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What you need to know on plastic free toiletries

  • by Charlotte Burdett
  • 12 min read

What you need to know on plastic free toiletries

Why do we need plastic-free toiletries?

When it comes to the world’s environmental issues, plastic plays a major role. It’s a particular issue when it comes to our beauty products and toiletries, whether it’s the packaging the products come in or micro-plastics in the ingredients, both are huge contributors to the increasing pollution problem our world faces today.

Every year thousands of tonnes of micro-plastics are washed down our drains and into our water systems. At the end of 2020, it was estimated that there could be 14.4 million tonnes of micro-plastics at the bottom of the sea, which is more than double the amount of plastic thought to be on the ocean's surface (World Economic Forum), shockingly this is 25 times higher than previously thought.

As well as micro-plastics being in the toiletries themselves, products nearly always come encased in plastic too. The beauty industry alone produces more than 120 billion units of packaging globally every year (Forbes), and when it comes to toiletries and beauty products 95% of packaging is thrown away after just one use - 79% of which ends up in landfill and can take hundreds of years to decompose, if it does at all.

Why does the beauty industry use so much plastic?

Micro-plastics are intentionally added to the large majority of self-care products such as deodorants, shampoos, shower gels, make-up, moisturisers and shaving gel to name a few. In some cases these products are made up of more than 90% plastic and it’s added for a variety of reasons such as exfoliants, adding sparkle to makeup, tooth polishing/whitening, liquid binders and bulking agents.

Toiletries and beauty products haven’t always come swathed in plastic, originally soaps were in bars rather than bottles, perfume was packaged in elaborate glass containers, hair-care products were often powders packaged in tins or jars. So where did the idea of using plastic come from?

According to National Geographic, after World War I and whilst the European market was still recovering, the United States emerged as the most prolific producer and consumer of personal care and beauty products. Thanks to strict hygiene rules being implemented by the military to stop the spread of disease, soldiers returned home with new grooming habits such as washing, shaving and brushing their teeth. By the mid-’20s the self-care market had exploded with deodorants, face creams and cosmetics all becoming readily available and with it came the explosion of the plastic industry. Plastic could be moulded into packaging which was light, flexible and sturdy and items that had previously been packaged in heavy, delicate glass could be transported further and much more easily.

Fast forward to 2021 with shops and supermarkets filled to the rafters with every self-care product going, it was reported that 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry. Whether it’s the lids on jars, multi-layered boxes or cellophane wraps, the large majority are excessive, non-recyclable and end up in our landfills and in our oceans.

Is the industry listening to the plastic crisis?

The good news is that introducing more sustainable practices is at the forefront of many companies' minds, meaning that it is becoming possible to create a fully zero-waste bathroom cabinet. L’Occitane Group announced in 2019 that they had plans to become fully sustainable by 2025 by working with sustainable plastic provider Loop Industries and Unilever announced that nine of its brands would trial new reusable packaging made from aluminium and glass, as well as that Dove would test a new refillable deodorant stick via TerraCycle’s Loop system. Previously in 2017, Unilever had announced that by 2025 its plastic packaging would all be reusable, recyclable or compostable with L’Oreal making the same claim as well as that they would source 50% of that packaging from previously recycled materials.

Fiona Nicholls, Plastic Campaigner for Greenpeace recently spoke about encouraging steps that have already been made. “The beauty industry were the first to react to the public backlash to unwanted microbeads in beauty products, and many brands voluntarily phased them out before the UK Government ban came into force.” “Now the industry has an even greater opportunity to reduce their plastic footprint by introducing refillable/reusable packaging alternatives, or 'going naked' with their products as some brands have chosen to do."

Other examples of positive steps come in the form of companies who have tried to reduce plastic waste by redesigning popular products themselves. Over 20 years ago, Lush Cosmetics decided to redesign shampoo after realising that it was mostly water contained in a disposable plastic bottle. To get rid of the bottle, they’d have to get rid of the water so they came up with a solid bar form that incorporated most of the major ingredients of traditional shampoos.

