Are you trying to be more eco-friendly at home, but are confused about the type of packaging you should look for? Most of our products at home are conventionally housed in plastic, but we have a microplastics epidemic in our oceans and environment, and even in our seafood, and recent data shows that by 2050 there’ll be more plastic in our oceans than fish.
So how do you navigate through the options of materials? There are a number of different materials available out there, so to help you choose, we'll discuss what is the most sustainable skincare packaging available.
Making the Jump
Chances are your favorite products come in plastic. So it can be emotionally challenging to make the switch to a more sustainable alternative if it's a product you’ve been using for years. I totally get it. I was an esthetician who also worked side-by-side with hairdressers for years, so I am incredibly picky about what I use on my face, hair, and body.
But I realized that the best way to combat my pickiness was to just dive right in, because every product I continued to buy that was plastic was supporting the future of plastic manufacturing in skincare, and frankly, I wasn’t having it anymore. Not after seeing images of whales with their stomachs full of plastic.
I researched the ever-loving life out of different cleansers, moisturizers, shampoos, conditioners, body lotions, you name it. I knew I needed to get comfortable with kissing a few toads before finding my prince, err… beauty products. But the reality was, this was no different to when I first started using beauty products for the first time back in 2000. I tried out dozens before I found the products I loved. And it was time to do that all over again.
The difference now though is that I have had more experience, I understand ingredients much better than before, and technology has come a long way in the industry. So I found that it didn’t take me quite as long as before.
Brands That Greenwash
Many brands are claiming to be more environmentally-conscious, yet most of their products still come housed in virgin plastic packaging—one of the most unsustainable and environmentally-damaging materials ever made. This is a form of greenwashing, where brands use marketing tactics to convince consumers of “all the wonderful things” they’re doing for the environment, while behind the curtain they’re still polluting the environment, or choosing virgin plastic to house all of their products.
This isn’t good enough, in my opinion. So I banished brands from my bathroom for this reason, as I don’t believe consumers deserve to be lied to. Not when we are the reason for keeping these guys in business.
So, first and foremost, we should look for brands that are completely transparent. Brands that stipulate every detail about their ingredients, their manufacturing process, their packaging, and so forth.
This information should be readily available on their website, throughout their brand messaging, on their socials… e-ve-ry-where! You should not have to go digging for this information. If you do, then lady, they ain’t transparent.
The other thing I have noticed on my sustainable skincare journey is that the founders of these sustainable brands will usually have an environment-centric story behind why or how they started.
Take Tiila Abbitt, founder of Āthr Beauty, as an example. She worked for Sephora for years in product development. She saw first-hand just how detrimental the beauty industry was to our environment, not only with the excessive and wasteful packaging, but also the ingredients we were exposed to. Tiila felt a burning passion to pioneer change in the industry. And that’s exactly what she did with the industry’s very first zero-waste makeup palettes.
Or how about the story of Tiffany Buzzatto, founder of DEW MTY. Much like Tiila’s story, Tiffany worked in the beauty industry for 15 years and saw the incredible waste that was occurring, particularly in skincare sampling programs. Those single-use sachets were being used by the millions, and then tossed in the trash. Tiffany decided to put her biology background and environmental passions to good use, and designed the industry’s first zero-waste serum bar.
Sustainable Skincare Packaging Options
Skincare is typically housed in virgin plastic. But what we’re starting to see more of are other more environmentally-friendly solutions. For packaging to be truly environmentally-friendly, the most desirable options are:
- Material: 100% recyclable, or natural materials.
- Production: smaller packaging, cleaner supply-chain, closed-loop manufacturing, or zero-waste.
- Circular: upcycled, recycled, or reused.
While no packaging is perfect, there are some better than others. Here are all of the most common options out there, from least to most environmentally-friendly.
As mentioned earlier, virgin plastic is the most common material used for packaging in all industries. Virgin plastic means it has been manufactured for the first time, using up new resources, as opposed to post-consumer or recycled plastics—but more on that later.
