about monetary costs. Let’s use Neutrogena’s Cleansers as an example. They can be purchased at supermarkets for around $8 and they come in plastic packaging.
On their website, Neutrogena state that they are increasing post-consumer plastics, and that their goal is to have 100% recyclability of their packaging by 2025. Sounds good, right? That's what they would like you to think.
Recyclable plastic doesn’t hold very much weight, as only 9% of it does actually get recycled. So for Neutrogena to state that they will be fully recyclable by 2025 is not really that impressive. Not if they'll still be manufacturing virgin plastics.
Manufacturing new (virgin) plastic rather than using existing plastics that are already in circulation is entirely unsustainable, as it is just adding more materials to an already-overloaded ecosystem.
I have learnt to pay attention to what isn’t being said by brands. In Neutrogena's case, I can only assume what they mean is: “we’ll still be using virgin plastic, but it will all be recyclable by 2025”. The statements on Neutrogena’s website are not clear or transparent enough.
This could be an example of greenwashing. But I’ve contacted Neutrogena for clarity, so I’ll update this article once I hear back.
Moving on to the ingredients. I'll use their skin balancing gel cleanser as a case study. It doesn’t have an excessive list of ingredients, which is good. But the majority are synthetic, and a few are questionable. First off, it has a couple of synthetic preservatives, disodium EDTA and sodium benzoate, which are common additives in many conventional beauty. This is a way to prolong the shelf life of their products so they can get the most for their money.
Skincare is better for us when it's fresh and doesn’t contain preservatives, just like food. Earthwise Beauty’s products, for example, are formulated without preservatives, and with 100% natural ingredients. Their founder Ava suggests that you keep their products in the fridge so they last longer. This is something you just don’t see with a lot of skincare.
The Neutrogena cleanser also contains fragrance. If you’re unaware of the implications of fragrance in skincare, read this article. But basically, fragrance is an unregulated industry. This is to protect companies’ trademarked and patented formulas for things like perfumes. But it also means that consumers don’t know what they’re exposed to. Often fragrance contains skin irritants and hormone disruptors.
The last questionable ingredient in the Neutrogena cleanser is glycerin. It could be vegetable glycerin, but it could also be an animal byproduct. Again, the transparency here is lacking. Neutrogen are not a vegan company, so it is feasible to think this is an animal glycerin.
Another thing to point out about many supermarket brands, Neutrogena included, is that many of them sell to mainland China. Let me just quickly shed some light on this topic.
China had originally passed a law years ago stating that all cosmetics and skincare had to be tested on animals before they could be sold in mainland China. Most, if not all conventional brands—L'Oreal, Neutrogena, Revlon, etc.—sell in mainland China. This ultimately means that these brands are not considered ethical because of their ties to selling in mainland China.
However, there has been some progress. In 2020 this law was altered. China have removed mandatory pre-market animal testing for imported “ordinary” cosmetics. Imported ordinary cosmetics are products such as shampoo, blush, mascara, and perfume. These will no longer have to be animal tested for eye and skin irritation in Chinese laboratories
This doesn't mean products that no longer require pre-market testing will never be tested on animals, though. Post-market testing—where products already for sale in China are randomly selected to be tested on animals—is still and active law in China. So Neutrogena products may not be tested when they are first imported into China for sale, but they can still be randomly selected for post-market testing at any point in time.
While it is a step in the right direction, it is still not good enough, in our opinion. But let's move on.
Compare the Neutrogena cleanser with one of our brand partner’s cleansers, UpCircle Beauty’s Cinnamon and Ginger Chai Soap Bar. Now, I was never a bar soap person, it always made me think of how an old lady bathes. But this bar has me converted.
It costs only $9 and comes in a recyclable cardboard box. The formulation is vegan and cruelty-free, and is 100% natural, many of the ingredients being organic or fair trade. This soap bar also doubles up as a body wash, too. So you can even ditch your plastic packaged body wash.
Sourcing ingredients that are organic and fair trade means that the supply chain from where the ingredients are grown and harvested is completely ethical, so workers are not exploited, and the ingredients keep their quality and integrity.
This is a large reason why you may pay a little more for sustainable skincare than supermarket skincare. But only $1 more, in this case. A small price to pay for an enormous impact, in my opinion.
The unique part about the Cinnamon and Ginger Chai Soap Bar is that it also contains salvaged spices from the chai industry. This is known as upcycling, or circular skincare, and is something you’ll see more of as brands start to utilize materials that are already in circulation to minimize waste.
UpCircle Beauty as a brand is 100% transparent, sustainable, and ethical. Founded in London, this company lives by the values of using what already exists. They began their journey with used coffee grounds from London cafés, and are now salvaging 10 different byproducts from the food and beverage industry to create their skincare. Their entire brand ethos revolves around our planet.
I want to also point out the other end of the spectrum. I am honestly disgusted at brands that charge an exorbitant price for products that are incredibly unsustainable. Consumers pay a premium price, yet the brands are doing so little for our planet, it’s honestly infuriating.
Let's use La Mer as an example. I'll go through the ingredient list of La Mer’s infamous $350 Créme De La Mer face cream.
The main ingredient is fermented kelp. But the following seven ingredients are considered environmentally un-friendly. The second ingredient is mineral oil, the third ingredient is petrolatum, the sixth ingredient is isohexadecane, and the seventh ingredient is microcrystalline wax.