Other companies are focusing on ways to provide refills to sturdy, long-lasting and preferably not-plastic containers.

 

What zero-waste toiletries are available?

The great news is there are now multiple brands that are making it ever-more easy to live a totally plastic-free life by offering eco-friendly alternatives to everyday toiletries including soap bars, shower gel and cotton buds. If you’re looking to switch out some of your products, why not have a think about what you use every day in your bathroom, and have a think about these plastic-free alternatives:

Soap instead of hand wash

Switching from bottled soap to soap bars is a very simple way to get started on reducing plastic in your toiletries routine; soap bars, on average, require about one-fifth of the energy it takes to generate liquid soap, they require no packaging and they don’t come in a plastic bottle. 

In a recent “every day plastic” survey carried out by One Poll & RÉDUIT they reported that the average British household uses 2 bottles of hand soap every month. Most liquid soaps and hand washes contain synthetic detergents, fragrances and preservatives which give no benefit to our bodies and are bad for the environment, they are added to products to increase their shelf life, as lathering agents and to provide artificial smells & colours. Natural soap bars are made without any chemicals which might be damaging to the environment, and they last longer too.

Shampoo bars instead of bottled shampoo

The first shampoo bar was created more than 20 years ago by Lush (then known as Cosmetics to Go); they are extremely economical to use as they not only help to cut down the number of plastic bottles going to landfill “over the last five years, shampoo bars have saved around 30 million plastic bottles from landfill” (Lush), but as they are solid rather than liquid they save hundreds of thousands of litres of water a year too.

It is reported that over 552 million plastic shampoo bottles are discarded every year, with the average person shampooing their hair 4 times a week (RÉDUIT). Being more concentrated than traditional liquid shampoo means you can use less per application and they will last longer (on average they last up to 80 washes, roughly 3 times longer than the average 200ml bottle).

Shampoo bars often contain no added synthetic preservatives, no plastic and are made of natural ingredients making them a great eco-friendly toiletry addition. It is also commonly reported that shampoo bars can get your hair back to its original, shiny, voluminous state by clearing away residue left from the man-made chemicals found in commercial hair care products.

Natural conditioner instead of commercial conditioner

Commercial conditioner is generally made up of ingredients such as silicones and chemical surfactants and when combined the ingredients replenish your hair's moisture after some of it is stripped after shampooing.

A more eco-friendly option is to use a natural conditioner which doesn’t come in a single-use plastic bottle. Unlike the more commercial options, natural conditioner is chemical-free and is made with natural ingredients giving you a much kinder hair care product, eliminating any irritation and allowing you to take care of your hair in a far more healthier way.

Similarly to shampoo you can buy conditioning bars which you lather up before applying to your scalp, or choose one which comes in eco-friendly or refillable packaging rather than a plastic bottle.

 

Use organic dry shampoo

Dry shampoo can often be a quick lifesaver first thing in the morning, but similarly to other toiletries which come in aerosol cans, they release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere with every application, the effects of which is a depleting ozone layer. They can also contain a whole range of ingredients such as talc, alcohol and toxins which you’re spraying directly onto your scalp.

Eco-friendly or organic dry shampoo is made up of all-natural formulas and you apply them rather than spray them; they are also supplied in plastic-free, zero-waste or recyclable packaging so they are kind to our environment as well.

Soap instead of shower gel or body wash

Soap bars are not just a replacement for hand wash, they can also easily replace shower gel or body wash and after years of being shelved for more colourful and exotic bottled versions, soap’s popularity is firmly on the rise. As well as them being plastic-free and typically not containing anything other than natural ingredients, soap bars also tend to come packaged in recyclable packaging meaning that once you have finished with it there is nothing left to throw away.
Although many shower gels and body washes contain ingredients which can leave your skin feeling moisturised, they are mainly composed of water and surfactants which can strip your skin of its natural oils, leaving it feeling dry and tight; they also tend to contain a lot of fragrance which can irritate your skin.
Traditional soap bars can also contain skin-drying ingredients, so it’s best to look for plant-based ones which contain natural moisturising oils such as coconut oil and olive oil, aloe vera and are scented with essential oils.