Virgin plastic is most commonly used because it is:
- Stable and sturdy
- Accepted for recycling in most municipal recycling facilities
- Reusable to a certain point
On the flip side, as mentioned before, plastic is one of the most polluting, manmade materials on this earth. The downsides of using plastics really outweigh the benefits.
The downsides to plastic packaging are:
- Plastics are not endlessly recyclable. Plastics lose quality each time they are recycled, so will need to be disposed of eventually.
- Plastics are manufactured using fossil fuels (petroleum and natural gas).
- The manufacturing process also has a huge negative impact on the environment through extraction, processing, and disposal.
- They are not fully biodegradable.
- They often contain chemicals that are harmful to our health, and our planet’s health.
- When disposed of in the environment, they break down into microplastics—microscopic plastic fragments—that have now ended up in our waterways, soil, our seafood, and even human placentas.
An even bigger issue with plastic packaging is that around only 9% of it gets recycled. So, you may have good intentions to recycle, but the majority of people do not recycle their empty plastic bottles.
Silicone, not to be confused with natural Silicon, is identified as a silicone elastomer, and is a hybrid between plastic and rubber. Silicone can sometimes contain silica, one of the planet’s most abundant compounds, but fossil fuels are still used to create and manufacture this synthetic material.
You don’t often see silicone being used in skincare packaging, but silicones are actually used in many skincare formulations because of their ability to hold in moisture on the skin and hair.
As a consumer, this is an ingredient you want to avoid in your products as it acts as a barrier, causes breakouts and irritation, blocks other ingredients from absorption, traps dead skin, and is non-biodegradable once washed down the sink.
Recycled plastics are a better alternative to the former two options. This is because it’s taking materials that are already in circulation and giving them new purpose.
The benefits of using recycled plastics are:
- As they are already in circulation, fossil fuels are not needed to produce them, reducing the impact on the environment.
- Reduces emissions.
- Saves plastic ending up in landfills.
The downsides, however, are similar to virgin plastics:
- Quality is reduced every time they are recycled, so they will eventually be discarded when they are longer viable.
- They are not biodegradable.
- Again, some of the chemicals used in plastics are not good for the environment or our health.
- We still have the same microplastics issue.
Another option we’re seeing more of are bioplastics. These are manufactured using natural, renewable materials, such as sugarcane, algae, and wood. While you may be thinking that this should be one of the best options out there, there are some issues that can arise with bioplastics.
Not all bioplastics are biodegradable. It depends on how it was manufactured and the conditions it needs to biodegrade. Most skincare products that are made using bioplastics will not break down in your bathroom cabinet. On the contrary, many bioplastics will only break down properly in the right conditions—like having enough oxygen—which are not necessarily met once a product ends up in landfill.
Some companies even claim that bioplastics are just as bad as virgin plastics, as they are made to mimic synthetic polymers, can take centuries to break down, and can also release methane into the atmosphere.
On the positive side, bioplastics output less carbon dioxide emissions, and are recyclable, if not biodegradable. The future of bioplastics is looking positive for our environment, but the technology still has a ways to go.
Bamboo is known as one of the most useful, and renewable natural resources on the planet. This is because bamboo can grow fast, requires less water than other plants, is 100% biodegradable, and can be used in many different formats. Because of this, bamboo has become one the most popular resources for products like bedding, clothing, construction materials, cleaning accessories, and now we’re also starting to see it in beauty packaging.
Elate Beauty are the leaders in bamboo packaging in cosmetics, with their entire product line’s packaging being made from bamboo. ZAO’s refillable makeup boxes are another option. Tay skincare are using unique bamboo packaging for a specific line of their products. You can also get bamboo containers to store Kate McLeod’s Body Stones in. So there are brands out there using bamboo, but it isn't as common as one would hope.
Being a superior material means that it comes with a more expensive price tag. But, in my opinion, it’s a low price to pay if it means we’re minimizing our long-term impact on our environment.
If I had to choose a material for my beauty products out of all available materials on the market, it’d probably be glass. Glass comes from sand, so it is considered a natural material. The benefits of using glass are:
- It is forever recyclable, and never loses its integrity, unlike plastic.
