I Tried To Make My Entire Beauty Routine Plastic-Free – Here's What Happened

Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
At the beginning of this year I tried food shopping without plastic. It was difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Six months on and I’m definitely trying to use markets more and choose non-plastic options at the supermarket when I can. However, what my zero-waste week highlighted most was how much our everyday lives are wrapped up (quite literally) in plastic.
Case in point: our beauty and hygiene routines. As a self-confessed beauty addict (who writes about the topic for a living), 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 (banned by the UK government last year), but the beauty world is 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 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, Refinery29 challenged me to try it for one week. This is how I got on…
Day One
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 bath 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 per se, but it’s definitely a little bit more of a faff to use than simply squeezing a liquid out of a bottle. Same goes for the shampoo and conditioner bars.
They 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. Having said this, I’m quite lucky because my hair is pretty well behaved. For those with thicker or more complicated hair needs, these bars might not cut the mustard.
Skincare 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 spots and controlling shine again after coming off the pill (the joy of hormones). I keep my regime 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 French brand Gallinée’s Cleansing Bar, £9.90, a go. 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 favourite, Vanderohe’s No.1 Nourishing Face Serum, £33. This do-all serum is certainly expensive but a little goes a long way, and the packaging is completely plastic-free. For lip balm, I use BYBI’s Babe Balm, £18, 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, £23 – 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 have tried a couple of more natural deodorants in the past and always wanted to love them but never been that convinced.
I brush my teeth with a Humble Co Toothbrush, £4, and Lush’s Limelight Toothy Tabs, £4.95. Toothbrushes are one of the worst culprits of single-use plastic but this bamboo brush will biodegrade in six months. No different from its plastic counterpart, this swap makes me wonder why I haven’t switched earlier. The toothpaste tabs are trickier. Unlike normal toothpaste you bite one to create a foam in your mouth and 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 finish up with a spritz of perfume. This is probably one area of beauty where plastic packaging is less of an issue as most are glass bottles. But there is a growing breed of fragrance brands using sustainable methods, including my favourite, Clean Reserve. For everyday I wear Clean Reserve Rain, £82 – a subtle crisp scent that feels, well, clean. Deodorant update: It's probably the best ‘natural’ one I’ve tried but after a full day working and a sweaty yoga class it definitely isn’t as effective as a traditional formula.
Day Two
I spent another day working at home but I'm off to the pub tonight for the football so I put on a bit of makeup. I start with the RMS Un-Cover Concealer, £34, a cult product and an old favourite of mine that happens to be packaged in glass. This is great for evening out skin tone and covering redness but would never cover a big spot. For my eyeshadow, mascara and bronzer I use Kjaer Weis. This brand is really leading the way with its anti-plastic ethos, with all products in chic metal packaging that you can buy refills for.
I’m impressed by the eyeshadow and mascara but the bronzer is disappointing – the colour payoff really isn’t there. For brushes I use Eco Tools, which are made from recycled bamboo, recycled aluminium and some recycled plastic. These are just as good as my Real Techniques ones and an easy (and no more expensive) switch.
What this challenge has made me realise 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, £9.90, and then Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser, £37, which is in a glass bottle. Using both together successfully removes makeup and cleanses my skin but using flannel to remove stubborn eye makeup (as opposed to cotton pads) is a bit of a faff as you then have to wash the flannel more often. I google biodegradable cotton pads and place an order.
Day Three
I'm out and about in town for meetings today and realise I don’t have a plastic-free SPF product. As most of the zero-waste beauty brands are natural-focused, finding a high factor, full spectrum SPF for this category is difficult. In fact, after extensive googling I couldn’t find anything to fit the bill. For the time being I resort to using my usual from The Body Shop: Skin Defence Multi-Protection Essence SPF50, £17.
Day Four
My solid bar showering routine is going well but I do find that as the bars disintegrate they become messier to use. I try switching back to shower gel as the blue soap is turning all the other bars a similar shade. I’m pleased to find that one of my go-to products, Pai’s Gentle Genius Body Wash, £18, comes in plastic-free packaging – 100% biodegradable sugar cane bioplastic. Love this product and it shows that there are ways brands can do their bit without changing the user’s experience.
Day Five
I make another plastic-free slip-up and realise I haven’t got 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 realise in the future I would be better off buying a safety razor. It's certainly an investment, but as they’re designed to last forever, it will be worth it in the long run.
Day Six
We are in the midst of a heatwave and I plan to spend all day in the park. Unfortunately this means reverting back to my old deodorant as 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. I'm pleased to find out that 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.
Day Seven
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, £15, 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 in my food diary, 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 to Boots or throwing things in your trolley while 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.
While they are a little messy, it’s worth it, considering they use no packaging whatsoever. With skincare 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. However, 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.

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series