How to Cut Down on Plastic in Your Clean Beauty and Hygiene Routine

If you’re the kind of person who totes canvas bags to the supermarket and stores leftover food in reusable glass containers rather than disposable plastic baggies, you probably feel like you’re making a pretty solid eco-friendly effort. And you are! Every little bit counts.

But that’s precisely why you might be rather dismayed when you examine all the single-use plastic products in your beauty and hygiene routine. From makeup to facewash, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, and menstrual products, the dependence on plastic in the beauty and hygiene sector can be shocking.

But you can recycle plastic, right? Well, sure, in theory — but in practice, not so much. Not all plastic products can be recycled; squeezable pouches, pumps and droppers, small items, and plastics labeled with the number 3 are especially difficult to recycle

A survey conducted by Johnson & Johnson in 2012 found that fewer than one in five U.S. consumers recycle bathroom items, which leads to an estimated 552 million 15-ounce shampoo bottles making their way into landfills each year. If you need a visual, that amount of plastic would fill around 1,164 football fields. And a paper published in Science Advances in 2017 showed that only around nine percent of the plastic waste generated in the world has actually been recycled. But do we really need all that plastic packaging?

If you’re disposed to ditch some plastic from your beauty and hygiene routine, we’ve got some simple options. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a little time before you can boast a plastic-free bathroom regimen. Even small changes make a sizeable impact.

Three Steps to Reduce Your Plastic Use

First, reassess and remove
Reducing the number of products you use each day will naturally reduce the amount of single-use plastic you bring into your home, so begin by examining the products you use. Determine whether they’re all truly essential, then cut out the ones you don’t really need. 

While you reassess, pay close attention to whether any of your products use microbeads, which are tiny plastic particles that cause major environmental destruction. Due to microbeads’ small size, wastewater treatment plants do not filter them out, meaning the tiny plastic particles end up in lakes and rivers where microorganisms mistake them for food. Many body washes, facial cleansers, and toothpastes (especially extra-whitening kinds) commonly contain microbeads.

Then, rethink how you use your products
Can any plastic-free products on your shelves do double duty? For example, can you use that bar of soap in place of a can of shave gel for getting your legs silky smooth? Could you use a combo lip and cheek stain in place of two separate products each morning? And check your kitchen cabinets — many clean beauty experts tout coconut oil for tons of uses that have nothing to do with cooking, including as a moisturizer and makeup remover.

Finally, replace your plastic-heavy products with eco-friendly and reusable options
Now that you whittled down to just the products you truly need, make a list of any products packaged in or made of plastic, and then consider this list of suggested swaps.

  • Bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash
    Check out shampoo and conditioner bars; many brands offer reusable, rust-resistant metal tins to keep your shower tidy. Body wash can easily be swapped for a bar of soap, many of which come in plastic-free packaging.
  • Disposable plastic safety razor
    Cut it right out of your life and pick up a reusable stainless steel safety razor instead.
  • Cotton swabs and makeup-removing wipes
    Silicone swabs, reusable ear cleaning kits, and reusable makeup-removing cloths are easy to use and a cinch to wash, and last for ages.
  • Microbeads
    You don’t have to give up on exfoliating products — just seek out (or DIY!) plastic-free alternatives made with ingredients such as oatmeal, sugar, coffee grounds, and finely ground nut shells. 
  • Tampons and pads
    From reusable menstrual cups to highly absorbent period underwear, choose from several easy-to-use feminine hygiene products that dramatically cut down on monthly waste and cost.
  • Deodorant
    Swap your stick encased in plastic for a deodorant bar housed in cardboard — or look into a deodorant paste that comes in a reusable jar. 
  • Toothbrush
    Bamboo toothbrushes are a popular biodegradable option, and there are also toothbrushes out there made from recycled aluminum with replaceable heads. While you’re at it, lose the single-use flossers and try a silk dental floss made with compostable silk in a refillable container.
  • Tube of toothpaste
    Try toothpaste tablets housed in reusable jars or recyclable packaging. Just pop one in your mouth, chew it into a paste, and brush with a wet toothbrush. 

Shop smarter

Maybe eliminating single-use plastic entirely feels daunting, but by shopping mindfully, you can make a difference without sacrificing your creature comforts. 

For example, look for products packaged in recyclable materials or ones that can be refilled and reused. Even if a container can’t be refilled by the company, you may be able to repurpose it in another way and keep it out of a landfill. Certain beauty brands have their own recycling programs, many of which reward customers for their eco-friendly actions. MAC Cosmetics, for one, takes back lipstick tubes — and for every six a customer returns, they receive one lipstick for free. Kiehl’s has a similar program. Lots of other brands work with companies like TerraCycle to repurpose hard-to-recycle materials.

A few glass containers can go a long way in reducing your beauty- and hygiene-related plastic use. You can dilute concentrates in reusable glass containers, which reduces not only packaging but also helps on the production and shipping levels. And if you make DIY beauty products using ingredients such as coconut oil, sugar, and essential oils, you can also store them in reusable glass jars and bottles. 

Think before you throw

Naturally, you can only reuse or refill some items, and if there’s no way to upcycle a tube, bottle, or canister, then recycling is a good alternative. You may think that putting anything that could be recyclable into the recycling bin at least gives it a chance, but that approach does more harm than good. So before you toss that empty plastic package into your recycling bin, look carefully to make sure it’s actually marked as recyclable — and clean any residual product out before sending it on its way. If the package doesn’t clarify whether or not you can recycle it, check with the manufacturer. 

If you still don’t have a clear answer on whether or not you can recycle it or return it to the brand, toss it — and take the opportunity to pick out a plastic-free replacement on your next beauty haul.

By Kristen Seymour

Kristen Seymour is a freelance writer and editor who has spent the last 15 years covering topics ranging from food and fitness to pets, tech and travel for outlets including USA Today, Women’s Running, Fit Bottomed Girls (where she’s a co-owner), and many more. She works from her bike desk (highly recommend!) in sunny Sarasota, Florida. When she’s not writing, you can often find her walking, running, or drinking coffee at the nearby beach.