It's Green Week at Byrdie HQ, which means we'll be highlighting stories about natural beauty, sustainability, and all things eco. Sometimes, even seemingly small (and easy!) decisions can add up to a huge impact on our environment.
I’ve always been a consumer of single-use beauty essentials, but when I joined the Byrdie team in January, my beauty routine went from two steps to five. My bathroom garbage filled up with wipes, cotton pads and Q-tips in half the time that it used to, and I became haunted by thoughts of the fatbergs I was surely contributing to in the sewers of NYC. My tampon applicators looked more and more like ocean flotsam each day.
And it wasn’t hard to find solid stats on the waste problem I was contributing to. “Every year, over 80 billion plastic bottles are disposed of from just shampoo and conditioner alone,” said Brianne West, a biochemist and the founder of zero waste beauty brand Ethique. And those tampon applicators? “A woman will use 11,000 tampons in her lifetime,” taunted a press email in my inbox from menstrual cup brand Saalt.
Those stats are hard to stomach. So in honor of the planet, and in coincidentally convenient timing to Earth Day, I set out in search of replacements for each of the disposables present in my regular routine in hopes of bringing my beauty waste to a minimum. My only goal is to throw less stuff out. Here’s what I found.
Makeup wipes have historically been the single-use item I’ve used most, even though ripping them in half has usually helped me make each package last twice as long. They’re much easier to travel with than liquid removers, and can provide a passable sense of clean when a deeper cleanse is not on the schedule. Balm cleansers have slowly crept in and reduced my use of wipes for makeup removal, but I didn’t kick the habit for good until the folks at Croon told me that one disposable wipe takes 100 years to decompose, and sent me a set of their face fibers.
These reusable rounds have single-handedly revolutionized my evening routine. When wet, a first pass of the fiber over my eye removes most of my makeup (including my mascara), and the remains are gone with a second swipe. I am shocked at how well they work. The pads are built to sustain 200 washes—I use a single side each day, then throw the spent ones into the mesh bag they came with before sending them through the wash. I have not bought a pack of wipes since I started using Croon, and I’ve used less makeup remover and cleanser, too.
You know what else is basically a face wipe? A sheet mask. Who doesn’t have a stash of at least five cheap masks hanging around just waiting for a night in? Welp, senior editor Lindsey Metrus recently highlighted the truth about the scary ingredients in many sheet masks, and let’s just say I’m thinking twice before hitting my stash these days. Linds—the Brooklyn sanitation department thanks you.
But that doesn’t mean I have to stop marinating my face in a concentrated dose of product completely. A quick search on Amazon lead me to the world of reusable silicone sheet masks (like this one from Japan’s famous Daiso chain) which can be layered on top of any product that I desire to prevent from evaporating. Also, it’s a splurge, but Orveda’s Prebiotic Emulsion comes with its own reusable mask and delivers a much cleaner dose of moisture than the disposable version. It’s free of harmful ingredients, packaged in glass, and it’s even vegan.
Cotton Pads, Balls and Buds
I was kind of sad to try to replace my cotton pads, because I just recently got into a good routine with these organic guys. And maybe it’s the nostalgia of my teen years, when basically scrubbing my face with Clinique toner and checking for the dirt that came off was all I knew, but even until recently, applying toner with a cotton pad always felt so satisfying.
My first inclination was to replace the pads I typically used for toner application with my bare hands, and let me tell you, that feels really nice and cheap... literally free. But for those of us that don’t love touching our faces with our fingers, luckily, spray on toner is a thing! The spray-on Moment of Clarity AHA toner from new clean skincare brand Free + True offers the periodic chemical exfoliant that my skin needs. Indie Lee's CoQ-10 hyaluronic acid toner also sprays on from a glass bottle.
I use cotton balls for nail polish removal, and cotton buds for makeup touch-ups and, of course, cleaning my ears. For almost all of those uses, the following reusable organic bamboo rounds from plastic-free brand Unwrapped Life are useful replacements. I like the black pads for getting rid of nail polish (I think they’d pair well with this cream remover!), and the natural color for zeroing in on errant mascara or eyeliner. I will probably always use Q-tips to clean my ears.
Plastic Shampoo and Lotion Bottles
According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic has been found in 60% of all seabird species and every type of sea turtle, but it shouldn’t take dead sea creatures washing up tangled in or filled with trash to remind us that our dependence on plastic is a major threat to the planet. To tackle the habit in my own home, I turned to brands using alternative methods of packaging to deliver their product.
Seed Phytonutrients claims to have created the first shower-safe shampoo and conditioner packaging, made from recycled paper and 60-70% less plastic than your regular go-to. The bottles are recyclable and compostable (though that doesn’t matter if you don’t bother to recycle them correctly), and even though they’re still lined with plastic, that liner is 95% thinner than most other bottles.
Each Seed product also comes with a packet of heirloom seeds inside, which is a gimmick that’s making me wish my NYC apartment had outdoor space. I tried the brand’s Lightweight Conditioner which provides just the slip my fine, oily hair needs to allow a comb through it after shampooing.
I replaced my pumpable body lotion with a butter block from zero-waste beauty brand Ethique. Ethique calculates that for each one of their bar products—which range from soaps to shampoos and deodorants—three plastic bottles are saved from being made. You have to remember to apply after a shower before fully toweling off, but the moisture passed along from a few passes of this block is enough put that plastic pump out of business.
It seems like sustainable options have suddenly become mainstream on the menstrual market. The markets for period cups and underwear have exploded from just one or two quietly available brands to trendy startups blanketing full subway cars in ads (even Diva Cup, one of the OG cup brands, is currently advertising on a massive billboard in Times Square).
I’ve personally tried and given up on the cup front. But in the spirit of waste reduction, I grabbed a box of tampons without applicators (by the way, why don’t more brands offer these?) and gave Thinx’s Re.t.a. reusable tampon applicator a try during my last period.
It takes a few uses to get the string positioning and insertion just right, but when mastered, this product can theoretically reduce the plastic waste associated with a person’s period completely. In actual practice, which is less than perfect, I’ve found that the combined use of Re.t.a and dependence on Thinx’s underwear for the first and last days of my period has reduced my waste by at least a handful of tampons and applicators per month.
For more clean, sustainable beauty options, peep the skincare winners of Byrdie's 2019 Eco Beauty Awards.