A good green beauty routine includes reducing your plastic use to the bare minimum. Zero Waste Week, a U.K.-based organization, estimates the cosmetics industry produces over 120 billion units of packaging, including plastic wrapping, cases, and bottles. Plastic never biodegrades, and 50% of it is used once and then thrown away. So we must realize our collective reliance on plastic is unsustainable.
It’s not just bad for the environment. Spending money on disposable beauty products is also bad for our wallets. A Groupon survey titled The True Cost of Beauty found that women spend an average of $3,756 each year on their appearance. That adds up to a lifetime total of over $225,360 spent on beauty and personal care products. If 50% of it these products are disposable, that’s over $100,000 the average woman is wasting on her beauty routine over her lifetime.
Luckily, consumers have plenty of money-saving green alternatives.
Green Alternatives to Disposable Beauty Products
It’s easy to swap out single-use items for eco-friendly reusable beauty products or DIY beauty treatments that cost mere pennies per use.
1. Instead of Single-Use Cotton Balls, Use Reusable Cotton Rounds
Cotton balls or rounds are popular tools in many a bathroom arsenal. But ecological factors continue to increase the price of cotton.
Cotton requires a lot of chemicals to produce a healthy crop. Over 22% of all pesticides and herbicides used on crops worldwide are dedicated to cotton, according to the Global Organic Cotton Community Platform. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists more than half those pesticides as “possible,” “likely,” “probable,” or “known” human carcinogens – chemicals that promote the formation of cancer.
It also takes a lot of water to grow cotton. The World Wildlife Foundation estimates it takes at least 5,000 gallons of water to make only 2.2 pounds of cotton. As freshwater resources become scarcer, the cost of water will continue to increase, driving up food prices.
Even when it’s organic cotton grown without pesticides or herbicides, that’s a lot of water to produce very little of a product, package it, and then transport it to the store. And it’s still something that gets used only once and then thrown away.
When you’re spending a few bucks to buy disposable cotton rounds at the store every few months, it might not seem like a budget-buster. But think about how many cotton balls the average person tosses throughout their lifetime. Switching to reusable cotton rounds could make a significant impact.
2. Instead of Regular Shampoo, Use a Shampoo Bar or Make Your Own
Most shampoo bottles aren’t recyclable plastic. They’re single-use bottles that go into landfills when you throw them away.
But there’s a whole movement that encourages people to wash their hair less often or not at all – not just for the sake of the environment, but for the sake of their hair and scalp health. Many modern shampoos contain sulfates that strip your hair and scalp of their natural oils. The “no ‘poo method” advocates washing your hair without harsh chemicals using natural products such as baking soda and apple cider vinegar. Many people even slowly transition to not washing their hair at all.
If you want to make your own shampoo, many DIY recipes online use ingredients you probably already have around the house.
Or you can make the switch to a shampoo bar. Shampoo bars come in a solid form similar to a bar of soap. Their packaging is usually recyclable paper instead of plastic. Often manufactured by companies that focus on natural, nontoxic products, bar shampoos rarely contain drying sulfates, making them better for your hair. That means washing it less often than with most traditional moisture-stripping shampoos. There are shampoo bars for all hair types.
3. Instead of Disposable Sheet Masks, Make DIY Face Masks
The sheet mask craze has made its way to American shores over the last few years. Originally popular in Asia, sheet masks for all skin types and complexions are now on U.S. store shelves everywhere you look.
These masks come individually wrapped in nonrecyclable foil or plastic packets and backed with single-use plastic you peel off before putting the sheet on your face. When you’re done with it, the mask goes in the garbage too.
That’s a lot of trash – and a lot of cash – for a five-minute facial treatment. The EPA estimates Americans throw away approximately 350 million tons of municipal waste a year, and about 30% of that is packaging. In the face of these sobering numbers, sheet masks seem a lot less innocuous.
But just because you’re working toward a zero-waste lifestyle doesn’t mean you have to give up pampering yourself. Make a face mask at home in minutes to get a home spa treatment without wasting $4 to damage the environment.
Plenty of DIY face mask recipes replicate sheet masks’ hydrating and acne-fighting power without all the plastic waste. And most face mask recipes use inexpensive ingredients you probably have in your kitchen or bathroom. If you’re looking for a skin-clearing formula, use apple cider vinegar and water. Need something more moisturizing? Try one made with egg and honey.
