The Not-So-Great Side Effect Of Your Sheet-Mask Addiction

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Don't let the unseasonal heat wave fool you — winter is, eventually, coming. That means it's time to stock up on those hydrating and repairing products. One of the most effective ones out there? Sheet masks. But as we drench our faces in donkey milk or snail goop, we can forget one glaring issue: all the leftover waste. After a week of regular treatments, your garbage can can might look like Hannibal Lecter and Jason Voorhees went on a bender — full of crumpled eyeless and mouthless masks along with heaps of plastic packaging, which will all end up in a landfill.

According to the EPA, Americans throw out, on average, 254 million tons of “municipal solid waste.” 30% of that is containers and packaging. On top of that, we have a “stagnant” 35% recycling rate — pretty much the worst compared to other industrialized nations — with a paltry 3% of that being plastic.

And we just keep on consuming, including more and more beautifully packaged beauty products. The NPD Group found that U.S. sales of prestige facial masks increased 20% from September 2015 to August 2016. And that doesn’t even count the $1 sheet masks people snap up like candy (and maybe shouldn’t).

Don’t get us wrong — we’d never try to shame you out of partaking in your weekly sheet masks. They've saved us from many a cold, dry winter or morning after a particularly rough night. But it never hurts to be more aware, right? So here are six points to consider before you stock up your winter sheet-mask reserves.

Know that recycling options are limited.
Most (if not all) local curbside recycling programs in the U.S. will not recycle complex number seven plastic, which includes mask pouches and backings. But check your sanitation department website to be sure. (And ignore the recycling triangle featuring Korean wording on K-beauty products. Those are specific to South Korea.)

But TerraCycle, an innovative company that can recycle flexible plastic, offers a Zero Waste Box for bathroom products. Buy a cardboard bin ($95 or $186) to fill with all your previously non-recyclable empties, like sheet mask detritus, and return to TerraCycle with a prepaid UPS label.
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Composting, too.
A good number of sheet masks are 100% cotton, which — yay! — can be composted, organic or not. (The serum — all-natural and/or chemical — isn’t necessarily a factor, although essential essences decompose faster.) The issue is finding a composting facility. For instance, New York’s sanitation department will not accept “cotton hygiene products,” but Denver’s takes “cotton balls.” A 311 customer service rep in NYC said that a pure cotton sheet mask could fall under that category. But all the composting experts we spoke to indicated there doesn’t seem to be a precedent set for certified and officially sanctioned composting of sheet masks.

Marisa DeDominicis, cofounder of New York’s Compost Learning Center, suggests seeking out local composting organizations and inquiring if they would accept the natural fiber (or 100% soluble hydrogel) masks, which would involve some testing.

Another alternative? “If I was using a 100% organic mask and I had a backyard [composting] system, I would probably be okay throwing it in my pile and seeing what happens,” says Brenda Platt, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and head of the Composting Makes $en$e and Composting for Community projects. While you’re at it, try natural sea kelp and flower and aloe vera hydrogel masks, too.

Reduce your packaging.
“One one hand, we don’t want to tell people, ‘You can’t have the things that you want,’” says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist, Food & Agriculture Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “On the other, you could look for ways to eliminate packaging.”

Of course, this involves a massive mind shift from the adorable, individually wrapped masks, which Christine Chang, cofounder of Glow Recipe, explains is for hygiene purposes (and the plastic backing keeps the folded mask from fusing to itself).

“If someone asks me for a more eco-friendly mask option, I recommend they try sheet masks that come in packs of 10- to 50-plus, minimizing overall packaging,” recommends Cat, K-beauty blogger at Snow White and the Asian Pear. She likes Japanese brand LuLuLun’s package of 42. A redditor suggested hyaluronic acid masks by Kose, also from Japan. They look like a resealable package of makeup wipes, but dispense an individual sheet mask, instead.

Try a mask pack.
“Jar masks can work as effectively as sheet masks. It just comes down to the formulation and ingredients used,” explains Charlotte Cho, founder of Soko Glam and The Klog. Jars — or other packs, like sleeping or wash-off masks — are multi-use, come packaged in a (hopefully) recyclable glass or plastic container, and don’t require disposable applicators.

She recommends Erborian Bamboo Waterlock, which contains “fibers that act as as a net on the skin to trap moisture,” and Goodal Anti-Wrinkle Sleep Cream Pack, which “cocoons your face with fermented argan and lavender oil while you sleep.”

It's important to note that both Cat and Chang consider sheet masks much more effective than lotion or liquid mask packs.
Forget about DIY.
Making your own masks sounds promising in theory, but in practice, involves copious amounts of serum that come in their own containers and plastic packages of cotton pads or dry sheets to discard. So you still aren't really creating any less waste in the long run. As for rice paper that you could maybe sneak into your compost bin?

“I'd be hesitant to use processed food items directly on the skin, as they simply aren't developed for this use and could contain additives that don't necessarily benefit the skin,” explains Chang.

Support sustainable brands.
Granted, sheet masks tend to come in plastic, but a few brands do practice sustainability and incorporate renewable or reused materials in other packaging. Cho recommends E Nature, which prints with organic soybean oil and uses an eco-friendly fiber for the masks. The brand’s paper packaging is certified by the American Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the bottled products are recyclable in the U.S.

“Cruelty-free RE:P uses soy ink and recycled packaging for their boxes,” adds Cho. “They also minimize use of metal in their pumps and packaging.”

Innisfree
takes its eco-friendliness further. Along with using recycled paper and soy-ink printing, the brand offers a recycling program in exchange for customer credit.

While the sheet-mask environmental impact is not on the same scale as the microbead controversy, there are clearly some concerns over unnecessary waste. We'd never tell you that sheet masks are something you need to stop doing. These are simply a few nuggets of knowledge to keep in mind when you're indulging in your next masking session.
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