Shaving soap instead of shaving gel

More traditional shaving foam or gel comes housed in plastic, contains plastic and is full to the brim with environmentally harmful chemicals such as palmitic acid (found in palm oil and animal fats) which gives it its consistency and Isopentane which breaks down your skin’s natural oils to name just two.

Shaving soap in bar form can be entirely plastic-free on the inside and out, needs no packaging and contains no palm oil, preservatives or sulphates either. It can help you achieve a smooth shave whilst protecting your skin from irritation and razor burn, and if you pick one packed full of natural moisturisers such as coconut oil or shea butter, it will leave your skin feeling smooth and hydrated.

Shaving soaps are also excellent value for money and can often last from 6 months to a year. 

 

Choose a plastic-free toothbrush

On average the world consumes more than 3.6 billion plastic toothbrushes every year (GQ), most of which end up in the sea and in landfills. They are commonly made of plastic and due to their frequent use, it is recommended that we replace them every 3 months, meaning millions are sent to landfill every year. “If we each use one toothbrush every three months in the UK, we are disposing of approximately 200 million brushes each year” British Dentist Association.

Plastic toothbrushes can easily be a thing of the past thanks to environmentally conscious brands offering ranges of eco-friendly toothbrushes made from more sustainable materials such as bamboo, wood or recycled plastic. Bamboo is a great material to use as it is fast-growing and it doesn’t require any chemicals or artificial pesticides, making it toxin-free too.

Opt for eco-friendly toothpaste or tooth powder

Traditional toothpaste comes in a tube which often can’t be recycled, but finding oral care products which really work yet are kind to the environment can be confusing and tricky, the great news is there are many sustainable options available nowadays.

Rather than plastic tubes, eco-friendly toothpaste or tooth powder come in recyclable jars with lids, aluminium tubes or even tablet form and are packed full of natural ingredients such as essential oils, coconut oil and activated charcoal to remove plaque and prevent gum disease rather than any hidden nasties.

Use a plastic-free mouthwash

The UK mouthwash industry is worth £158m a year (Which), showing it is a widely popular oral hygiene product. Most generic mouthwashes come in single-use plastic bottles and their contents can have harmful impacts on the environment. 

A kinder alternative to both the environment and your mouth is a natural mouthwash that doesn't contain chemicals or synthetic ingredients which can irritate your mouth and gums and even stain your teeth.

There are multiple options for natural mouthwash: natural mouth rinses, natural mouthwash tablets and natural oil pulling mouthwash. Although each of them has a slightly different method of use, the end goal is the same, to remove any remaining food debris, reach hard to reach spots, kill bacteria and freshen your breath.

Choose plastic-free dental floss

Dentists have been championing flossing for generations as part of our oral hygiene routine to help remove plaque, reduce the risk of tooth decay and prevent gum disease. However, a lot of conventional dental floss is not plastic-free or easily biodegradable and a large amount is being thrown away on a daily basis ending up in landfill or being incinerated.

Switching to a plastic-free version is an effective way of continuing to floss and improve your oral health, whilst reducing plastic waste impacting our planet and our oceans; there are now multiple options available such as reusable floss made from natural materials like bamboo charcoal or floss sticks made from corn starch.

Choose eco-friendly skincare products

There are a staggering 25,000 skincare products worldwide, serums, moisturisers, face scrubs, cleansers, the list goes on. It goes without saying that the beauty industry as a whole generates a lot of waste, whether it's the ingredients used in the products themselves or the sheer amount of plastic used. Most come in plastic bottles or tubes encased with plastic packaging, all of which is single-use plastic and the majority is not easily recyclable.

The good news is there are multiple brands now dedicated to creating beauty and skincare products that are kinder to the environment and have no plastic waste. The focus being on the use of organic and natural skincare products rather than ones that contain chemicals or parabens, cruelty-free, in recyclable or reusable containers with minimal eco-friendly packaging. 

