Photo: Artem Varnitsin / EyeEm/Getty Images
I recently spent 30 minutes trying to cram a refill of a product into a metal case, a brand’s attempt to reduce plastic usage. And while it was hard for me to understand in practice, I was happy to know that it’s a growing practice in the beauty industry to try to become more sustainable.
For most people with full-time jobs who don’t have the time to make their own soap and toothpaste, zero waste is next to impossible. TikTok sustainability expert Chelsy Christina prefers the term “low waste” because it’s easier for consumers to focus on progress rather than perfection. Christina advises using what you already have first before you run out of buying new, sustainable alternatives.
Some brands established themselves as sustainable before it became fashionable or urgent to do so because of the climate change crisis. Osea Beauty, a vegan skin and body care brand, was one of them. Founder Jenefer Palmer tells us that it’s essential to start with small steps: “Whether it’s eliminating excess packaging, finding more sustainable partners on the supply and manufacturing side, or to become climate-neutral certified, all these actions are good and commendable,” she advises. (Climate Neutral is a non-profit organization whose mission is to eliminate carbon emissions by making climate neutrality something all businesses will do by 2050.)
Dior esthetician and skincare expert Sean Garrette admits it can be difficult trying to stay sustainable while enjoying skincare and beauty. He is aware of the role he plays in waste: “It is inevitable that I contribute to some waste because of the quantity of products to be received and tested. That doesn’t stop him from taking the time to do things like research which ingredients are non-toxic and less wasteful.
There are small steps we can take to be more mindful of our routines that don’t include scraping your entire skincare shelf. Nor does it mean that we should remove the luxury and ritual that beauty adds to our lives. It just means we’re taking longer to respond to this ever-changing world. It’s the least we can do, whether we’re tired of it or not.
Long gone are the days of Dove soap, which for many of us was our first introduction to a beauty routine. Today’s bar soaps have had a makeover. There are now shampoo and conditioner bars (but they don’t hold promise for all hair textures). Not only do the bars use far less packaging, but they are also produced with far less water. Take Mutha’s, for example: it’s 100% biodegradable and made with cupuacu seed butter and jojoba oil. (Christina tells us that bar soaps are her best friend because they’re the least polluting option for skin and body care.)
Seriously. They are useless and do nothing more than if you simply wash your face with the product. In fact, you can apply most products, like toner, directly to your skin, skipping cotton pads altogether. Garrette also points out that even though the packaging is recyclable, most people don’t think about recycling this type of packaging. We are programmed to constantly use and waste; it is a cycle. Packaged multi-use masks are a smarter, less expensive way to achieve the same results, whether it’s a sheet mask for the skin or a single-package hair mask. Christina and Garrette love using reusable tools: reusable cotton pads are an eco-friendly alternative for cleansing and toning the skin, while loofahs are a great option for the body.
We all love unboxing, but it’s not exactly ideal for the environment: the amount of plastic used, the shipping boxes, etc. Christine adds that packaging waste can take decades or, in some cases, centuries to decompose. So, paying attention to packaging can make a huge difference. Look for recyclable brands: Korres products, for example, are 90% or 100% recyclable. Fenty Beauty also recently launched sustainable eyeliner, a wooden pencil that can be sharpened to the last drop – a more sustainable approach than the brand’s first eyeliner.
Brands like Charlotte Tilbury and Ilia have recently launched multi-use products (meaning they can be used on the lips, cheeks and eyes). Buying less means throwing away less.
Research beauty company websites and look for products made from naturally harvested ingredients. Some keywords to search for are “natural oils” and “agricultural plants.” Some companies go into more detail on their websites, as in the case of La Mousse de Dior foaming cleanser, which has been formulated with naturally sourced ingredients like water lilies from the Dior Latour-Marliac garden, where they are harvested from a way that allows the plant to recover.
Osea’s Palmer says the product development process takes years because the brand searches “every corner of the world for ingredients that meet their needs.” Its latest launch is a night serum blended with AHAs and natural ingredients like spirulina and kappaphycus alvarezii algae. From algae to different species of algae, Palmer believes that “the earth has given us the ingredients we need to nourish and improve our skin.” Natural, earth-derived ingredients don’t mean less results or a lack of luxury; using them just means we are caring and more aware.
Refill stores are where you can buy shampoo, body lotion, dish soap, and many other health and beauty products by weight and refill them in your own reusable containers. My colleague Vivian Chuang started going there in 2014 after watching videos of Lauren Singer, known as the “zero waste girl”. Chuang says, “Stores also offer zero-waste products like reusable baking sheets, beeswax wraps, bar soaps and more.
In New York, her date is A Sustainable Village in the East Village. There are a few around New York, including The Nature at Park Slope if you’re Brooklyn-based. (You can Google search to find one near you.) Chuang even found her favorite products: “Jaclyn and Em at A Sustainable Village stock a rosemary vanilla lotion that I’m obsessed with.”
Chuang added, “While I have never achieved zero waste, I believe that any effort to incorporate some of these practices and products contributes to the overall mission and doesn’t have to be a scary, totally engaging life change. As someone in my twenties focused on building a career, balancing work and play, and with no disposable income, I’ve found some very simple ways to reduce waste, especially plastic waste, by replacing my lotion, shampoo, face wash and dish soap from those offered at these refill stores. What I like is that I can test new products to include in my routine and if it doesn’t work with my lifestyle, I can try a different one next time. I have noticed that my products also generally last longer, since I can choose my own containers, and I spend less by only paying for the product inside and not necessarily the packaging or branding. Win, win!