These days, you don’t have to look too hard to find beauty products claiming to do good for the planet. But are these beauty products actually eco-friendly? Or are they more focused on appearances than the planet?
Thanks to a little something called greenwashing — essentially, when a brand tries to make you think they’re more sustainable than they really are — it can be tough to tell.
I did some digging into a few common products and claims to sort out the eco-friends from the eco-faux.
- $ = under $20
- $$ = $20–$40
- $$$ = over $40
Depending on who you ask, you’ve probably heard that traditional plastic (which is made from crude oil) takes a hundred or more years to decompose in a landfill. Even then, it doesn’t disappear completely. It just breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastic.
So bioplastic made from plant materials is a good thing, right? After all, it’s bound to break down much faster, isn’t it?
Not necessarily. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that, while all compostable plastic is biodegradable, not all biodegradable plastic is compostable. Some bioplastics persist in the environment for just as long as traditional plastics, and many aren’t home-compostable. Instead, they need to be composted in an industrial facility.
And if you happen to toss them in your regular recycling bin by mistake? They may not be sorted properly, and can contaminate the whole batch of regular plastic.
Furthermore, if bioplastic happens to end up in the ocean, the United Nations Environment Programme points out they won’t readily break down there either. Just like traditional plastics, they have an impact on marine life.
The nonprofit 5 Gyres provides a great visualization of this in their 2018 case study. They tested how a variety of bioplastics would perform either in home composting conditions or in the ocean. They found that, after 2 years, most objects either hadn’t broken down at all or had broken into a bunch of small pieces.
Better bets: Products packaged in recycled glass, aluminum, paper, or ocean waste plastic
When it comes to packaging, the best option is no packaging at all. For example, almond oil and coconut oil are versatile moisturizers that you may be able to find at your local bulk store.
But if you don’t have access to bulk goods, or if you need something different, products packaged in recycled glass, aluminum, or paper are better alternatives to those housed in virgin plastic or bioplastic.
Another option is ocean waste plastic, a type of recycled plastic. It’s not a perfect solution — after all, plastic can only be recycled so many times before it starts to degrade.
But the good news is that it does help remove plastic waste from the ocean, where it can harm marine life. That makes it a better alternative to virgin plastic of any kind.
Juice Beauty STEM CELLULAR Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Overnight Serum
This serum from organic beauty brand Juice Beauty is packaged in ocean plastic sourced from Indonesia.
Besides the packaging being a small step in the right direction, I’d definitely recommend the serum itself. While some retinoids can be irritating or drying, I haven’t experienced any irritation from this retinol serum in the couple of weeks I’ve been using it. It also has a fresh lemon scent, which is a nice change of pace from other skin care products.
In addition to retinol, this serum contains aloe, jojoba seed oil, shea butter, and evening primrose oil, so it’s pretty moisturizing.
You can buy Juice Beauty products directly from their website (they ship in all paper packaging, but with plastic tape). Some products, like this one, are also available online or in stores at Ulta or Credo Beauty.
UpCircle Soothing Body Cream with Date Seeds
In addition to using all recyclable packaging, UK-based UpCircle uses upcycled coffee grounds, fruit stones, and chai spices in their range of products. This body cream makes use of leftover date seeds, a byproduct of date farming.
I find it to be really moisturizing — it has a shea butter base — and it soaks in quickly. It also has a nice herbal scent that’s not overpowering. The cream is packaged in a glass jar with an aluminum lid.
If you buy straight from UpCircle (they have a U.S. and UK version of their site), your order will be shipped in a cardboard box sealed with paper tape. Some products are also available at other retailers, though I’ve only found this particular cream at UpCircle.
By now, you’ve probably heard that palm oil is bad news. It contributes to climate change and drives deforestation, which in turn destroys habitats for endangered animals.
Still, palm oil is versatile, so it’s used in a ton of products. Some organizations, like Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), have cropped up to certify “sustainable” palm oil.
It sounds great in theory, but it’s important to know that RSPO certification doesn’t necessarily mean that a product doesn’t contribute to deforestation.
A 2020 study looked at satellite imagery from 1984 to 2020, covering RSPO-certified plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. It found that about 75 percent of RSPO palm concessions were located in deforested areas where endangered animals — like orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos — had occupied just 30 years ago.
