Sheet masks, cleansing wipes and other single-use products are driving up an unprecedented environmental impact
By Andrea Cheng
Published: Jan 18, 2020
It takes two hours to spot-treat a growing zit with a pimple patch. It takes 20 minutes to de-puff the eye area with a mask. It takes only 10 to give your complexion a shot of hydration with a sheet mask.
Fifty years ago, or as recently as 10 or even five, one skin-care product could last you a few weeks or sometimes months. Now, beauty companies feed our single-use behavior — the super-convenient way of using something only once before discarding it — with a flood of nonbiodegradable, nonrecyclable disposable products.
Not only is there an abundance of sheet masks, but there are also derivatives sold to target specific areas like laugh lines or your derrière or your nether regions. There are cleansing wipes available from nearly every brand on the market.
“People haven’t been made as aware of the impact of beauty,” said Freya Williams, the chief executive of Futerra North America, an agency that helps companies with sustainability efforts. “We’re taught in school to recycle, but it’s focused more in the kitchen than in the bathroom, so it doesn’t seem as important.”
The single-use phenomenon is a fairly recent development, Williams added. And, she said, “it’s happening without anybody realizing how much these items are taking over.”
Overconsumption of Beauty Goods It’s hard to resist innovative product introductions, seasonal trends and the promise of clearer, tighter, smoother skin. At the peak of the K-beauty trend, a 10-step beauty routine was not only heralded as the answer to a flawless complexion, but it also came to exemplify one form of self-care.
“We saw an uptick in the number of skin-care products consumers used at the height of the Korean skin-care trend, with many adding an additional mask or product,” said Larissa Jensen, the executive director and beauty industry analyst at the NPD Group market research consultancy.
Every extra serum or mask comes with problematic side effects. Without our even realizing it, we’re driving up the environmental impact.
Elizabeth Mullans, a dermatologist in Houston, believes that a streamlined anti-aging regimen can be boiled down to three essential products: sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, an over-the-counter retinol or prescription-strength retinoid, and a vitamin C serum.
“I don’t think you can use too many products — they will all be absorbed into your skin — but these three are going to help the most,” Mullans said. Other products can be added to target specific concerns, like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid for acne, or hyaluronic acid for irritation or dryness.
“Stay away from any product that contains collagen because the molecules are too big to be absorbed,” she said. “It’s basically a glorified moisturizer.”
Luxury’s Excess Problem Many believe the industry’s biggest culprit, and its most challenging hurdle, is packaging, with luxury brands being the greatest offender. “The way brands create ‘luxury’ is through layers of heavy packaging, which is often not recyclable and is being discarded,” Williams said.
We have reached a point at which excess packaging no longer feels luxurious. The industry watchdog Estee Laundry, an Instagram account, has long put brands on blast for waste. A recent target was Pat McGrath Labs and the excessive amount of plastic that comes with a single beauty product.
“Making sustainability synonymous with luxury is an opportunity, and it’s something we’re starting to see in fashion,” Williams said. “Invest in something that’s worthy of your time and money.”
Investing in waterless beauty products is one example.
Anhydrous formulas eliminate water as a key ingredient to deliver on four things: higher potency (and in turn, greater efficacy); a longer shelf life (without water, there is less risk of bacteria growth); fewer toxins (because there is no longer a need for parabens or preservatives); and water conservation.
The Clean Beauty Push Clean beauty is expected to generate nearly $25 billion by 2025, according to a report from Grand View Research. That may be only a fraction of the beauty industry (an $863 billion business by 2024, according to Zion Market Research), but the demand for products that are marketed as “clean” or “natural” continues to be strong.
“This focus on ingredients and whether they’re good — if they’re harmful to your skin or the environment — is why there’s a big movement toward clean beauty,” Jensen said. “Clean beauty ties into the wellness movement and the wellness movement ties into the environment, because it’s about what’s good for you and the planet.”
She said that demand for such products may help explain an NPD 2019 market report indicating that the skin-care category was up 7% in sales, while makeup was down 5%.
And as Gen Z consumers, whose priorities include transparency and sustainability, gain spending power as they age, this movement will likely accelerate.
Every Action Counts If you look at beauty’s impact as a whole, the challenge can seem overwhelming. Everything — how ingredients are sourced, carbon emissions in production — must be considered lest it lead to harmful social and environmental effects.
Products that use plastic, like glitter or microbeads, can contribute to ocean waste; certain chemicals in sunscreens can harm marine life; and if an ingredient is not sourced responsibly, it can to environmental destruction, like deforestation.
Some companies are making an effort to effect change. Unilever recently pledged that all Dove bottles will be composed of recycled plastic, that the Dove Beauty Bar will be plastic free later in 2020 and that refillable stainless steel deodorant sticks are in the works in an effort to reduce its use of virgin plastic by more than 20,500 tons per year.
For many startups, sustainability is embedded in their DNA, like By Humankind, a personal care brand dedicated to reducing single-use plastic by introducing plastic-free shampoo and conditioner bars and refillable deodorant containers.
LOLI, a zero-waste clean beauty brand, puts its formulas in food-grade glass yogurt jars, which can be reused in the kitchen.
Cadence, a company committed to eliminating travel-size plastic, will begin selling its refillable containers on Tuesday. They allow users to decant their products into durable, leakproof vessels, a percentage of which is made from consumer waste.
“Travel-size versions of beauty products are especially wasteful,” said Stephanie Hon, the founder of Cadence. “By delivering what you love — your beauty routine — we’re allowing you to bring what you want in a more sustainable way.”
She has a point: Consumers are fiercely loyal to their routines (it’s why the beauty industry has historically been immune to recession), which means it is that much harder for them to give up their products for a more sustainable option.
Even though 75% of consumers believe sustainability is very important, it’s the key purchasing criterion for only 7%, according to a study by Boston Consulting Group.
“Consumers think companies aren’t willing to change, and companies think consumers aren’t willing to change, so it’s a stalemate,” Williams said. “Once consumers aren’t forced to choose between sustainability and performance, that’s when you’ll start to see solutions taking off.”
There are, however, small actions you can take: Pick products without packaging; avoid single-use products; swap disposable cleansing wipes and cotton pads for reusable ones; and recycle whatever you can.
“We’re nowhere near where we want to be, but taking the right steps is all we can do,” Jensen said. “At the end of the day, there are companies that are making money without any changes, but when it starts to affect a company’s bottom line, that’s when things are going to start to change.”