Get the ‘ugly’ out of your beauty routine: save your skin, our planet and a small fortune

When it comes to excess plastic & waste, toxic chemicals and over-the-top and completely unnecessary consumer spending the beauty industry has a LOT to answer for. We are constantly exposed to its advertising, whether it’s about some new anti-aging technology, an exotic fruit extract that will give us salon-perfect hair, or a new mascara that promises even longer lashes. It’s an easy sell for them, because most women place a lot of emphasis on appearance and even more on trying to avoid the aging process. The truth is, most beauty products are loaded with chemicals and ingredients that create dryness, irritation and ACCELERATE aging (as well as many other serious health problems). We don’t actually need most of the products in our bathroom cabinet (in fact we’re probably better off without many of them), so learn how to create a beauty routine that will help you kick your plastic addiction, simplify and detox your life and stop stripping your skin (and your wallet!).

The packaging

The global beauty industry is worth over $500 billion and in 2017 produced around 77 BILLION plastic packaging units. As only a fraction of plastic gets recycled (particularly difficult-to-recycle products which many beauty products are) most of this ends up in our environment. But the thing is our environment can’t absorb all this waste. It’s having horrendous impacts in our oceans and what makes it to landfill is having a pretty huge impact too.

We can never really throw away plastic. Where will all yours end up?

The chemicals

If you read the label on any skin/hair care or cosmetic product you might recognise the following ingredients:

Sodium laureth/lauryl sulfate, propylene glycol, PEG, phenoxyethanol, ceteareth-20, triethanolamine, dimethicone, triclosan, toluene, talc, benzophenone, benzoates, phthalates, parabens, polymers, heavy metals, petroleum derivatives.

This is just a TINY selection of all the toxic chemical ingredients out there, many of which are endocrine disruptors, contributing to fertility and reproductive issues, many carcinogenic and the rest cause numerous health problems from thyroid imbalance and immune system dysfunction to respiratory problems and skin disorders. Some have been banned or restricted in certain countries and many are environmental toxins in the waterways where they all end up (yes your shower drain goes to the ocean!). You can search the EWG cosmetics database by product, brand or ingredient to discover how hazardous your products are.

When it was discovered microbeads (tiny plastic beads used in products like exfoliants and toothpastes, many made of toxic plastics) were ending up in the marine environment, a handful of countries banned their use. In Australia we have a ‘voluntary ban’ (I’m sorry, VOLUNTARY ban? Does.Not.Compute.), which was supposed to have occurred by mid last year, but I’m not sure if it actually did. Beat the Microbead has product lists by country as well as an app where you can search brands/products.

And then there are sunscreens, with certain ingredients that aren’t only harmful to us but harmful to coral reefs as well. As if coral reefs haven’t got enough to contend with from climate change impacts.

The environmental destruction

Palm oil is used in a huge number of products, including foods, cleaning products and cosmetics. The problem is that tropical rainforests are being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations, destroying not only the forest but the habitat of endangered species like orangutans. While a certification for responsibly-sourced palm oil was created in 2011, there has been much doubt regarding its effectiveness.

Rainforest clearing for palm oil plantations, Malaysia (© Bernard Dupont, reproduced under license)

The animal cruelty

Any ingredient that sounds foreign to you or you can’t pronounce (basically any synthetic chemical) is likely to have been tested on animals. I remember hearing a few years ago that China would only import products that HAD been tested on animals, so in order to not lose out on that market cosmetics company MAC tests their products on animals. BOOOOO to China and BOOOOO to MAC! There is so much unnecessary animal cruelty that just wouldn’t exist if we switched to natural, organic and simpler products.

See which companies still pay for animal testing in China (you could be funding this) (image: PETA)

I’ve used natural skin and body care products since I was a teenager, and organic products ever since they came on the market. Guess I was just following my gut but I feel I’m much better off for it. Most people tell me I look ten years younger than my actual age (woohoo!) and I feel better knowing I’ve looked after my skin, hair, teeth and body naturally, with no animal cruelty and minimal impact on the planet.

I stopped using aluminium/chemical deodorants at around age 15, about the time I also stopped using fluoride toothpaste. I looked for the most natural products available (not a huge choice in regional NSW in the 80s!) but I remember discovering ‘natural’ and cruelty-free brands like Blackmores, Montagne Jeunesse and The Body Shop.

And then around the turn of the century came the organic skin care revolution and its pioneer brands like Miessence with the philosophy what we put on our body is not really any different to what we put in it, so skincare products should be organic as much as should the food we eat. This made so much sense to me and I’ve used mostly organic products to this day.