Essentially, it means that, despite being deforested in recent years, these areas were later certified to adhere to RSPO standards. The study points out that, since RSPO standards fail to account for an area’s history, a plantation could be deforested today, and then certified sustainable tomorrow.
Better bets: Soaps made with goat milk or glycerin
Even though palm oil is found in many soaps, it’s not necessarily essential to the soap-making process. Instead, look for options that use other bases, like goat milk or glycerin. Just be sure to double-check that it’s derived from sources like coconut or soybean, not palm oil.
Ethique Samplers and Trial Packs
Ethique is a New Zealand-based brand that’s certified palm oil-free by Orangutan Alliance. They’re also certified vegan and cruelty-free, and they only use renewable, biodegradable, and non-petroleum based ingredients. The glycerin used to make Ethique soaps is organic coconut-oil based.
At Ethique, you can find all kinds of soaps: shampoo bars, face and body bars, and household soaps. All are minimally packaged and completely plastic-free. They even have concentrate bars that you can mix with water at home if you prefer liquid products.
I’m partial to their shampoo bars, which work better than others I’ve tried. If you’re not entirely sure what will work for you, Ethique offers trial packs and sample-sized bars, so you can try mini products before committing to full-sized ones.
Ethique ships carbon-neutral in plastic-free packaging.
Little Seed Farm Farmstead Milk Soaps
While I haven’t tried Little Seed Farm soaps myself, I’ve heard great things about them. They’re made in small batches with simple ingredients: olive oil, coconut oil, goat milk, lye, and essential oils. They also have a basic unscented version of their soap, which might work well for people sensitive to essential oils.
Little Seed Farm’s commitment to sustainability doesn’t stop at their ingredients. They also use solar power to operate their farm, and their packaging is reusable or recyclable. They even ship bars without the outer cardboard packaging if you request it.
Products are available online, or you can use their store locator if you’d prefer to skip the shipping.
Bamboo grows fast, and it requires a lot less water than cotton. But the problem isn’t so much the bamboo plant as it is the fabric it’s used to create.
Bamboo viscose, or rayon, takes a lot of toxic chemicals to produce. It’s a big enough issue that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires products made from bamboo viscose or rayon to be labeled “rayon made from bamboo” rather than just “bamboo.”
Better bets: Reusable makeup remove pads made from organic cotton or hemp
If you have access to a sewing machine, one option is to make your own makeup remover pads from scrap fabric. Any cotton scraps you have leftover from making masks, or even an old t-shirt, will do. You can trace circles using the bottom of a mason jar or drinking glass and then sew them together.
Otherwise, you may want to opt for something made of organic cotton or hemp. If you’re set on bamboo, look for bamboo linen or lyocell instead of bamboo rayon or viscose.
Sierra Linens Reusable Cotton Rounds
Reusable makeup pads abound on Etsy. But there are a few factors that make these special.
First off, they’re made with local, organic cotton — even down to the thread. They’re also not bleached or dyed, so they’re a nice light brown color. This may mean makeup stains are less noticeable. The fabric itself is a terry cloth, which gives them some texture.
Sierra Linens ships in plastic-free, minimal packaging.
There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. While physical sunscreens use minerals to create a barrier on your skin and block the sun’s rays altogether, chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays to prevent them from penetrating your skin.
You’ve probably gotten the memo by now that certain chemical sunscreens are bad for the environment, mostly because they have negative effects on marine life. But some brands still sell so-called “clean” chemical sunscreens made with avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene.
While brands may market these chemicals as safe, research doesn’t necessarily agree. The National Ocean Service (NOS) lists octocrylene as a chemical that can harm marine life. There are ongoing studies on other chemicals, like avobenzone, homosalate, and octisalate. But there isn’t enough research yet to say for certain what effect these chemicals have on marine life.
Better bets: Non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide
Until we know more about the effects of chemical sunscreens, it may be best to opt for a physical sunscreen, like one made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
When shopping, look for sunscreens labeled “non-nano,” which means they’re made without nano-sized particles. While more research is needed, studies so far suggest that nano zinc oxide and nano titanium dioxide may be harmful to aquatic life.
Green Goo Solar Goo SPF 30
Green Goo Solar Goo is a win-win-win. It’s made with non-nano zinc oxide, rated well by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and comes in plastic-free packaging.
