Beneath its shiny layer of glossy, luxurious perfection, the environmental impact of the beauty industry makes grim reading. Companies produce a reported 120bn units of packaging (much of it plastic); products are shipped all over the world; some supply chains are dubious; and we wash harmful chemicals into our waterways every day. The personal care and beauty industry seems to have caught on to the sustainability movement relatively late. “It takes a long time for big corporations to turn around systems and to make big change,” says Katie Service, a writer and beauty editorial director of Harrods. “But at the same time, beauty is a nimble and agile industry. There are a lot of small, independent companies, and they’re able to pioneer lots of sustainable practices.” Service has written a book, The Beauty Brief, about skincare, but she is also passionate about her industry becoming more environmentally friendly. Here are her tips on what we, as consumers, can do, and also on the changes the big brands need to make right now.
“Buy things without packaging,” says Service. “It eradicates the problem of plastic going to landfill or things not being recyclable.” Lush is one of the innovative brands in this area, she says; many of its products are packaging-free. “There’s also been a return to the humble soap bar,” says Service, who is a fan of shampoo bars. “You can buy ones that are knobbly, and I like to give my scalp a really good massage with them when I’m shampooing.”
Think about ‘beauty miles’
You try to do it with your food, so why not your personal care products? “There are some incredible British beauty brands out there that source some or all their ingredients in the UK,” says Service (check the products are actually made in the UK too, she adds, instead of being shipped off to be made elsewhere). For UK shoppers, she likes Bee Good and Fairfield Gardens among others.
Seek out sustainable brands
Take your money away from the beauty giants and seek out brands that have better eco credentials. “A lot of the main change is coming from the smaller independent brands. For example, Re=comb is such a good brand that makes combs, really like pieces of art, from recycled plastic.”
Get over the illusion of luxury
Rip the cellophane layer off, and the ribbon and the “velvet” pouch from your expensive product, and you will realise it is plasticky, tacky and useless. Cellophane wrapping is “the plastic straw of the beauty industry,” says Service. “It’s completely unnecessary.” Those pouches, almost always made from synthetic fibres, are also “one of the worst offenders”. Instead, it’s better to buy – or create – packaging that can be kept and repurposed.
“Look for lip balms that come in little tins that you’ll keep afterwards to put pins in or peppercorns or whatever,” says Service. “Buy candles that come in beautiful ceramic pots that you’re going to keep for ever.”
Opt for packaging that can be easily recycled
Service says she has noticed a rise in single-dose products that come in single-use packaging, such as sachets and capsules. Some brands, such as Noble Panacea, have their own postal recycling schemes, which is better than throwing endless packaging in the bin – but be honest with yourself, she says. “This involves consumer commitment [so] definitely ensure you’re going to commit to using their recycling scheme.” Some companies, such as Bolt Beauty. have compostable packaging. “Just do five minutes of research to ensure that if you’re buying a sachet, capsule or ampule, it can be recycled,” says Service. Many brands still insist on including non-recyclable components, such as pump dispensers. “Just because a bottle is labelled recyclable, it doesn’t mean it’ll get recycled. Look at the instructions; if it says to take the cap off, it’s important to do that.”
The beauty industry should be offering more refillable products, says Service. She likes Zao, which does refillable bamboo cases for its makeup, and La Bouche Rouge which makes a luxurious leather refillable lipstick case.
Think about what gets washed down the drain
Plastic microbeads, found in facial scrubs and toothpaste, were banned in the UK in 2018 (the US banned them in 2015), but there are still lots of other dubious ingredients that end up in our water. Triclosan and the similar triclocarban are still found in antibacterial products despite many manufacturers pledging to phase them out; they persist in the environment and can be harmful to marine life (as well as being a possible hormone-disruptor in humans). Sunscreen containing chemicals such as oxybenzone can cause coral bleaching; look for “reef safe” products, says Service, but bear in mind that the term isn’t regulated. A type of phthalate (they’re toxic to aquatic organisms) has been banned in nail polish in Europe, but another type, known as DEP, may still be used in fragrances.
Avoid unsustainable ingredients
It is still hard to avoid palm oil, which has led to mass deforestation, and its derivatives (they have impenetrable chemical names), so ask manufacturers where they source it from, or only buy from those who use certified palm oil. Although some campaigners are dubious about the efficacy of certification, so you could consider cutting out palm oil altogether. “There are loads of other alternative ingredients,” says Service.
Ditch throwaway beauty
We all know how terrible disposable face wipes are (they are single use, and made from plastic), but the big brands are still making them, and people are still buying them. Service says they have “no redeeming features”. Some brands now make plastic-free wipes, but this too seems wasteful, as are cotton pads. They may be at least biodegradeable, but the cotton requires a lot of water and pesticides to grow. Reusable, washable cloths and pads are the way forward, says Service, who likes those made by LastObject. “They’re kept in this really clever little pod so you can travel with them really easily.”
Turn down samples
Do you really need to take up the offer of free samples – usually packaged in plastic – when you order products online? “I love samples because they really help you think before you make your skincare investment,” she says. “But when you go to your checkout and you’re buying your lovely, sustainable cleanser, just check that they haven’t added on two free samples that are packaged in plastic.”
Streamline your skincare
The beauty industry wants you to buy more and more. “I think spending lots of time on your skincare is good for your psyche. But no, we don’t need that many products. I’m a real advocate of minimising your regime, which will also minimise the packaging. Get the fundamentals of your regime down.” This involves cleansing, “feeding your skin with the nutrients it needs, making sure you’re moisturising and making sure you’re protecting your skin from pollution and light. That doesn’t need to be a million products.” There are products that can combine the steps, she says. “I would really advise, this year, to think about how you can minimise your beauty footprint.”
The Beauty Brief: An Insider’s Guide to Skincare by Katie Service is published 28 January 2021