Most of us are becoming more and more conscious about how our lifestyle choices contribute to the environment, and as the conversation around the climate crisis becomes louder, our attention as consumers is quickly turning to what’s in our bathroom cabinets.
What does sustainability even mean?
Beware of greenwashing
How to make your beauty routine more sustainable
The effects of the food industry and fast fashion on our planet have been well-documented, but the beauty industry is another major culprit.
Whether it’s the unnecessary plastic packaging that ends up in landfills or the ingredients damaging marine life, our beauty routines’ impact goes way beyond the health and look of our skin.
But how can we make sure that our health and beauty habits are sustainable? And what does that even look like? We put together a comprehensive guide to help you be a more conscious beauty consumer, and how to make your beauty and health routines more eco-friendly.
Sustainability doesn’t have a precise definition, and unlike terms like “compostable” and “organic”, there is no regulation around the term.
Sustainability is often left to interpretation, and when it comes to the beauty industry it has come to mean many different things. How raw ingredients are sourced, the carbon footprint of production and transportation, packaging, and the ethical implications of manufacturing all make up the complex puzzle of sustainability.
The bottom line is that a brand or product is sustainable when it reduces the trace it leaves on the planet or reduces any harm to the environment. Keep reading for what aspects you should consider when looking for sustainable beauty.
Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us are suckers for Insta-worthy packaging. Every skincare fanatic loves a good #shelfie (look no further than all the unboxing and empties videos you find on YouTube). But the ugly truth is that beauty packaging has become a major environmental polluter.
According to Zero Waste Week, the global cosmetics industry produces more than 120 billion units of packaging every year, the majority of which isn’t recyclable and ends up in landfills.
Waste from plastic packaging has become such an issue that the UK Government announced a new tax, due to go into effect from April 2022, for all plastic packaging that is made or imported into the UK that doesn’t meet the minimum threshold of at least 30% recycled plastics.
Packaging isn’t the only trace left by beauty products. While most of us pay attention to ingredient lists because of how they can impact our skin, few of us give much thought to what gets washed down the drain.
Beauty products often contain microplastics or other chemicals that eventually make their way into rivers and seas, potentially harming animals and plants. That’s right, your skin microbiome isn’t the only ecosystem affected by what you slather onto your face.
Microplastics found in personal care products are a huge environmental concern. A study published by Plymouth University in 2013 found that one-third of fish caught in the English channel contained traces of plastic.
Several countries – like the UK, Canada, the US and New Zealand – have introduced bans on microbeads in beauty and health products such as scrubs and cleansers, but water pollution from microplastics remain an environmental concern.
Similarly, sunscreen has recently come under fire for its impact on the coral reef – you may have seen “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly” labels popping up on SPFs in the last couple of years for that reason.
Many sun creams contain two UV-blocking chemicals called oxybenzone and octinoxate. While these ingredients are designed to protect your skin (we love that), they have also been shown to cause coral bleaching (we don’t love that).
14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in oceans each year with the risk of bleaching coral reefs and destroying marine ecosystems, and while scientists are still working out the scale of the problem, opting for reef-safe sunscreen in the meantime is an easy option.
As sustainability enters the zeitgeist more and more, brands are quickly jumping on the bandwagon and releasing “green” collections or introducing more sustainable packaging. Greenwashing refers to the phenomenon where brands market themselves as more eco-friendly than they are.
One could argue that every attempt to be more eco-friendly is a step in the right direction but brands often make claims of sustainability without ever following through, or simply as a way to make more profit.
It can be confusing to navigate the murky, vague marketing language of the beauty industry. Terms like “clean”, “non-toxic”, “natural” and “ethical” are often used to make a product seem more eco-friendly without actually saying much, or packaging will be labelled as “recyclable” or “biodegradable” when there might not be a need for it in the first place. One could argue that getting rid of unnecessary packaging is even better than making it recyclable…
Take, for example, how the use of “natural” has become in the clean beauty trend. At first glance, it may sound positive, but a “clean” beauty product can still be harmful to the environment if it is sourced from natural ingredients unethically or via unsustainable means. Palm oil is a common offender. It’s present in many beauty products but its use has lead to widespread deforestation.
