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A Beginner's Guide To A More Sustainable Beauty Routine

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Our beginner's guide to sustainable beauty gives you a roadmap to a more eco-friendly routine and the top eco issues to avoid.

Francesca Brooking

Thu 24 Jun 2021

Beauty is a booming industry and growing with the global skincare market expected to hit sky-high figures in 2026.

This success is mainly down to the rapid development of new products and skincare regimens entering the market. But the real cost isn’t just the monetary price tag.

The beauty and skincare industries have a notoriously negative impact on the environment.

They contribute to pollution and drain the planet of natural resources in a number of ways. They also have shady dealings with unethical practices and human rights abuses.

Unwittingly, consumers only seem to exacerbate the problem by creating a bigger demand.

Here are some of the top reasons why we need a more sustainable beauty industry and the steps you can take to build a more ethical skincare routine.

Oils and flowers

The skincare and beauty industries are a growing but so is their environmental impact

Why beauty is the new fast fashion industry

We’re no strangers to the concept of fast fashion. That feverish encouragement from brands to buy for every season, the never-ending sales and the constant stream of new clothes flowing through the shops.

The skincare industry has ended up on the same path. Many beauty and skincare brands launch a new product line several times a year. That’s not including product upgrades and new colours being launched.

They’re then marketed to consumers as the whole new holy grail of skincare, encouraging them to get their hands on them before they’ve finished the products they’re already using.

As a result, the average person spends £400 a year on beauty products in the UK.

They also use between 12-16 skincare products a day.

This leads to discarded half-empty bottles of cosmetics and skincare that eventually get thrown out.

It’s a wasteful trend, not just because of the accumulation of usually non-recyclable packaging, but also the ingredients used in the formulas and the amount of money spent buying new products.

The planet only has a finite number of resources and keeping up with the latest beauty trends can be a very expensive habit.

Woman with a face mask looking in the mirror

The beauty industry is similar to the fast fashion industry

Environmental issues in the beauty industry

The fast fashion mentality in the beauty industry is a huge problem, not only because it encourages overspending and waste, but it’s also responsible for a lot of environmental damage.

Below are some of the top eco and ethical issues in the beauty industry:

Non-recyclable packaging

Packaging is a big problem in the beauty industry. A lot of it is single-use plastic and mixed materials aren’t easily recycled and they take nearly 1,000 years to break down.

It’s also worth noting that eight million tonnes of plastic (not all from beauty products) get dumped in the ocean every year. This results in pollution, sea life devastation and contamination in the food chains.

Toxic chemicals

It’s not just the packaging that’s bad for the planet. Toxic chemicals in your skincare get washed down the drain and end up in the ocean, damaging fragile ecosystems and killing aquatic life.

One big example is the effect of oxybenzone and octinoxate in chemical-based sunscreen which contributes to coral bleaching.

Coral reefs need 9-12 years to recover from bleaching as long as there are no new disturbances such as cyclones or re-bleaching.

Beauty products and packaging

Sustainable beauty is safe for the environment and comes in eco-friendly packaging

Water usage

There is a huge amount of water waste in skincare and beauty. In fact, it’s the industry’s most used ingredient. The problem is there are some concerns that usage could overtake supply in the future.

Another issue is the amount of water we use with these skincare products from showers to our daily skincare routine.

One solution is to have shorter showers and only turn taps on when you need to use them.

Air pollution

Perfumes, hairsprays and deodorants are all guilty of polluting the environment as much as car emissions.

An American study published in the journal Science found that scented products emit the same amount of chemical vapours as petroleum emissions from cars.

These are called VOCs - volatile organic compounds. VOCs interact with other chemicals in the atmosphere to form ozone pollution which is toxic for our health and the planet. The concentration of VOCs tends to be at its highest indoors which affects our indoor air quality.

Unethical ingredient sourcing

Natural ingredients are popular in clean beauty products, but they're not always good news if they’re unethically sourced. Popular ingredients such as unsustainable palm oil are contributing to widespread deforestation and climate change.

Palm oil is in approximately half of all consumer goods, not just skincare. However, it’s not a matter of simply boycotting palm oil either.

Alternative oils like rapeseed, soybean and coconut require more land and resources for the same amount of yield. Switching our reliance on any of them could have worse consequences for the environment.

Another example is sandalwood. A hugely popular essential oil, sourcing it requires felling entire trees which take approximately 20 years to mature.

This high demand has caused this natural ingredient to be depleted to near scarcity by the beauty industry.

Read our 5 Minute Guide To Becoming A Clean Beauty Guru

Bottles and a candle with lavender

Natural ingredients are only good if they're ethically sourced

Exploitative trade

Like any commodity, fair trade applies to the beauty industry and sadly, it’s had its fair share of abuses.

One example is mica, an ingredient widely used in cosmetics as well as car paint due to its shimmery quality. Investigations have found the illegal use of child labour to source mica from mines in India.

Child labour has also been used in the farming and production of shea butter, vanilla, silk, copper and cocoa.

Carnauba and carnelllia wax derived from a palm tree and a shrub both have associations with exploitative working hours in Brazil and Mexico. These ingredients are often found in beauty products like mascara and lipstick.

Animal abuse

Animal testing has been a feature of the cosmetics industry, despite it not being a requirement for many countries around the world. In fact, it’s now illegal in the UK, EU, India, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, Switzerland and Norway.