You could also cut down on waste by having a think about how many skincare products you have, and how many you actually need. We live in a world where we as consumers are told we need every lotion and potion under the sun, this one for night time and this one for day time, but sometimes less is more. “I often see people who are using extremely complex skincare routines,” says Dr Emma Wedgeworth, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. “However, using more than five or six steps in a routine is seldom that helpful and very time-consuming.” 

 

Ditch the make-up wipes

Make-up wipes became a hugely popular way to quickly and easily remove your make-up, but in more recent years it has come to light that not only are they bad for your skin, they don’t actually remove your makeup or cleanse your face and they are also a large contributor to the high volume of waste produced by the beauty industry every year. It is said that wet wipes are behind 93% of sewer blockages and over 9 million of them are flushed down the toilet every day; most make-up wipes are not recyclable or compostable, and the average make-up wipe can take a staggering 100 years to decompose if it does at all.

By switching to eco-friendly reusable make-up remover pads, cloths or mitts not only are you being kinder to your skin and the environment but you’re also choosing a more cost-effective alternative for your bank balance. For the same cost as a couple of packets of make-up wipes you are all set, and once you’ve used them you just pop them into the alongside your other laundry and are ready for the week ahead.

Use eco-friendly cotton buds

Cotton buds have been around since the 1920s and the majority were made with single-use plastic stems, it is estimated that in the UK alone 1.8 billion of them are used every year and shockingly a large majority are even flushed down the toilet. To try and tackle the issues surrounding single-use plastic and the amount that ends up in landfill, plastic cotton buds were banned in April 2020 alongside coffee stirrers and plastic straws.

Instead of ones made from plastic, you can buy planet-friendly cotton buds which are made from materials such as recycled cardboard or bamboo or to reduce waste even further there is even the option to buy reusable ones.

Switch to a natural deodorant

Most spray-on and roll-on deodorants are made up of chemicals that are harmful to both your skin and to the environment and come housed in materials that cannot easily be recycled such as plastic, tin or other non-recyclable or non-degradable materials.

Every time you use spray-on deodorant or antiperspirant, chemicals are released into the air which contributes to pollution in our atmosphere and most deodorants contain a chemical called triclosan, a man-made antibacterial ingredient which when washed down the drain, enters the waterways and sits on the water’s surface.

Most natural deodorants (also known as aluminium free deodorants) are made from 100% natural ingredients, are free from preservatives, alcohol, artificial fragrances and palm oil and they come in eco-friendly or recyclable containers too. Thanks to them becoming more and more popular, there is a large range to choose from and decide which best suits your needs and preferences, whether it’s in a jar with a spatula, replaceable or recyclable push-up tubes.

Pick planet-friendly period products

The Marine Conservation Society has found that 1.5-2 billion menstrual items are flushed down Britain's toilets each year, not only blocking sewage systems but also meaning that 4.8 pieces of menstrual waste are found per 100 metres of beach cleaned.

According to the Women’s Environment Network, feminine products such as sanitary towels and tampons could be made up of up to 90% plastics, but manufacturers aren’t legally bound to list ingredients on the packaging. If this figure is correct then it is equivalent to four plastic shopping bags in just one sanitary towel - over a lifetime that's 44,000 bags worth of plastic waste per person.

Sustainable period products are now widely available, with multiple plastic-free options such as organic tampons with reusable applicators, organic and reusable pads, reusable menstrual cup and even period pants.

 

Those are just 15 of many toiletries and beauty products which traditionally have plastic heavily involved, but we hope you can see there are other options out there which will help you have a more eco-friendly bathroom cupboard. Let us know if you have any plastic free toiletries you really champion!

 

Photo credits: Elle Hughes from Pexels, Christa Grover from PexelsKarolina Grabowska from Pexels

Charlotte Burdett

Charlotte Burdett

Freelance marketeer, lover of homeware and starting my journey to a lower impact life.

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