Similarly, brands will often position a product with essential oils as better for you and the planet because it’s “natural”, but essential oils like sandalwood and rose are very resource and energy-intensive to produce.
Labels like “sulphate-free” and “paraben-free” are brandished about as a way to scaremonger consumers and guilt them into making seemingly better choices, but both sulphates and parabens are considered safe for use and are added for a reason.
Parabens, for example, are preservatives used to make a product safe to use and reduce bacterial overgrowth. Sulfates, on the other hand, are detergents commonly found in shampoo, body wash, cleansers and toothpaste. They’re what creates a lather and cleans away sebum, dirt and other product residues (like traces of makeup or SPF), so you could say they’re pretty important.
As a consumer you have the right to know whether your hard-earned cash is helping the planet or just lining someone’s pockets, so don’t be afraid to ask for the receipts when a brand claims to be sustainable.
Shopping with sustainability in mind doesn’t have to be hard – or expensive, for that matter. Whether you want to reduce your use of plastic packaging or fight animal cruelty, here are seven ways you can give your beauty routine an eco-friendly makeover.
Single-use products are easy to find, cheap, and really convenient, but they do come with a cost.
The likes of make-up wipes, sheet masks, disposable razors, cotton rounds and cotton buds are as easy to use as they are easy to toss. If your budget allows, opt for reusable and refillable options. You can even switch your standard dental floss for reusable dental picks and compostable floss!
Going completely packaging-free is almost impossible, but cutting back on single-use plastic or unnecessary packaging is a great first step in making your beauty routine more sustainable.
Opt for products with minimal packaging – like shampoo bars, solid perfume, or refillable bottles – or packaging that is recyclable or compostable.
Another great option is to upcycle packaging: that expensive glass jar your night cream came in could make a great trinket box.
Sometimes that cleanser everyone’s hyping on socials just doesn’t agree with your skin, but before tossing it out consider whether a friend or family member might love it.
Alternatively, you can donate new and unused personal care products to your local shelter or via initiatives like Beauty Banks or The Hygiene Bank, which distribute toiletries to those in need.
Donating products is an easy way to reduce waste, and an easy way to make someone’s day!
It’s completely understandable if sustainability is the last thing on you’re mind when you’re dealing with cramps, leaks and period poo. But if you’re happy to switch up your period care routine, there are several things you can do to have a more eco-friendly period.
You can switch to reusable options such as menstrual cups, cloth pads or period underwear, or opting for organic cotton disposable tampons and pads.
Eco-friendly period products have become more and more popular in the last few years, but everyone experiences periods differently, so there’s no shame in prioritising your comfort and flow.
Being able to afford menstrual products is also a privilege many don’t have, so if you can, consider donating to initiatives like Bloody Good Period and the Red Box Project.
If you’re not sure whether a brand is practising what they preach, look out for certified logos that will tell you if a product is legit. Leaping Bunny, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, NaTrue and Soil Association are amongst some of the most well-respected and a good indication that the brand is working to mitigate their products’ environmental impact.
Consuming less is one of the best – and cheapest – ways to be more sustainable, and this apply to your beauty routine as well.
Stripping back the number of products you use every day inevitably means less waste ends up in landfills, and it may even be better for your skin. Ditch the ten-step skincare routine and go back to basics.
There’s nothing sustainable about buying eco-friendly products if you end up throwing them away mid-use because they’ve expired or lost their potency. All products have a shelf life, but cosmetics can usually go a couple of years before expiring when stored correctly.
Ingredients like Vitamin C can quickly lose their potency if exposed to sunlight or heat, so make sure you’re not wasting good products by storing them incorrectly. And if you’re using preservative-free skincare, check whether or not it’s best to keep it in the fridge!
For something to be sustainable, it has to be just that: sustainable. A sustainable beauty routine will look different from person to person, there is no right or wrong way to do it. When making sustainable swaps, the most important thing to consider is, “will this work with my lifestyle?” Accessibility and price point also means that what may work for you, might not work for someone else.
You don’t have to aim for perfection or give up all the conveniences of modern life in order to become more eco-conscious. That could mean boycotting products that have been tested on animals, buying body wash from zero-waste shops, or stripping down your make-up collection.
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