This is certainly a positive step in the right direction, however, the term ‘cruelty free' still has an ambiguous definition.

Cruelty free applies to the finished product. A beauty product that’s labelled cruelty free might not be tested on animals by the manufacturers but its individual ingredients from the suppliers might.

The sad truth is the majority of skincare ingredients have been tested on animals at least once.

Animal welfare is also a concern in the beauty product’s afterlife. It washes off our skin and enters the waterway, bioaccumulating in marine life. Non-reef-safe sunscreen and its effects on coral is just one example of this.

Also, cruelty free doesn’t exclude animal derived ingredients in cosmetics. Vegan products can still be tested on animals too.

Hand reaching for a beauty product

Cruelty free refers to the finished product not the ingedients in the supply chain

How does sustainable beauty solve these problems?

Sustainable beauty is the antidote to the fast fashion mentality. Sustainable beauty brands work to limit or mitigate their environmental impact throughout product development.

They pay fairly for their ingredients and regularly audit their supply chains through third-party organisations such as Soil Association and Fairtrade Foundation.

These beauty brands consider their product’s end of life by developing packaging that can be reused or recycled. They encourage consumers to use up their products before buying new ones and limit the number of products they release a year.

Sustainable skincare brands are ethical. Their eco-friendly beauty products are biodegradable and don’t pose a threat to marine life when they end up in waterways. They only use certified cruelty free and organic ingredients to ensure animal welfare is upheld throughout the supply chain.

Equally, it’s all about making smart buying decisions when it comes to your skincare routine.

Notice when marketing campaigns are encouraging you to spend and weigh up your needs versus wants to help you be more selective about what you put on your skin.

Ultimately, smart purchasing habits are better for the planet, your skin and your wallet.

Rings and a skincare product

Sustainable beauty brands mitigate their environmental impact through product development

Beginner’s step by step guide to sustainable beauty

Want eco-friendly makeup and skincare but not sure where to start? We can help.

Read on to find a beginner’s guide to making your skincare routine more earth-friendly with easy steps to get you started.

1. Use it up

The first step towards switching to a more sustainable skincare routine is to use what you have already. You don’t need to go out and buy a whole new skincare range straightaway, if at all!

2. Dispose of it properly

Once you’ve reached the end of your skincare products, recycle or repurpose the packaging. You can wash out bigger cosmetic pots and use them as plant pots, make DIY candle holders or homemade organisers.

You can also make the most of beauty packaging recycling schemes. Brands like ESPA and LOOKFANTASTIC have partnered with Recycle.Me by THG so you can send them any hard to recycle plastic packaging from beauty products for free.

The plastic waste is then turned into a waterproof alternative to plywood which can be recycled on repeat after use.

Pot, spoon and herbs on a white background

Follow our step by step guide to make you skincare routine more eco-friendly

3. Do your research

Look into skincare brands carefully so you can feel confident that they’re truly sustainable and ethical.

Key areas of research to focus on include:

  • Values: What drives them to do what they do?
  • Ethics: Are they concerned about skin health, the environment and ethical ingredient sourcing?
  • Marketing campaigns: What message do they use for their products? Is it convincing? Does it seem like greenwashing?
  • Accreditations: Are they accredited by any associations such as Soil Association, Leaping Bunny, NaTrue?
  • Animal welfare: Are they certified cruelty free and vegan? Are the ingredients they use free from animal testing? (Cruelty Free Kitty is an excellent resource for this)
  • Where they spend their money: Are there any charities or organisations they support to help make the world a better place?
  • Transparency: Are they transparent about their ingredient sourcing and how they treat their workers?
  • Product range: How many products do they release a year? Is it a lot and are they focused on wanting you to buy the latest products in the range?

A little overwhelmed? Try skincare ingredient checkers like Skin Deep by the Environmental Working Group and Think Dirty.

Hand holding a skincare product

Do some research into your favourite brands to see if they're ethical

4. Buy with a minimalist skincare routine in mind

Sustainable skincare is all about using a few good quality products that go a long way, so you don’t get overwhelmed or overbuy. This approach will do the planet, your skin and your wallet a huge favour.

5. Repeat step one

Resist the temptation to discard half used skincare products in favour of shiny new products unless they don’t work for you.

Repeat the next steps and in time you’ll be well on your way to perfecting your ultimate sustainable skincare routine!

Two soap bars on a wooden table

Resist temptation to buy more products unless they don't work for you

Bonus tips for your eco beauty routine

Here are some extra ways to be more eco-friendly in the bathroom:

6. Ban face wipes from your bathroom

Instead, use reusable makeup remover pads, muslin cloths or organic cotton towels. All you need to do is put them in the wash and it saves you from throwing anything out!

7. Use less water

This may seem like an obvious one but you would be surprised at how many gallons of water go down the drain when you’re brushing your teeth or washing your face. Simply turn off the tap when you don’t need it. Easy.

Sustainable beauty is a process that takes time

You don’t need to hit the ground running straight away. It’s far more impactful to have a million people buy one less skincare product than it is for a thousand people to go zero waste.

If you want more skincare advice, we've summarised everything you need to know in a free skincare guide. Sustainable Skincare: Everything You Need To Know In One Handy Free Ebook!

Download, read, enjoy and change the world!

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