All of these ingredients are derived from crude oil. Crude oil is a fossil fuel and is carcinogenic in its natural state. It’s later distilled into those four ingredients just mentioned that make up Créme De La Mer. The distilling process apparently makes it safe for human use (just like talc was considered safe for human use for decades too, but gave some women ovarian cancer). And for anyone who doesn’t know this, the extraction of fossil fuels is terrible for our planet.
When fossil fuels are extracted, it takes a hell of a lot of resources—like air and water. When fossil fuels are burned for energy, they emit toxins and emissions in to our atmosphere, which is a big reason why we now have a global warming crisis.
The eighth questionable ingredient is lanolin alcohol, which comes from sheep’s wool. So this cleanser is not vegan, and can be an unsustainable and unethical ingredient, depending on how it’s been sourced. Apart from the kelp, which has been sustainably sourced, there is no indication of how the other ingredients have been sourced or created on the packaging, or on the website, and that is a concern.
And that’s just the ingredients. What about the packaging it comes in? The jar itself is glass, which I'd expect no less for a $350 product, but the outer packaging is excessive and made up of a combination of plastic and cardboard, all of which will most likely end up in landfill. Then, to top things off, La Mer also sells in China.
Luxury Skincare That Cares
Earthwise Beauty’s Yasuni Face Balm in comparison is $100, and comes in a glass jar. The ingredients are 100% natural, and organic or wildcrafted where possible.
Earthwise Beauty are an award-winning philanthropic skincare brand who pride themselves on high quality, natural, effective ingredients. The Yasuni Face Balm in particular contains unique ingredients from the Amazon’s Yasuni National Park, one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth.
The Yasuni Face Balm is incredible, with acai for gentle exfoliation, kokum butter for minimizing pores and healing acne, and buriti oil, high in antioxidants and beta carotenes for protecting and delaying signs of aging.
For less than a third of the price of La Mer’s Créme De La Mer, you can invest in your skin, and also the planet at the same time.
It’s not only skincare we should take note of. We can also look at makeup products like Tom Ford’s Eye Quad eyeshadow palette for $89. The ingredients list is long. The palettes are completely plastic, cannot be refilled once they’re empty, cannot be recycled because they contain mirrors, and the Tom Ford brand tests on animals.
Even Āthr Beauty, whose formulations include actual diamonds (that are sustainably sourced, of course), who have banned 2300 ingredients from their formulations due to their questionable nature, are 100% vegan and cruelty free, and have 100% recyclable makeup palettes cost only $24.
It’s no wonder people are so confused.
Why Sustainable Beauty Can Cost More
Here’s the part where I should tell you that: you better be investing in sustainable beauty because the future depends on it. But I’m not going to do that, because perhaps you are not financially in the position to do that right now. But I want to educate you, and once you read this article you’ll be able to make the best decision for you and the future.
As mentioned before, it costs brands more to be sustainable. If it didn’t cost more, it would have been the norm years ago. But alas, it is not. And we now find ourselves in the middle of a climate crisis.
Fair trade certified means that farmers get paid fairly for their ingredients, and they work in conditions that are humane. The money made from fair trade products goes into a fund that is used for the community for things they need to thrive. Without this, farmers get exploited and mistreated. Children are also subject to child labor in many cases.
Certified organic means that the ingredients are certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances, such as toxic fertilizers and pesticides, applied for three years prior to harvest.
Wildcrafted means that an ingredient is foraged from its natural habitat. No pesticides or fertilizers are used, and they leave behind enough of the plant to ensure the future of that ingredient thrives again next season. It is the most sustainable way to source natural ingredients.
Then we have the packaging debacle. It costs a little more for brands to source packaging that isn't your standard virgin plastic. So, of course, their products' pricing will reflect that. But in many cases, brands are innovating and finding ways around these costs.
Take DEW MTY as a great example. They have formulated an anhydrous (waterless) Bloom Jelly serum bar. Being waterless means that it can come to you in compostable paper, eliminating an incredible amount of packaging and shipping weight. They have also designed an aluminum reusable canister that you can store your serum bar in, for on-the-go hydration.
What's even more exciting about the Bloom Jelly serum bar is that it is formulated with 99% natural ingredients, all sustainably sourced. And this serum bar can be used in lieu of your face serums, facial oils, lotions, moisturizers, and hair serums. DEW MTY are true pioneers in sustainable beauty.
We want customers to know that their buying decisions, no matter how small, make an impact. When you continue to buy the $8 Neutrogena cleanser over the $9 UpCircle Beauty soap bar, you’re supporting a company that has never really had your best interests at heart. They might have sustainability goals, but 2025 is still four years away, and the ingredients will still not be up to standard.
There has to be a point where consumers stop supporting brands that are dishonest, regardless of their financial situation. There has to be a tipping point for all of us where we finally decide that we deserve better than the lies many brands feed us everyday.
You could choose to start supporting a sustainable brand today, who is making a positive difference right now, not in four years. A brand whose business model has always had our and our planet's best interests at heart from day one. Those small decisions that you make as a consumer will make all the difference.
“If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven't spent the night with a mosquito.” - African proverb
Emma Masotti is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn’t cost the earth.
Some of the products promoted in our blog are from our online store. Many others are brands we have researched and found to be great examples of sustainable, ethical, and innovative brands in their field, and we don't make any profit from mentioning them in our blog. #CollaborationOverCompetition