Can Single-Use Skincare Be Sustainable?

So long face wipes, hello compostable cloths. Spearheaded by the likes of zero-waste brand LOLI Beauty, the skincare industry is reshaping its efforts for a sustainable future in one part consumer habits, one part production efforts.

Potentially due to the boomerang effect of extensive K-Beauty routines or simply pandemic-induced budget restrictions, consumers are now opting for streamlined regimens with multi-purpose products. UK women decreased their use of facial cleansing wipes by 9% over the past year. “As sustainability grows in importance, many beauty consumers are deliberately cutting out these single-use products. Less make-up means less need for make-up removers, the main use for facial cleansing wipes,” comments Alex Fisher, Global Skincare Analyst at Mintel. Furthermore, with fewer consumers traveling or leaving their homes, the necessity of such portable items has been largely eradicated.

78% of US consumers want to up their sustainability efforts in 2021, and with sheet masks proclaimed the new plastic straws, entire single-use categories are being disrupted. 60 trillion wipes are used (and discarded) annually, according to Busy, which offers zero-waste alternatives for body, face, feminine, deodorant, and hand wipes. Tula recently launched biodegradable toner pads made from bamboo fibers. Orgaid offers 100% biodegradable and compostable sheet masks, while Simple, RMS, and Beautycounter all produce face wipes made from compostable fibers. Biodegradable may have been a starting point in the past, but compostable is now the gold standard, as certain biodegradable components simply break down into micro-plastics which still make their way into the world’s oceans.

Outside of products and packaging, utensils are also being revamped. 64% of UK women use cotton buds to remove their makeup, equating to 1.8 billion units being thrown out annually. For makeup purposes, TooD offers a washable silicone option, while Earthside creates zero-waste earbuds made from silica sand. Garnier introduced washable makeup remover pads, showing sustainability efforts even on mass-market levels. “We had this feeling and assumed that 2020 was a wakeup call for consumers. The outcome of such a tough year is that a lot of consumers are taking sustainability seriously in terms of their behavior,” states Adrian Koskas, Garnier Global Brand President. The British Beauty Council’s “Courage to Change” report states that 1 in 7 consumers who changed products did so for environmental reasons.

Ingredient scrutiny and sustainability are imperative for a growing demographic, even if that means removing once-beloved components from one’s skincare routine. While Neutrogena face wipes were the fourth bestselling beauty product on Amazon this year, a consumer survey shows an almost 50/50 divide of participants choosing reusable facial cleansing tools over disposable cotton pads and wipes. Dieux launched a Forever Eye Mask made of silicone to replace the occlusive layer of traditional disposable variants, meaning customers can reap the benefits of the original without creating additional waste by simply laying these pads on top of their regular products to increase absorption. Honest Beauty launched a similar creation in the form of its Magic Silicone Sheet Mask.

Washable makeup removers like Face Halo, which equates to 500 face wipes per single disc, have also proved popular. The brand is stocked in 1,246 Ulta stores across the US as of December 2020, and they are expecting to boost their sales by 20%. Some retailers are taking an even more radical approach. Selfridges banned single-use beauty wipes from their shelves altogether, while Phase 1 of Credo’s Sustainability Packaging Guidelines calls for an elimination of single-use products such as makeup wipes and sheet masks.

These compostable options are great news for those who still want the convenience of single-use products while lessening their environmental footprint. This is especially pertinent to the disabled, who more strongly rely on these easy-to-use products and were largely disregarded when it came to previous debates around the plastic straw ban. Another aspect to consider is price. Simple’s compostable cleansing wipes are $1.70 more expensive than their non-compostable counterparts, which adds up for those under tight budget restrictions or who need to bulk-buy products. But given the number of mass-market brands turning over a new sustainability leaf, there is hope that the prices of environmentally friendly options will continue to drop. Even so, they may never be as affordable as their plastic counterparts.

Here is where government legislation can prove to be the most impactful solution. VAT or tax reductions for eco-friendly companies and increased implementation of carbon taxes are two options. Unilever charges itself €50 per ton of carbon emitted by their productions, leading to over €120MM in donations for clean energy projects. It may not produce the drastic effects that going zero-waste would, but it is a positive step in the right direction. Legislations have already banned plastic straws and toxic ingredients. The European Parliament’s vote banning single-use plastics also requires manufacturers to disclose any plastics in wet wipes, as well as the environmental damage of disposing of these products, to consumers.

A Plastic Planet published an open letter to the EU and UK governments to incorporate sample sachets (855 billion of which are discarded every year) into their sustainability agendas. The rising number of brands, individuals, and organizations championing carbon-neutral and zero-waste options has the potential to ignite further changes within the skincare industry, and beyond. The skincare industry’s ecological overhaul may have begun with the humble face wipe, but as the saying goes, small changes make big differences.

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