12 Ways to Create an (Almost) Plastic-Free Beauty Routine

Tips for a Plastic-Free Beauty Routine: It’s time to break up with plastic and eliminate it from your beauty routine. The beauty industry has a toxic relationship with this material, and consumers are in the position to demand change.

By Heather Smith

Plastic-Free Beauty Routine, bags in long grass outdoors

How Big is the Plastic Problem in the Beauty Industry?

The beauty industry uses hundreds of billions of cheap plastic skincare containers. Global production of cosmetics containers is 120-150 billion per year. It’s hard to keep an exact count of the use of various materials or items; however, the numbers appear staggering. Here are a few examples:

  • In the U.K., 10-20 billion single-use face wipes are used yearly; at least 100 billion worldwide. These wipes may look like cloth, but they contain plastic fibres and will not break down for at least a hundred years.
  • In 2019, the top 10 lip balm brands in the U.S. sold 200 million units of lip balm – that’s just one country and just 10 brands!
  • Over 1 billion plastic toothbrushes are thrown away per year in North America alone.
  • At least 9 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide since 1950. Global recycling rates average a dismal 9-15%. Personal care products are some of the least recycled plastics overall. The reasons are likely because of the amount of coloured dyes used and also the fact they’re mostly used in the bathroom, where recycling bins are seldom found.

What’s the Harm From All This Plastic Waste?

Plastic is the most common trash in our lakes and oceans. Whether deposited in a landfill or littered into our waterways, it takes at least 500 years to disappear. It doesn’t remain in its original state; it breaks down into smaller particles called microplastics which persist in the environment, even when you can’t see them. They get eaten by marine wildlife and work their way back up the food chain. As the particles get smaller, they are called nano plastics which get carried in air currents and dust and inhaled. These particles are small enough to be detected in human placenta tissue and at birth

While the full extent of the effects on humans and ecosystems is not known, this is alarming. Marine animals and wildlife are being killed and poisoned at high rates. The gradual degradation of unrecycled plastic garbage is the most significant contributor to microplastics. Much of this comes from the cosmetics industry and skincare containers.

two women holding green basket
Plastic waste is a global problem, calling for many approaches for solutions, such as the idea presented by these two in Malawi. This long-lasting and water-resistant basket is woven from discarded straps that once formed part of a clothing bale.

How Do You Start Reducing Your Plastic Footprint?

First, start by calculating it. There are apps like this one that help you identify how much plastic might exist in your life. There are significant changes that are pretty obvious and easy, like stop buying bottled water! If you have access to clean drinking water, buying bottles is just paying for plastic. Other changes like reusable coffee cups, grocery bags, switching to menstrual cups, etc., all exist as easy to implement lifestyle changes. 

The process of plastic elimination shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of consumers. The beauty industry needs to do its fair share to make better choices available to consumers. Big brands can improve product materials and availability just by using them because of the enormity of their purchasing power. 

Truly sustainable beauty brands have similar goals but achieve them in different ways. One brand might choose to eliminate all plastic. Another might use 100% recycled plastic from reclaimed ocean waste. There is no best option, and everything has both pros and cons. 

12 Tips to Help Craft a Plastic-Free Beauty Routine

Unless you quit buying stuff, no beauty routine is perfectly green or completely zero waste.

So when it comes to eliminating plastic from your beauty routine, that brings us to point #1 – quit buying stuff! 

  1. Skinimalism is the new beauty bandwagon to jump onto.

Buy (and use) less stuff. Skinimalism is in stylenobody needs a 14 step skincare routine. We understand why you might want a luxurious, multi-step, self-care ritual, but you can make smart choices when choosing the type and number of products you include. Make sure to use everything you have to the last drop before replacing it. Try having more makeup-free days. 

  1. If you buy a product packaged in plastic, look for:
  • Plastic made out of PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate, recycling code #1) or HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene, recycling code #2), or rPET (PET made from some percentage of recycled PET)
  • White or clear containers with minimal colouring (this increases the chances they will actually be recycled when they arrive at the depot)
  • Refillable options

You may need to double-check with your local waste management department on whether they need the containers washed or labels removed, etc. Another helpful tip is to place a recycling bin right in your bathroom, so you don’t forget to always recycle.