- It is a natural material that doesn’t get extracted through burning fossil fuels.
- Glass is safe, and won’t leach chemicals into your products.
There are some downsides to glass packaging, however. These are:
- Only ⅓ of glass gets recycled.
- New glass requires sand, which means that our oceans and riverbeds—where we source sand from—may eventually run dry if we don’t start recycling more.
- Glass is heavier to transport, which means that freight costs more and has more of an impact on the environment.
- Some colored glass cannot be recycled.
Regardless of these downsides, glass is still more superior to other materials, and the most accessible to all of us.
Like glass, aluminum is also infinitely recyclable, and never loses its quality. Aluminum is also very lightweight, so transportation of this product is cheaper and less of an impact on the environment.
The downside to aluminum is that it can rust, so it isn’t ideal for many skincare products, unless it’s waterless, like DEW MTY’s Bloom Jelly Serum Bar. It comes with an aluminum case, and the bar is formulated without water so it won't rust.
But for brands that do use water in their formulas, many of them choose glass jars with aluminum lids. UpCircle’s products, like their best-selling face moisturizer, or most of the products from Stevie Fox are great examples of how brands can utilize aluminum and glass.
Speaking of Waterless Skincare...
Another way you can reduce your impact on the environment is to choose waterless skincare. This means that a product is formulated without water in its formulation, and often during the manufacturing process, too.
Going waterless means:
- Products weigh less, so freight is more efficient.
- Products are more effective, and not watered-down.
- Packaging doesn’t need to be waterproof (in some cases).
Take UpCircle Beauty’s Cinnamon and Ginger Chai Soap Bar, for example. It comes in just a recyclable cardboard box, making it an excellent example of being a lightweight, low-waste, sustainably-packaged product.
The Outer Packaging
Waterless beauty is still an up-and-coming trend. But for most skincare products on the market, they are still predominantly formulated with water. So they need to be housed in packaging that is waterproof. But what about the outer carton? One would argue that the outer carton is an unnecessary use of packaging. Yet, for ingredients and instructions of using those products, the outer carton is sometimes necessary.
Recyclable or compostable paper or cardboard are the best options when it comes to the outer packaging. But even more preferably is FSC certified paper.
According to Domtar, FSC certified paper means it:
- Protects water quality
- Avoids the use of highly hazardous chemicals
- Protects valuable woodlands
- Protects the rights of indigenous people and local communities
- Prevents the loss of natural forest cover
- Limits clear cutting
- Protects forest ecology and wildlife habitats
- Supports democratic and transparent governance
4 Beauty Brands that Use Sustainable Packaging
As mentioned above, DEW MTY are really leading the charge in sustainable skincare. With their low-waste, waterless, minimalist serum bar, you can eliminate the need for your facial oils, serums, moisturizer, and lotions, as well as unnecessary and wasteful packaging.
Another innovative brand is UpCircle Beauty. Their brand’s foundations are built on the idea of salvaging—or upcycling—used food and beverage byproducts to create their skincare range. Their packaging is almost 100% plastic-free.
A brand that was built on the idea of harboring the earth, it's no surprise that Earth Harbor’s values around their packaging is incredibly planet-centric. They are moving completely away from virgin plastics and have begun using upcycled ocean-bound plastic, ocean waste plastic, and/or post-consumer resins. Earth Harbor are continuously striving to find alternatives to virgin materials for 100% of their products.
This forward-thinking company created the cosmetic industry’s very first zero-waste makeup palette. Made without mirrors or magnets, these FSC certified paper and aluminum palettes can be recycled 100% at the end of their life.
It can be tricky to navigate the sustainable beauty space. Technology is constantly changing and innovating, and there is also a lot of misinformation out there. But hopefully this article gave you some clarity on what packaging to choose.
Key takeaways are:
- Choose natural packaging materials over synthetic;
- Reuse and upcycle your jars and bottles at home;
- Always recycle your packaging responsibly.
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