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The beauty industry loves a trend, something buzzy to get excited about. And, right now, that thing is single-shot skincare. In the last year, more and more brands have launched ampoules, highly concentrated doses of active ingredients in small vials, and they're often marketed as 7-day treatment plans. They're fun to interact with (you break them open, empty them out, and throw them away), but I had to wonder, are the formulas actually more potent than serums housed in larger bottles? And, are ampoules the best trend to buy into when we're concerned with sustainability? I called on a few independent experts and some of the brands who offer ampoules to get some answers and, spoiler alert, they couldn't agree.
Ampoules and Active Ingredient Delivery
The claim is that ampoules are needed to keep more potent formulas with active ingredients fresh. "Pure vitamins such as Vitamin C or Q10 are extremely sensitive to the oxidative processes," brand founder Susanne Kaufmann tells us. "It makes sense to fill the active ingredient into single-use ampoules to avoid any damage by oxygen."
In the case of Vitamin C, which is fragile to oxygen, that does make sense. However, other brands like Rituals and Barbara Sturm use ampoules for hyaluronic acid-rich formulas which aren't so sensitive to the air.
Jonathan Needham, President of En Vogue Consulting Group, tells Byrdie, "In general, the use of ampoules is more of a marketing fad than a technical necessity." He goes on to say, "It's a marketing tactic to make it look like these are professional products for at-home use and using packaging to reinforce that message. In most cases, when it comes to retention of active ingredients, it's not to say the brands don’t have difficulties, but the actual use of ampoules and single-use application, to me, it’s just marketing."
Of course, small ampoules are a travel-friendly solution for many skincare customers who are always on-the-go. Where Susanne Kaufmann and Rituals pack more potent formulas into their ampoules, Dr Barbara Sturm's Hyaluronic Ampoules are the same formula found in the Hyaluronic Serum (which comes in both a 30ml and 10ml bottle) and the brand tells us they "typically share the ampoules only as a solution for travel."
Ampoules and Preservatives
Just as parabens became a dirty word a decade or so ago, preservatives are being debated in the beauty world today. Single-dose ampoules keep the formulas air-tight and fresh until you apply them to the skin, which means there is no need for preservatives. But Dr. Blackburn, who is co-founder of the natural cosmetics brand Dr. Craft notes that "there are already much larger packaging options with air-tight lids and nozzles to deliver formulations that are air-sensitive." He also adds that there are "also many well-known stabilizers than can be added in very low concentrations to these formulations to improve in-use shelf life if required."
However, Needham, who has over 40 years experience in packaging, admits that there aren't full-proof packaging options to support completely preservative-free formulas with a shelf-life to rival the formulas currently lining the shelves in mass stores. Once the public creates a serious demand, in this case for preservative-free formulas, "that's when scientists and technicians will come up with a solution."
Ampoules and Sustainability
Byrdie spoke with Marie Redding, senior editor at Beauty Packaging Magazine, who tells us that ampoules can be eco-friendly. "There are many different types of materials that packaging suppliers can use to make ampoules and vials, such as plastics that are made from post-consumer recycled resin or even glass," she says. "Many of these unit-dose packages don't require a pump, cap or collar, for example, which makes them more "green" than a traditional bottle. These parts are often not able to be recycled," Redding adds.
However, Dr. Blackburn, who is also head of the Sustainable Materials Research Group at The University of Leeds, begs to differ, "this new trend of using glass or plastic ampoules for ‘single dose’ delivery of cosmetic actives is a proliferation of completely unnecessary packaging, which is adding even more waste to an already burgeoning problem. Blackburn says, "I doubt very many of these tiny vessels make it to any recycling opportunity, and even if they do they are often made from materials that do not get recycled, such as polypropylene or polycarbonate."
The problem with so much bathroom waste is that it often doesn't get recycled. If you do decide to buy into the ampoules trend make sure to buy recyclable packaging and even better, where possible, post-recycled packaging and be sure it makes its way into a recycling bin. Needham notes that, with these sorts of products, it's not just primary packaging (the ampoules themselves) you need to be concerned with, but also secondary packaging. "The ampoules are actually quite fragile, you can’t toss them all in a box. So there is the outer packaging and the often-used plastic vacuum form that the ampoules go into that slide into the box." According to Needham, the primary packaging is usually excessive and the secondary package is also a little excessive, too.
Needham believes the solution to beauty's big sustainability problem is far greater than whether or not we choose, as a consumer, to use ampoules. "Brands look for shelf space and presence, but the industry needs to reduce the gram weight amount of packaging per gram weight of the product, that's the true direction the whole thing should go."
Next up, you can find out how to make your beauty routine more sustainable here.