Mini-sized beauty products have become ubiquitous over the years. They come packaged in cute holiday gift sets, they appear via sample sachets courtesy of a dutiful cashier, they’re piled together in the travel aisle in stores and have their own separate tab on Sephora’s website (and in-person at the checkout line). They’ve become a category all their own—and a lucrative one at that.
Beauty samples are the third-largest driver to purchase for full-size products, according to Euromonitor International, succeeded only by past experience and recommendations from friends and family. From a customer standpoint, it gives them a chance to try out a product before shelling out what’s sometimes double or triple the price for a full-size version. From a brand perspective, it’s a chance to get your product in front of people.
According to NPD, in 2019, the mini market totaled $1.3 billion in sales in the U.S. which was up 5% from the year before. And, according to Brandon Frank, president of PPC packaging, that number is only going to increase. “A ton of sample sachets are being created more and more every year, and I think it’s going to be a growing trend going forward,” he says. The pandemic has substantially decreased traveling, and since people are unable to take advantage of in-store sampling and testing (and probably won’t be able to again for a very long time), samples are a good way to connect with customers at home. But while the mini-market has proven to have its upsides for customers and brands alike, these petite products aren’t as harmless as they seem.
The Negative Side of Travel-Size Products
Here's the downside to your mini-product obsession: A lot of travel-sized products are duplicates of their plastic full-size counterparts and end up in landfills, the oceans, or in rare cases at a recycling plant. But even in that former best-case scenario situation, since the items are so small, the machines often don’t recognize them. “When you start going in these mini sizes, they don’t fit in their machines and on their conveyor belts to even recycle the goods,” Robyn Watkins, founder of clean product development firm Holistic Beauty Group, says. This is also the case if the mini product is made out of recycled material, like PCR or bio-resin. “Their machines are built for standard customer-sized products, such as the typical water bottle, a 6 oz or 8 oz product, but all of these little mini products are not being recycled, even if we're making better choices.”
Kate Westad, founder and inventor of the patent-pending Palette by Pak, wants you to think of how many you’ve accumulated over the years—picture the pile you have right now in your beauty stash—and multiply that by millions. Now, think about how you usually discard them. If you’re traveling, you probably throw the half-finished shampoo bottle in the trash, passing off this hard-to-manage packaging problem to the country or establishment you’re visiting. “Minis and travel-size are the ‘plastic straws’ of the beauty industry alongside other single-use beauty items like tiny spatulas, samples, sheet masks, and facial wipes,” she says. “We have a big beauty waste problem, and minis and tiny travel bottles are at the top of that list.”
Westad, overwhelmed by her own consumption of tiny plastics, created her reusable travel container as a solution. She sees refill being the new recycle, noting: “The modern conscious consumer uses refillable coffee cups, they use refillable water bottles. Using a beauty reusable like Palette The Original High Fiver is just an extension of those conscious choices to eliminate waste.”
Education and Retraining the Consumer
The hotel industry is leading the charge toward change in a big way. California passed a bill to ban all single-use plastic bottles at hospitality establishments by 2023 and Marriott international has already replaced theirs with larger bottles and dispensers, helping to eliminate about 1.7 million pounds of plastic in the process. But the fact of the matter is the majority of the beauty industry needs a rehaul, and that starts with education on both the brand and consumer end. “Here in the U.S. we don’t even know how to properly recycle beauty products,” Watkins says. “We know how to recycle our water bottles, we know how to recycle our milk jug, but we don't really have the conscious practice of putting that toner bottle in the recycling bin all the time.” She continues: “I think it's about retraining the consumer… then on the brand side there has to be better education and more transparency so that consumers can make better choices before they pick up that sample. Maybe if they knew that this 3 oz tube can't be recycled, they would just buy the 6 oz tube.”
Encouraging Brands to Move Towards Sustainability
Along with education, the change will also have to come from the brand side. It might be tricky logistically, but Frank thinks that refillable minis could be a potential option in the future and solid products—which have seen significant innovation in the past couple of years—are another good alternative. Like most things involving sustainability, it’s hard to point to a single solution—the issue is both multi-pronged and open-ended. “There's no silver bullet and I think everybody just has to make the best choices as it relates to their brand, just like people have to make the best choices as it relates to their set of values,” Watkins says. Being aware of the problem is the first step in helping to fix it. Next is making incremental lifestyle adjustments. And maybe that, for you, involves reducing your waste, one 2 oz. moisturizer at a time.