At the beginning of this year, I tried food shopping without plastic. It was difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Six months later, I’m still making an effort to use markets more, and choose non-plastic options at the supermarket when I can. But what my zero-waste week really highlighted most was how much our everyday lives are wrapped up — quite literally — in plastic.
Our beauty and hygiene routines are one of the best examples of this. My bathroom shelves — and extra storage in my bedroom — are lined with lotions and potions, the majority of which are housed in plastic bottles, many of which are single use.
On a wider scale, the beauty industry is one of the worst culprits when it comes to ocean- damaging plastic. We may have woken up to the destructive effects of microbeads, but the beauty world is still riddled with products causing pollution problems. Face wipes take over 100 years to biodegrade, and make up 93% of the material in the fatbergs clogging up our sewers. Glitter, essentially just tiny microplastics, is ending up in our oceans and killing wildlife, and we’ve seen the tragic image of the seahorse clutching a Q-tip often enough to know that cotton buds are not eco-friendly. Similarly, most of the personal hygiene and beauty products available in our shops are packaged in plastic — unsurprising, when it’s so cheap and convenient.
However, change is afoot, with a number of new brands offering plastic-free solutions and existing brands switching up their packaging methods. To see how viable it would be to remove plastic from my beauty routine, I tried it for one week. This is how it went.
I’m working from home this week, but contrary to popular belief, I do get showered and dressed every day. (Well, nearly.) I’ve swapped my usual shower stuff (shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner) for solid and plastic-free alternatives from naked-packaging pioneers Lush. Ideally I would artfully place these in some overpriced Anthropologie dishes around the bathtub, but when you live in a shared house and are low on space, this isn’t an option. Instead, I stuff them in a spare Tupperware box in the corner. I don’t tend to use foaming shower gels as I have sensitive skin, so I have no qualms about bar soap, but it’s definitely a little bit more of a hassle to use than simply squeezing a liquid out of a bottle.
Same goes for the shampoo and conditioner bars, which are slippery and make a bit of a mess when wet. I’m impressed with the results, though, and find my hair to be just as clean and conditioned. That said, I’m lucky because my hair is pretty well-behaved; for those with thicker or more complex hair needs, these bars might not do the job.
Skin care is a different story. To keep it short, my skin type is super sensitive and combination. I have eczema on and off, but recently my main issue has been dealing with breakouts and controlling shine again after coming off the pill (the joy of hormones). I keep my regimen pretty minimal, and while I love trying new products, what works for me is keeping it streamlined. Luckily, this fits well with going plastic-free.
First up I give cult-favorite French brand Gallinée’s Cleansing Bar a try. Designed for sensitive skin, this is soap-free and rich in probiotics; it quickly melts into a milky consistency and leaves skin feeling clean but nourished. I then follow up with a few drops of an old favorite, Vanderohe’s No.1 Nourishing Face Serum. This does-it-all serum is pricy, but a little goes a long way, and the packaging is completely plastic-free. For lip balm, I use BYBI’s Babe Balm, in a tube made from sugar cane. I love this product, and it’s a great one to have in the plastic-free arsenal as it’s a multitasker — ideal for flaky patches, cuticles, and even as an eyeshadow base.
For deodorant I use Aesop’s Herbal Roll-On — not entirely plastic-free, but the bottle is glass and the lid is recyclable plastic so much better than my usual Dove. On the downside, it’s ten times the price. The packaging is definitely shelfie-worthy and I love the scent — a classic botanical blend — but I’m intrigued to see if it’s effective in the current sweaty weather.
I brush my teeth with a Humble Co. Toothbrush and Lush’s Limelight Toothy Tabs. Toothbrushes are one of the worst culprits of single-use plastic but this bamboo brush will biodegrade in six months. This swap is so seamless, it makes me wonder why I hadn't switched earlier. The toothpaste tabs are trickier: Unlike normal toothpaste, you bite one to create a foam in your mouth, then brush your teeth. Strange at first... but they do leave your mouth feeling fresh. Plus, they come in recycled plastic bottles or metal tins.
