One of the biggest pollutants in the world is lurking in a completely unexpected place: your makeup bag.
I’m talking about plastic, and it’s everywhere in the cosmetics and personal care products you use: The tube that contains your lipstick. The container that dispenses your hand lotion. Even the floss you use to clean your teeth.
There’s been so much focus on single-use plastic water bottles and bags that it probably never occurred to you to think of your cosmetics as part of the problem—but they are. Unlike bags and bottles, most plastic makeup containers can’t be recycled. But even if they could be, they’re not. In fact, the recycling rate for any kind of plastic is abysmal: less than 10 percent of all plastic is recycled worldwide, reports 5 Gyres, the non-profit group that monitors the frightening speed at which plastic is polluting our oceans.
In addition to fouling the seas, plastic is contaminating the fish, birds, and wildlife that live there. Plastic is made from petroleum, and it’s toxic for animals to eat, which they accidentally do (and which we accidentally do when we eat them). Plastic doesn’t dissolve, but it does break down into tiny pieces of microplastic. 5 Gyres calls the 5.25 trillion particles floating in our waters “plastic smog” and predicts that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean in the not-too-distant-future.
Fortunately, along with the move to get toxic ingredients like parabens and phthalates out of our personal care products, efforts are underway to produce plastic-free cosmetics, shampoos, and lotions. Below, I share links to some brands that have enabled me to minimize my own “plastic footprint.” But before we get to those recommendations, here are the shopping guidelines that have helped me significantly cut back the amount of plastic I consume.
Buy and Use Fewer Products
Most women use, on average, 15 personal care products a day. Don’t believe me? Line everything up on your bathroom counter that you put on your body in JUST. ONE. DAY. I bet it includes the following: shower gel, face wash, shampoo, conditioner, styling gel, foundation, blush or bronzer, mascara, lipstick, face cream, toner, body lotion or oil, shaving cream or gel, toothpaste, dental floss, eye liner, eye shadow, eyebrow pencil, sunscreen, make-up remover.
Once I saw how much of that stuff I was using, I decided to give up some products altogether and then use less overall. Rather than apply both shower gel and soap, for example, I ditched the gel, especially since bar soap is plastic-free. I didn’t need foundation, bronzer, and “finishing powder” all at the same time, so now I only use bronzer. Plus, at least one day a week, I wear almost no makeup at all.
How to Go Plastic Free
When I started looking for plastic-free alternatives, I was surprised at how many I found. I’ve been able to replace my liquid shampoo in a plastic bottle with a lovely lavender-and-coconut-infused “shampoo bar” that comes wrapped in recycled and recyclable paper. I replaced make-up remover wipes and the plastic bag they’re sold in with coconut oil from a glass jar. I simply use a small cotton pad to remove all my makeup, then gently scrub my face with a soft terry washcloth, a little warm water, and a gentle exfoliating soap.
Choose Glass, Metal, or Cardboard Packaging When Possible Containers made from recycled plastic just aren’t good enough. Though they take some plastic out of the waste stream at the front end, they still end up as plastic trash on the back end. Fortunately, more and more products are becoming available in plastic-free containers like glass, aluminum or tin, and cardboard. I look for those first whenever I shop.
Be Willing to Change Brands As plastic-free has become a priority for me, I’ve found myself trying new brands. An added benefit? The plastic-free products are usually made by companies committed to eliminating toxic ingredients in favor of safer organic, plant-based ones. You try new restaurants, right? Why not try a new lipstick … tube?
Skip Monthly or Bi-Monthly Home Delivery Box Subscriptions I tried a couple of these when they first came out but quickly canceled them. Subscription systems encourage unnecessary consumption. They also use a lot of plastic during shipping, which compounds the plastic the products come in. Before I order anything online, I check my options at stores like Whole Foods, my local food co-op, and even Target and CVS. If I have to order online, I do, but I always make a point to choose companies that ship without plastic bubble wrap or foam peanuts.
Ignore Hotel Mini-bottles of Shampoos, Body Washes, and Lotions How many times have you left a half-used little bottle of lotion in a hotel room—or scooped up all the leftover bottles into your suitcase as you’re leaving? I bring my own lotions and soaps in reusable 3 oz. bottles.
Green Beauty: New Brands to Consider
Here are some of the brands I’ve turned to now that plastic-free is such a priority for me. Use them as a point of departure so you can start to go plastic-free, too.