  1. Choose products in non-plastic skincare containers.

Glass vials and aluminum bottles are good recyclable alternatives for many skincare products. Glass bottles are heavier, which is why they can have a high carbon footprint due to shipping. However, they will not leach microplastics into the environment, and they can be recycled endlessly, so they win overall. You can also replace plastic makeup bags with cloth or cork.

  1. Swap beauty supplies for reusable options. 

First, wait until you’ve used what you have and they need replacement – going on a zero-waste shopping spree is not the best way to make these changes. The three best replacements are: bamboo toothbrushes, reusable cloth makeup remover pads, and safety razors.

safety razors
Jungle Culture: Producers of Plastic-Free Safety Razors
  1. Look for brands that use biodegradable or compostable materials and are working to develop new ones.

This category is high risk for greenwashing, but novel materials exist and are increasing in type and availability. Supporting innovation will help the future development of new options. Some of the exciting materials that exist are:

  • Sheet masks that dissolve/biodegrade (i.e. cellulose)
  • “Plastic” that functions as a wrap but is water-soluble (i.e. individually wrapped bath bombs)
  • Shipping and packaging materials grown from mushrooms
  1. Swap big bottles for waterless, containerless naked products. 
  • Shampoo/conditioner bars
  • Lotion/shave bars
  • (also laundry strips! But that isn’t really in the beauty category)
  1. Have a beauty buddy or two.
  1. Cancel your beauty sample subscription kits.

Sorry about this one. Subscription sample boxes are packed full of tiny, non-recyclable plastic containers that almost always hit the trash – often after a single-use. If you can’t break up with the idea of trying new things, at least split the subscription with your beauty buddies to increase the chances items get used.

beach cleaner
beach cleaner” in Germany is one example of an organisation dedicated to addressing the problem of plastic waste. See our interview with one of their leaders.
  1. Support brands that work to reduce their plastic footprint or reclaim plastic waste. 

Many brands work by giving back a portion of their profits to organizations that do cleanup activities. Look for brands that support local communities or work hard to offset their environmental impact through vetted organizations. Many of these brands also belong to organizations that audit and oversee their charitable activities which helps add to the trust factor. 

  1. Skincare ingredients to avoid: exfoliating microbeads.

Thankfully, microbeads are now banned in many countries. Facial scrubs with biodegradable abrasives are just as effective. Great, natural replacement ingredients for exfoliation include: bamboo powder, kaolin clay, jojoba beads, and reusable konjac sponges.

  1. Cosmetic ingredients to avoid: glitter.

Brands can make sparkly eyeshadow from natural/mined pigments like mica. However, it’s crucial to know human rights concerns around mica mining exist. Therefore, it’s equally important to make sure any mica used is declared ethical. Some exciting bio-glitter options on the horizon use substances that are fully biodegradable. Check the ingredient list and avoid sparkles made from PET/polyethylene. Although they are not microbeads (and therefore not banned), they are still microplastics.

  1. Skincare ingredients to avoid: liquid microplastics. 

Liquid microplastics thicken, modify texture, and enhance emulsions. They have names like acrylates, copolymer, cross polymer, polyethylene, and carbomer. There are at least 500 used in cosmetics and skincare products. They are not biodegradable and remain in the environment, potentially for hundreds of years. This app is working to increase awareness so you can identify liquid microplastics in your beauty products. The actual harms of these environmentally persistent chemicals are not fully known. There are plenty of natural alternatives brands can use to modify the thickness and texture of their formulations.

The Bottom Line: Final Thoughts on a Plastic-Free Beauty Routine

In the world of plastic packaging, the mantra has been reduce, reuse, and recycle. By far, the most effective way to go plastic-free and reduce plastic waste is to refuse it instead. The quest for perfection can sabotage your efforts, so always remember that perfection is impossible. Every little change does matter. Consumers drive the momentum, but advocacy and corporate responsibility are needed for substantial global change. 

Author Biography

Dr. Heather Smith is the owner of bareLUXE Skincare, a Canadian green beauty brand. She writes the sustainable beauty blog Elevated Simplicity, which focuses on natural skincare, marketing transparency, and the anti-plastic movement. Her love for green beauty began when she became a mom to boys with sensitive skin. It grew throughout the pandemic as she searched for simplicity and a solution for severe, mask-related skin issues – this is how bareLUXE was born.