Yeh that might sound great, but it has a dark side. Over the years my skin and hair care routine has gradually become more and more complicated. Since I was a teenager I’ve had an oily T-zone, with clogged pores and occasional pimples, so that’s when I started using a cleanser, toner and moisturiser twice a day (because that’s what Dolly magazine said so it must be right). I also started using a facial scrub and mask. Then a few years ago I was advised by a skin therapist that my skin was too dry and I needed a better moisturiser, which I did. So I switched to an alcohol-free product with beeswax, and noticed an improvement right away. But I didn’t stop there — I discovered hydration gel so I thought that must be a good idea, then I discovered night cream — too rich to wear during the day but additional nourishment during the night must be a good thing. And I came across jojoba pigmentation oil (didn’t really seem to work but I thought it must be having some benefit). And hand cream, well that’s a convenient-sized tube to keep in my bag or on my desk at work, so of course I needed that.

And so up until last year my skin and hair care routine consisted of the following products:

  • Cleanser (120ml plastic tube)
  • Toner (~100ml plastic bottle, more recently glass but still with a plastic pump)
  • Hydration gel (50ml plastic tube)
  • Face oil (30ml glass bottle with plastic lid)
  • Day cream (50ml plastic tube)
  • Night cream (50ml plastic tube)
  • Exfoliant (small plastic bottle)
  • Mask (glass jar with plastic lid)
  • Hand cream (75ml plastic tube)
  • Body lotion (150ml plastic tube)
  • Lip balm (4.3g in a plastic applicator)
  • Sunscreen (100–150g plastic tube)
  • Deodorant (70ml plastic roll-on bottle)
  • Bar soap (unpackaged)
  • Shampoo (500ml-1L pump bottle)
  • Hair rinse (250ml plastic bottle)
  • Conditioner (500ml-1L pump bottle)
  • Deep conditioning treatment (175ml plastic tube)

That’s eighteen products, all with difficult-to-recycle plastic packaging! And the cost of all this? Around $2,000 a year! It could be even more, but I somehow managed to avoid using an eye cream. Also, I don’t wear much make-up (or all that often) so I’ve managed to save a lot of money (and avoid a lot of waste) in that area.

On my journey to plastic-free I decided I didn’t want to keep buying skin care products in disposable plastic containers (many of which are only 50ml — SOOOO wasteful!). I would wince every time I put one in the bin (actually sometimes I would put them in the bin, sometimes in the recycling, in a gesture of ‘aspirational recycling’, i.e. hoping it could be recycled but doubtful). I since discovered plastic tubes and pump/spray bottles (unless the mechanism has been removed) are not accepted in kerbside recycling (this earlier article covers these and some of the other recycling mistakes most of us make). BUT they can be mailed to Terracycle as part of their beauty products recycling program or taken to one of their many drop-off locations. I’m glad this exists for the purpose of recycling all the old tubes and bottles I’ve collected in my ‘transition phase’, but we virtually have none of these left in our household now (apart from sunscreen, antiseptic ointment and paw paw ointment, which we’re using up the last of).

A few of the over-packaged beauty products used in my former plastic junkie / marketing victim skin care routine

I feel we all need to ultimately quit these disposable ‘plastics of convenience’, simplify our beauty routine, maybe make some of our own products and/or buy what we do buy in bulk or in plastic-free, ideally refillable packaging.

Plaine Products sells organic & sustainable hair and skin care products completely free of disposable plastic. When bottles are empty you simply order refills, return the empty bottles for free and keep the pump to reuse in the new bottle. This is a fantastic model and all companies need to start looking at these kinds of alternatives to disposable plastic. Unfortunately this company is only in the US and Canada for now but hopefully they’ll expand to other countries, or other companies will start to follow this great example.

Some of the zero waste hair and skin care products from Plaine Products (image: Plaine Products)

Over the past six months I’ve replaced eighteen plastic-packaged skin and hair care products with just eight plastic-free ones. What I use now (and what I’d recommend for anyone looking to save money, time, their skin and the planet):

  • Facial cleanser — oil cleansing (a mix of castor oil and sunflower oil). I do this every night before my shower. As this website advises, we don’t need to cleanse in the morning as our face is unlikely to pick up any dirt in bed (another time-saver!).
  • Body cleanser — this is one thing I didn’t change. I use an unpackaged, natural bar soap.
  • Deodorant — I’m currently using up old deodorant in plastic packaging but the dispenser is a reusable one so I may keep it and use it to make my own, or find a more sustainably-packaged alternative like this or a plastic-free crystal deodorant which I’ve used in the past and lasts for years. I recommend avoiding anti-perspirants as they interfere with an important detoxification pathway (and temperature regulation function), i.e. by preventing release of sweat from our body they are also preventing release of toxins. Apparently they can also increase bad (and smelly) bacteria.
  • Skin moisturiser — organic body lotion from bulk store (while working on my own recipe). Look for a product that is all natural (preferably organic), alcohol-free and contains natural plant oils as well as beeswax (this creates a protective barrier to keep moisture in, an essential ingredient for a good moisturiser although missing from most products out there). I use this on face and body (face twice a day, body usually only after showering).
  • Sunscreen — I’m still using up old sunscreen. I don’t go through a lot of it as I avoid being outside during the day in summer. But next time I need to buy it I’ll be looking for one in biodegradable packaging or a metal tin like this one. Make sure to check your current sunscreen for oxybenzone and octinoxate (chemicals which damage coral) and if it contains these take it to your nearest household chemical drop-off location.
  • Shampoo — Dr Bronner’s Castile Soap bar (originally I was using organic shampoo from a bulk store but this is still ultimately packaged in plastic, a very large plastic container, but still plastic). I aim to start using this on my body too for the purpose of simplifying.
  • Hair rinse — apple cider vinegar (1 tbspn in 1 cup of water) — this restores the pH balance which is vital to keeping hair healthy.
  • Conditioner — organic from bulk store. I find I need conditioner as my hair is quite long and thick, but if you have shorter/finer hair you might find the rinse sufficient (it actually makes your hair quite soft).