Lipstick—Axiology’s lipstick tubes are made from recycled aluminum that can be recycled. The tube comes in a recyclable paper box. The vegan, cruelty-free company donates a percentage of annual profits to Orangutan Foundation International, PeTA, and other humane-focused charities.
Lip balm—Natural lip balm is made from GMO-free hempseed and lemongrass, making it high in essential fatty acids Omega 3 and 6, as well as Vitamin E. You can buy the balm in a compact glass container with a metal cap that can easily be recycled when empty.
Tampons—If you’re still using them or a family member or friend is, there are Tampon Tribe tampons, which are made from certified-organic cotton and contain no toxins, chlorine bleach, or plastic materials. A cardboard “twist” applicator is biodegradable after use. Seventh Generation tampons come without an applicator; I’ve used these and they’re easy to insert. Many women I know have replaced tampons altogether with a menstrual cup that catches the flow. The Diva Cup has been around a long time and gets rave reviews. By the way, in case you think a tampon is a little thing, Glamour reports that it takes one tampon longer to degrade than the lifespan of the woman who wears it—and the average woman will use over 11,000 disposable, one-time-use menstrual products in her reproductive lifetime.
Shower Gel—Plastic bottles filled with body “scrub” may also contain plastic microbeads that end up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. That’s why I only use a soft wash cloth with bar soap scented with essential oils. Easy peasy, and also a money-saver, as bar soap almost always costs less than shower gel.
Shampoo and Conditioner—Hair can be ornery, so finding the right shampoo is important. Fortunately, there are many shampoo bars to try, and, chances are, there’s one that will work for you. I use J.R. Liggett’s, which comes simply wrapped in recycled paper that you can recycle again. It lathers nicely, smells great, and does a great job cleaning my hair. Lush makes conditioner in bar form along with its soaps and shampoos.
Hand Salve—I took Badger Balm in a lovely recyclable tin with me on a 10-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, and it worked great to soothe my dry cracked hands without using artificial fragrances, dyes, parabens, or GMOs—just USDA Certified Organic ingredients. Island Thyme’s Soothing Skin Salve is one of my go-to solutions for chapped hands, elbows, and heels, especially during the dry winter.
Deodorant—Organic Essence packages up its concoction of organic ingredients plus baking soda to stop the stink and coconut oil to soothe and condition the skin in a cardboard “eco tube” you can recycle. Primal Pit Paste comes in a glass jar and is another one of my go-tos. I love the fragrance as well as this product’s effectiveness. Plusthe name is pretty funny.
Face Cream—I’ve loved Andalou since I discovered it a couple of years ago. It is fragrance-free, goes on like a dream, and is highly moisturizing. Plus it’s formulated for “age defying” skin and is very reasonably priced. But you’ll find many face creams in glass jars if you just look.
Blush and Eye Shadow—Ecco Bella Organic Beauty sells refillable paperback compacts that let you mix and match colors as you wish. The colors come in metal tins that attach to the compact magnetically. Antonym bakes organic ingredients into finely textured powders that it dispenses in bamboo containers. Elate does something similar.
Recycling Is Getting Easier
As you replace your existing plastic products with those that are plastic-free, don’t just trash the old ones.
Lilah Beauty—whose motto is “Declutter. Minimize. Simplify.”—will send a prepaid return shipping label so you can send them all your unwanted beauty products, their own brand or otherwise.
Origins, which declares “We help erase waste!” also accepts cosmetic empties from any brand, every day.
If you bought a bottle of something at L’Occitaine, you can take it back for a refill. “We save up to 80% of the plastic used for the original product,” the company boasts about their “Eco-Refills” program.
Aveda has teamed up with g2 Revolution, a recycling company, to allow customers to bring in any packaging and accessories from Aveda products to its stores. The packaging—as well as notoriously difficult-to-recycle brushes and pump bottles—is then recycled, reused, or burned for energy recovery. Finally, TerraCycle will let you send back your empty containers, including shampoo caps, conditioner caps, hair gel tubes and caps, and hair spray triggers, all with free shipping. Use up what you have, then put all the empties in a box and send them off to be recycled.
Now there are fewer and fewer reasons why you can’t go green as you get beautiful.
Diane MacEachern is an award-winning entrepreneur and prominent green expert who founded Big Green Purse to inspire women to use their consumer clout to protect the planet and themselves.