4. Instead of a Scrub With Microbeads, Make a DIY Facial Scrub
If you like a facial scrub with exfoliating power, you’ve probably used something with microbeads before. These tiny orbs feature heavily in body washes, face scrubs, and even toothpaste. They’re small bits of plastic – including polyethylene, polypropylene, and nylon – that help slough off dead skin.
But plastic never biodegrades and ends up in our oceans, where it makes its way into our drinking water and our food. Fortunately, thanks to the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, it’s now illegal for companies to put microbeads in rinse-off products like body wash or toothpaste.
If you still want baby-fresh glow, look for products that exfoliate using natural, nontoxic ingredients like baking soda and salt. Or find face scrub recipes online. Many call for ingredients you already have.
5. Instead of Tissues, Use Cotton Handkerchiefs
Less than 100 years ago, Kimberly Clark Corporation started marketing facial tissues as the “handkerchief you can throw away!” and sales took off. Americans now throw away over 255 billion tissues every year, according to Fastmarkets RISI.
Save money and the environment by switching to a reusable cotton handkerchief. Amazon, Etsy, and eBay have beautiful lace and embroidered vintage handkerchiefs. For utilitarian styles, check out retailers like The Organic Handkerchiefs Company.
Or make your own with cotton scraps from things like old undershirts or sheets. Since cotton is so resource-intensive, any way to give it a second life makes a difference. I made at least a dozen cotton handkerchiefs from an old twin sheet set. As an added bonus, they were already extra soft from frequent washes.
6. Instead of a Disposable Razor, Use a Safety Razor
Another relative newcomer to the world of personal grooming, Bic debuted disposable razors in 1975. Because plastic razors have so many parts and different kinds of plastic, they’re virtually impossible to recycle. Instead, over 2 billion plastic razors head to our landfills every single year.
But before the disposable razor, people shaved with safety razors, which were invented in the 1850s. Shaped like a little rake, the safety razor has a reusable and replaceable double-sided blade. Most or all the material in safety razors is metal or wood.
Luckily, the lost art of shaving with a safety razor is making a comeback. The benefits of shaving like your grandfather include a closer shave, less skin irritation, and fewer ingrown hairs – in addition to bettering the environment and your wallet.
Safety razor blades, which usually cost less than $10 for a pack of 100, are packaged in paper wrapping. The blades are typically recyclable as scrap metal. Compare that to a fully disposable razor, which can range from $2 to $6 each, or a plastic razor handle with replaceable blades, which easily costs $10 for a handle and two blade cartridges.
7. Instead of Shaving Cream, Use Shaving Soap
Once emptied of shaving cream, those steel or aluminum aerosol cans are theoretically recyclable. But pressurized aerosol cans pose a danger to sanitation workers, so some municipalities don’t accept them for recycling.
And if you switch to a safety razor, why not go all in and switch to shaving soap? People have used shaving soap at least as long as they’ve shaved with safety razors. This soap usually comes in cake form and wrapped in recyclable paper.
Shaving soap is easy to use and has a lather comparable to shaving cream. It’s also more cost-effective since it lasts much longer than shaving cream.
8. Instead of Liquid Soap, Use Bar Soap
Another easy, environmentally friendly, money-saving swap is switching from liquid soap to bar soap for washing both your hands and body. Humans have been using bar soap for thousands of years. Liquid body wash has only been around for a few decades.
Liquid soap requires about five times more energy than bar soap to manufacture. It also takes almost 20 times more energy to make its petroleum-based plastic packaging. But bar soap often comes wrapped in paper or no packaging at all. My local food co-op sells locally made bar soap without any packaging.
People also tend to use more liquid soap than bar soap per wash – almost seven times as much, according to climate watchdog Grist. That’s partially because they design liquid soap dispensers to pump out more than you need, encouraging overuse. But you can get a 5-ounce bar of high-quality Dr. Bronner’s soap for less than $5. If a similarly priced bottle of liquid soap lasts less than half as long, bar soap is a far better deal.
Most liquid soaps are packed full of dyes, fragrances, and chemicals and are harmful to both the environment and us. For example, the NRDC notes that manufacturers often load liquid soap – especially antibacterial soap – with chemicals associated with hormone and endocrine disruption. Of course, bar soap can also sometimes contain questionable ingredients, so check the label and look up the ingredients on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database before purchasing. The database reviews thousands of personal care products, ingredients, and brands for their overall toxicity, any hazards, and things like allergy and immunotoxicity risk.