I now spend only around $300 a year on skin and hair care, that’s $1,700 less than I used to, which is a MASSIVE saving! And by simplifying my routine I spend less time in the bathroom so I have more time to spend on more important/rewarding things.

So maybe you’re wondering how I could just ditch all those specialty facial care products without ‘losing face’?

  1. Skin is skin — it is completely unnecessary to use different products for our hands, body, face, eyes, lips, etc. We don’t need an eye cream any more than we need a face cream. Eye creams are just moisturisers. The key ingredients we need in a skin moisturiser are natural plant oils (like almond and apricot kernel) and beeswax (or vegan alternatives like Candelilla wax). Other things like aloe vera and glycolic acid may be beneficial but aren’t essential.
  2. Oil cleansing is far more gentle on our skin than most facial cleansers on the market. It draws impurities out of the skin, working on the premise that like attracts like. This also makes facial masks unnecessary (many face masks are also harsh and drying).
  3. A wash cloth makes a great exfoliant and we actually shouldn’t be using anything harsher than that. Most facial scrubs are way too rough for our skin. I used to use one made from ground coffee beans but was advised by a qualified beauty therapist that I should stop using it. As all wash cloths are different you may find yours is too soft. If I find this then I use a sisal loofah mitt which is quite soft but slightly more abrasive than a wash cloth (I use it with very gentle pressure and only for around 10 seconds, avoiding the eye area).
  4. Aging is inevitable and so-called anti-aging products don’t work. All they do is temporarily change the appearance of the skin, so they’re basically just expensive moisturisers. I’ve never bothered with anything like this as I believe skin health is determined more by what we put IN our bodies than what we put ON them. I’ve lived a chemical-free/organic lifestyle for around 25 years, including a diet with plenty of healthy fats and a good intake of filtered water, and I believe this together with a simple, gentle & organic skin care routine (including a good moisturiser and a high SPF sunscreen, particularly if you live in a warmer climate) are the most important things we can do to slow the aging process.

While I haven’t really covered make-up in any depth, I did want to mention a few things about it. I remember the scant selection of natural make-up available when I was searching in the early 2000s but now we have a lot more to choose from. There are plenty of brands that are cruelty free, palm oil free, natural/organic/low tox and even a few that are reducing plastic packaging. Here are my tips for purchasing makeup + a few brands I can recommend:

  • I am very careful when choosing makeup now, not just to avoid waste but to avoid all that bathroom cupboard clutter. Be selective when choosing colours, think about what will go with what (eyes, lips, nails, outfits). I find I have a few favourites that I wear the most, and a lot of impulse buys that I never use (all colours that I like, but keep in mind just because you like a colour doesn’t mean it will look good on your face/nails). And ask yourself if you really need bronzer/blush/concealer/etc.
  • I started using Inika products maybe 10 years ago (and still have plenty left so haven’t had a need to search for plastic-free alternatives yet). The only plastic-free (+ vegan, cruelty-free, organic, ethical) brand I’ve found so far is Dirty Hippie whose products come in biodegradable/reusable/returnable packaging like cardboard tubes and aluminium tins (awesome!). Canadian conscious beauty brand Elate uses bamboo in most of its packaging, which reduces a lot of plastic, and refills are available.
  • Nail polish — while I don’t think a plastic-free nail polish exists, Sienna from Byron Bay comes pretty close, using a wooden cap. They are also vegan, cruelty-free and free from a bunch of the worst chemicals found in most nail polishes. Kester Black is another vegan and cruelty-free brand whose products are “10-free” (free from 10 of the most toxic nail polish chemicals). If you want to get rid of old toxic nail polish make sure you take it to a chemical drop-off location, where it will be properly disposed of.
Conscious beauty products: Dirty Hippie mascara (in glass/aluminium with bamboo wand) and tinted lip/cheek balm in cardboard applicator & powder in refillable aluminium tin, Sienna nail polish (wooden cap sourced locally from a pest tree species). I’m impressed. Now why can’t this be mainstream?

Hopefully this inspires you to get the ‘ugly’ out of your beauty routine! I’d love to hear from you if you know of any other great conscious brands out there (or anything else relating to greening/detoxing your beauty habits).

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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