Personal care products must be sustainable

Personal care products contribute some of the largest amounts of waste that end up in landfills.

Some estimates say product packaging waste is as much as one-third of the refuse that ends up in landfills. Once it’s there, some of that plastic can take up to a millennium to break down.

You’re already familiar with the issue of plastic microbeads poisoning our oceans and choking our wildlife. There’s good news and bad news.

The bad news is that plastic microbeads aren’t the whole story, even with the world approaching a consensus on banning them. The good news is that eco-friendly personal care products, right down to the packaging, have emerged as a flashpoint of interest and innovation.

Below are some of the reasons why this is a conversation worth having and a change that’s long overdue.

Degradable packaging

Plastic water bottles have earned our ire over the years. However, unsustainable packaging trends in the personal care industry have become an urgent problem too.

Some estimates say product packaging waste is as much as one-third of the refuse that ends up in landfills. Once it’s there, some of that plastic can take up to a millennium to break down. During that time, it poses a significant risk to wildlife and leaches toxins into our water supplies and soil.

Think of the many millions of products sold annually, each one wrapped in cellophane and contained in a plastic tube, tub or bottle. This has been a difficult habit to break. One relatively straightforward change cosmetics companies can implement immediately is to create more practical shapes for their product packaging.

The more tightly packed our shipments of these goods become, the smaller their transportation footprint. The packing and distribution process also is more efficient. Regular shapes like squares and rectangles tend to use less raw material than round ones, too. Some companies have slimmed down their packaging in other ways, such as eliminating corrugated layers or forgoing product leaflets.

Cosmetics and personal care products sometimes have specific requirements with respect to their shelf life. The packaging must be airtight or otherwise designed to help them last as long as possible. Even with those limitations, materials that degrade more quickly in nature can be used. “Nano-clays” and PLA-based plastics — with some inorganic fillers to account for cosmetics products’ inherent instability — have shown promise.

Sustainable products

With more attention paid to packaging, cosmetics and personal care companies can begin making changes to the formulation of these products.

As we noted above, the U.S. and some other countries have acted on the plastic microbeads issue. 2015 saw the American Congress amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to ban the manufacture of microbeads. You’ve likely seen these in facial scrubs and other products, where they provided the abrasion necessary for exfoliation.

Some estimates say product packaging waste is as much as one-third of the refuse that ends up in landfills. Once it’s there, some of that plastic can take up to a millennium to break down.

In the absence of microbeads, many hygiene-minded individuals have learned to scrub with a washcloth and water, which does the trick just as well for most people and skin types. Chemical exfoliants aren’t going anywhere, though. Neither are the complex and proprietary chemical formulations that line cosmetic aisle shelves. However, the time has come for more earth-friendly formulations, proprietary or not.

For a start, consider how useful the compound glycerine can be. Glycerine appears in all vegetable and animal matter on Earth, but not all of it has the same influence on the planet. Natural glycerine is produced through the hydrolysis of fats, and synthetic glycerine requires the processing of chlorine, propylene or petroleum. Both kinds are useful in cleansers, moisturizers, toners, soaps, facial masks and an abundance of other products many of us use regularly.

Deforestation is another one of the most urgent issues today, and it’s thanks to the ubiquity and demand for palm oil. In 2018, Americans used some 72 million tons of palm oil — likely because we don’t have to witness the fallout personally. In Borneo alone, palm oil cultivation has been responsible for 47% of the nation’s deforestation since 2000.

What’s next?

Can we save the Earth’s forests from our runaway demand for palm oil in self-care and beauty products?

Thankfully, even the World Wildlife Fund says it’s possible. The RSPO label — issued by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil — is becoming more common. It signifies the company engages in sustainable harvesting and manufacturing processes when it sources palm oil.

Achieving LEED certification and making other energy-conscious choices in manufacturing plants and distribution centers are additional ways to commit to more sustainable practices in this industry. LEED certification indicates a structure has taken significant steps to reduce its energy expenditures and carbon footprint.

It’s a little cruel that so much of the onus here rests on the average consumer and how well they’ve educated themselves on these issues. However, it’s heartening to know that some of the biggest names in personal care products in the world today are taking small but decisive steps to make their operations more sustainable. They’re heeding the call, slowly.

In the meantime, consumer education is still paramount. We all could stand to learn a little more about the origins of our favorite products and why and how they threaten the stability of the natural world. If we can’t vote with our wallets, we can revisit our hygiene habits. Most of us can easily get away with bathing less often, and in so doing, eliminate some of the noxious chemicals or threatened plant compounds we invite into our homes from afar.

This Author 

Emily Folk is a regular contributor to The Ecologist, a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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