Five Easy Ways to Start a Plastic-Free Beauty Routine

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The beauty industry is one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters, producing around 120 billion units of packaging each year. Here are some practical and effective ways you can make a difference

It’s easy to ignore beauty’s plastic problem. As soon as you look at the stats, it can feel overwhelming: the industry is reportedly responsible for creating 120 billion units of plastic packaging each year, with a nominal amount of these materials being recycled effectively. As plastics can take around 500 years to decompose (every toothbrush that’s ever been made still exists), much of it ends up either rotting in landfills or wreaking havoc on the earth’s ecosystems. This includes the sea: Greenpeace has estimated that around 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year, while research by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation found that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

In other words, we are in trouble – and our habits need a radical overhaul. And while much of the beauty industry is dragging its feet when it comes to change, there are still smaller, individual steps you can take to move things forward. This includes re-examining your consumption patterns and investing in new, independent brands – many of which are pioneering their own zero-waste movements. “You’ll start to notice just how reliant the beauty industry is on plastic as a material – all those caps, pumps, tops ... everything!” says Ben Grace, founder of solid skincare brand SBTRCT. “We need to figure out another [solution], and quickly. The government and large organisations talk about deadlines that are five, ten and sometimes even 20 years away, but you only need to watch a David Attenborough documentary to understand that we need to make these changes now.

So, to celebrate this month’s “Plastic Free Beauty Day” – a sustainability initiative launched last year by Irish haircare brand We Are Paradoxx – we examine the most straightforward, practical and effective ways you can start making those changes.

Reassess your everyday essentials

If you open your bathroom cupboard, it’s likely you’ll find a slew of single-use, non-biodegradable products. Toothbrushes, tampons and razors are some of the worst offenders when it comes to plastic pollution, and can easily be replaced with more sustainable alternatives. Bamboo toothbrushes (or toothbrush heads) are a biodegradable option, as are reusable steel safety razors (not as scary as they sound). When it comes to tampons, scrap single-use applicators for a reusable alternative – like this one from DAME – or a silicone cup. 

“You only need to watch a David Attenborough documentary to understand that we need to make these changes now” – Ben Grace, SBTRCT

Embrace the bar

“Solid” beauty is a zero-waste alternative for everyday beauty products, and it’s a rapidly growing industry. These days, it’s about much more than just bars of soap – you can now buy solid shower gels, high-performance skincare (from SBTRCT) and salon-quality shampoo (like these hair bars from Davines). “Bar soap is one of the easiest plastic-free swaps you can make,” says Cheryl Dunbar, founder of Leigh-on-Sea-based soap brand, Legra. “The packaging is simple and stylish, and can be tossed in with paper recycling.”

Don’t rely on recycling

Some brands, like Purelogy, are leading the way when it comes to using post-consumer recycled materials (95% of their packaging is made this way). But the vast majority of companies are lagging behind. Recycling, although great in theory, also can’t always be relied on: there have also been controversies over how much of our plastic waste actually ends up being recycled, even if it’s been put in the correct bin (studies suggest that between five to 14 per cent of it ends up making the full loop). Thankfully, an increasing amount of brands – like Tata Harper, Comfort Zone, and RMS Beauty – are embracing glass jars or compostable packaging, while others – like We Are Paradoxx and zero-waste makeup brand Axiology – are working towards an entirely plastic-free output.

“Don’t try to change everything at once – look for brands and products that suit your regular routine so it’s not such a shock to the system” – Yolanda Cooper

Look for brands that refill

“We really need to dismantle the economic model of ‘single-use for profit‘ that became the norm thanks to the invention of cheap plastics,” says Allon Libermann, the co-founder of FORGO. The innovative skincare brand, from Sweden, creates effective handwashes using only paper refills and glass bottles. “What we need are better alternatives – a better economic model would be refillables.” A growing number of brands – including natural skincare brands like Neighbourhood Botanicals and Kankan, as well as Danish makeup pioneers Kjaer Weis – are embracing this “refill” system, which encourages consumers to buy a one-off bottle or container and replenish whenever empty. 

Be a more discerning consumer

Beauty trends come and go, as do miracle products and must-try ingredients. This hyper-consumerist approach to skincare can stress out your skin barrier, drain your bank account, and leave you with overflowing bathroom shelves and make-up bags. Streamlining your routine can help you minimise your waste, detox your skin, and shift your focus to quality instead of quantity. If you don’t know where to start, sites like Content Beauty are excellent for sourcing the most effective sustainable, cruelty-free and plastic-free solutions. 

Of course, none of this is an excuse to throw everything out right now. If you’re serious about changing your habits, it’s best to ease yourself into a new routine. “Don’t invest in plastic-free alternatives until you actually need to replenish your bathroom cabinet!” urges Yolanda Cooper, founder of We Are Paradoxx and Plastic Free Beauty Day. “Don’t try to change everything at once – look for brands and products that suit your regular routine so it’s not such a shock to the system. Make plastic-free choices one at a time and you shouldn’t notice a difference to your regular routine, but you’ll be making a positive impact on our environment.”