It’s also super moisturizing, thanks to coconut oil, shea butter, and sunflower seed oil.
Truth be told, I find it to be a little greasy at first, but it soaks in fast and doesn’t leave my face looking oily. Despite the non-nano particles, it rubs in easily and doesn’t leave a white cast behind.
Raw Elements Daily Moisturizer Aluminum Tube SPF 30
Like Solar Goo, this sunscreen from Raw Elements has a stellar EWG rating. It’s not as moisturizing as Solar Goo sunscreen, but it’s also not as greasy. It may be a good choice if you’re looking for something lightweight.
I find it sort of hard to rub in, but, once it soaks into my face, it doesn’t leave behind any chalkiness.
This sunscreen comes in an aluminum tube with a plastic cap. You can buy it untinted (which is the version I tried) or tinted. However, the tinted version only comes in one color.
Raw Elements also offers a plastic-free sunscreen that comes in an aluminum tin. That one has different ingredients from the tube version and seems to be a little thicker. Some online reviewers comment that it’s hard to open and difficult to spread.
Between refillable plastic razors and disposable ones, the refillable option may seem like the lesser of two evils.
But, while you might be able to keep the handle for multiple uses, it’s likely that your used razor heads are still ending up in the landfill.
Better bet: Safety razors
I promise these aren’t as scary as they sound — or look! Plus, not only are they more sustainable than disposable plastic razors, they’re also way cheaper in the long run.
Albatross Butterfly Razor
This razor from California-based Albatross is really easy to use. It’s also quick and easy to replace the blade — all you have to do is twist the bottom to open up the blade compartment.
You can use any brand of safety razor blades with these, but I prefer to buy directly from Albatross for a couple of reasons.
For one, replacements are only 25 cents each, and you can buy a whole year’s supply at once. And, for two, Albatross offers a blade take-back program. They provide envelopes that you can use to return the blades. Once they get them back, they upcycle them to make flatware.
I’ve found that each blade lasts a few shaves, especially since they’re two-sided (that also means less rinsing between swipes). I was worried that the handle might rust in the shower, but I’ve used it for almost a year and haven’t had any issues.
Even if you buy all eco-friendly products, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. After all, more products mean more resources being used — whether that’s ingredients, manufacturing, shipping, or packaging.
Better bet: Streamlined routines with minimal products
If you can, look for products that have multiple uses. That way, you won’t have to buy so many things that only have one purpose, and you can pare down your environmental impact.
Dew Mighty Dynamic Duo Starter Kit
This kit contains the California-based Dew Mighty’s Jelly Serum Bar and a refillable container. The certified vegan and cruelty-free serum bar does it all. Instead of being liquid, like a typical serum, it’s solid (think: a slightly flexible Jolly Rancher).
Not only can it replace a traditional serum, but it’s also pretty moisturizing on its own thanks to the jojoba seed oil. Other all-star ingredients include blue chamomile oil, vitamin C, and squalane.
I like to use it on my face after cleansing. I’ve also used it to moisturize the backs of my hands, which are constantly dry. According to Dew Mighty, you can also use it on your hair and lips, and it can even be used as a makeup remover.
When you order your first bar, you’ll want to get the starter kit, which comes with a little tin box. After that, you can just order refills.
Everything comes packaged in a tiny cardboard box sealed with paper tape. And it’s all compostable or recyclable.
These balmies are the perfect match for a natural makeup look, and they can be used on your lips, eyelids, or face.
What’s really cool is the packaging. Instead of being housed in plastic or aluminum, they’re wrapped in paper like a crayon. With your purchase, you also get a handy paper box to keep them in. It’s made from recycled paper waste collected from Bali beaches.
I tried the Malibu Magic set, which comes with three colors: Champagne (a nice shimmery gold that makes a good highlighter), Peach (a bright peachy pink that works well as a blush or lip color), and Clementine (an orange nude). All three colors are gorgeous and moisturizing.
Pro tip: They seem to work best if you warm them up by applying them on your finger first, rather than applying them directly to your face.
Due to greenwashing, some beauty brands may try harder to look sustainable than actually be sustainable. It can be hard to separate the good from the bad.
Be sure to research any claims of eco-friendliness. When you can, opt for sustainably packaged, minimal products to create your beauty routine.