Bottom line: Whether you buy it or make it yourself, bar soap is a much better way to wash.
9. Instead of Shower Puffs, Use Washcloths
Most of us want to limit our exposure to bacteria to prevent disease. But plastic shower puffs remain in the moist, warm environment of the bathroom between showers, harboring gross bacteria and acting as a gathering place for dead skin cells and germs. For this reason, dermatologists recommend you replace these plastic germ dens every eight weeks – which means they go straight into the trash.
But once you switch to bar soap, you don’t need a shower puff. Instead, switch to reusable washcloths made with natural fibers.
Washcloths made of natural fibers like cotton or hemp are inexpensive and washable. You still need to clean them between uses so they don’t harbor bacteria. But they last for years, and you only replace them when they’re too worn-out to use. When that happens, compost them instead of throwing them in the trash.
If you like a little more scrubbing action than a washcloth provides, pair it with a naturally exfoliating DIY body scrub.
10. Instead of Pump Bottles, Use Lotion Bars
Just like plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles, most pump-style lotion bottles are single-use and terrible for the environment. Even if the container itself is recyclable, the pump isn’t. Moreover, the pump isn’t designed to get all the lotion out of the bottle.
But lotion bars are easy to use and even easier to store and transport. And if you’re a frequent flyer, switching to nonliquid toiletries will make getting through a TSA screening both faster and greener.
Lotion bars are solid at room temperature but soften by the heat of your hands. Then you use them to moisturize your skin just like you would liquid lotion. Look for them at green beauty retailers or make your own lotion bars with only a few natural ingredients.
11. Instead of Disposable Cotton Swabs, Use a Reusable Swab (or Skip the Swab Altogether)
Another recent swap to hit the market is the reusable cotton swab. Traditional swabs, also called cotton buds, are constructed of a paper or plastic stick with a bit of cotton on each end. Their ubiquity in our medicine cabinets means they’ve shown up as pollution everywhere. According to the Marine Conservation Society’s 2008 report, cotton bud sticks were 4.6% of the total litter they picked up from beaches in the United Kingdom.
Cotton swabs have also entered the public consciousness thanks to the annual National Geographic photography contest. In 2017, a finalist photo by Justin Hofman showed a tiny seahorse swimming in the ocean off the coast of Indonesia with its tail wrapped around a pink plastic swab.
Even if you only buy cotton swabs with paper tubes instead of plastic, it’s still a single-use product. Unlike plastic, paper does break down if it ends up in a body of water. But if it goes to a landfill, it takes a very long time to break down. And when it does, it produces methane.
Landfills seal away trash between layers of clay or other impermeable materials. That keeps trash and the chemicals it produces as it breaks down from leaching into and contaminating our groundwater. However, it also keeps oxygen out. As trash breaks down anaerobically — without oxygen — it produces and emits methane into our atmosphere.
The EPA collected data that measures how much heat one molecule of a particular gas can capture and hold in comparison to carbon dioxide. Methane is an estimated 21 times more powerful. According to a report from the Environmental Defense Fund, methane is responsible for about 25% of the Earth’s current human-caused global warming. By producing less methane, which is directly responsible for heat capture that raises the planet’s temperature, we can reduce our contribution to the planet’s rapidly rising temperature.
You can replace disposable swabs with a reusable product like LastSwab. You can use them to apply or remove makeup or for cleaning out your ears. The company estimates you can clean and reuse LastSwabs up to 1,000 times before you need to replace them.
Alternatively, you can take the advice of doctors and leave your ears alone. According to a 2016 Time magazine article, otolaryngologists — ear, nose, and throat doctors — recommend against using cotton swabs to clean out your ears. Instead, they say you can let your ears take care of themselves, which in 99% of cases they do without the aid of a cotton swab.
When it comes to beauty products, the more environmentally friendly choice is often the more budget-friendly one as well. Companies come up with products to fill niches that never existed before – think Febreze or flushable wipes – because they want us to spend money. Often, they don’t consider the product’s environmental impact.
Swapping disposable skin care and beauty products for green alternatives will save you money and reduce your carbon footprint at the same time.
What green swaps have you made to your beauty routine? What are your favorite green beauty brands?