I spent another day working at home, but I'm off to the pub tonight so I put on a bit of makeup. I start with the RMS Un-Cover Concealer, an old favorite of mine that happens to be packaged in glass. This is great for evening out skin tone and covering redness, but not so much for major breakouts. For my eyeshadow, mascara, and bronzer I use Kjaer Weis. This brand is really leading the way with its anti-plastic ethos; all of the products come in chic metal packaging that you can buy refills for.
I’m impressed by the eyeshadow and mascara, but the bronzer is a bit disappointing — the color payoff really isn’t there. For brushes I use Eco Tools, which are made from recycled bamboo, recycled aluminum, and some recycled plastic. These are just as good as my Real Techniques ones, and are an easy (and no more expensive) switch.
What this challenge has made me realize pretty quickly is that the majority of plastic-free options are from naturally formulated brands. It's understandable, really, but I think there’s definitely a growing number of people who want to reduce their plastic consumption but don’t necessarily want to use 100% natural products.
I would normally take my makeup off with micellar water and cotton pads before cleansing with a flannel, but with cotton pads being non-biodegradable I need an alternative. I double-cleanse both times using a flannel, first with the Gallinée Cleansing Bar and then Tata Harper's Regenerating Cleanser. Using both together successfully removes makeup and cleanses my skin, but using a washcloth to remove stubborn eye makeup is annoying. I google biodegradable cotton pads and place an order.
I'm out and about in town for meetings today and realize I don’t have a plastic-free SPF product. Because most of the zero-waste beauty brands I've been using are natural-focused, finding a high-factor, full-spectrum SPF for this category is difficult. In fact, even after an expensive search I couldn’t find anything to fit the bill. For the time being I resort to using my usual from The Body Shop.
My solid-bar showering routine is going well, but I do find that as the bars disintegrate they become messier to use. I’m pleased to find that one of my go-to products, Pai’s Gentle Genius Body Wash, comes in plastic-free packaging — 100% biodegradable sugar cane bioplastic, at that. It shows that there are ways brands can do their part without changing the user’s experience, or forcing them to seek it out for themselves.
I make another plastic-free slip-up and realize I don't have a razor alternative — I normally use a Venus razor with changeable heads. This is one step better than disposable razors, as you just have to replace the blades, but I realize in the future I would be better off buying a safety razor. It's certainly an investment, but it'll be worth it in the long run.
We're in the middle of a heat wave and I plan to spend all day in the park. Unfortunately, this means reverting back to my old deodorant, because the Aesop one isn’t going to cut it. I take my makeup off using the new biodegradable cotton pads and the Garnier micellar water I have. Garnier has a partnership with TerraCycle, which means that all their non-aerosol packaging can be recycled. I use the Gallinée bar as a second cleanse and follow up with the Vanderohe serum — my skin seems to be really liking this simple combo.
Despite the hot weather, I finish the weekend with a bath and add a few drops of one of my much-loved bath oils to the tub. The Neal’s Yard Soothing Bath Oil is a sleep-inducing lavender-based blend and is housed in a glass bottle that can be turned into a great vase when finished.
What I Learned
Much like I discovered with my waste-free food experiment, implementing a zero-waste beauty routine is more expensive and more hassle. The choice of plastic-free beauty products is certainly improving, but you do have to go out of your way to find them. Most are online or through special retailers so it’s not as simple as popping into the drugstore or throwing things in your basket at the supermarket. Products tend to be pricier, too, and while many will save you money in the long term (like the razor or refillable makeup compacts), it’s an investment upfront.
The easiest swaps for me were definitely the solid shower bars. They're a little messy, but it’s worth it, considering they use no packaging whatsoever. With skin care and makeup I’m always going to be picky, and while the choice of products with plastic-free packaging is growing, options are still relatively limited. But with the awareness of plastic pollution spreading, hopefully this means more beauty brands will think twice about their environmental impact and use more planet-friendly packaging — and give us all more options for saving the earth without sacrificing our existing routines.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.