I’ve worn makeup for as long as I can remember. When I was very young, it was a yearly tradition for dance recitals. As I got older, it was an everyday occurrence that I hardly thought about. Whether it was to give a little definition to my absolutely blank facial features (oh hey, pale redhead here!) or show off how *~cool~* I was as an angsty teen, makeup was there.
Sure, the eyeliner was heavier some years, or the lipstick darker, or the mascara clumpier… but it was there.
Suffice to say, I like makeup.
As I’ve gotten older I my feelings toward it has moved away from a sense of necessity to a comfortable morning polishing ritual. All this to say is I don’t see myself going 100% without makeup anytime soon. My zero waste makeup choices focuses on zero waste and no animal testing so that’s what I choose to focus my energy on when choosing products.
It is what it is and as one of my zero waste exception items, I’ve had to spend time thinking about makeup and how to create a workable, near zero waste makeup routine. Because the beauty industry is messed up in many ways, but the amount of waste it produces – and the industry’s inevitable environmental impact – is a big one.
The beauty industry’s environmental impact
You’ve probably heard something recently about the eco-conscious person’s newest worry: microbeads and more broadly, microplastics.
Turns out, there’s plenty to worry about regarding the effect of cosmetics on the environment. (No surprise when you study the incomprehensible ingredient list.)
According to a study released in the early part of 2017, “many of these [cosmetic] products are biologically active and are characterized by persistence and bioaccumulation potential, posing a threat to ecosystem and human health” (source). The study specifically names UV filters, some preservatives (like parabens), and microplastics as concerning elements which they say “can accumulate in sewage sludge during wastewater treatment and then enter the environment because of the common practice of using sludge as a fertilizer on crops”. Because sewage treatment plants are not always effective at removing certain types of chemicals found in beauty products, they slip back into our environment in a major way.
One earlier study even raised the question of whether the presence of certain chemicals – specifically phthalates – could cause reproductive or developmental issues in those who used the products (source). The good news is there’s no definitive study showing a connection, but I’d rather err on the side of caution until thorough research has been completed.
When it comes to a great deal of the beauty aisle, the bright colors and too-perfect formulas should probably raise at least a few red flags. And we haven’t even gotten to the packaging yet…
The down-low on cosmetics packaging
Like any consumer good that’s not a necessity, packaging has taken over the cosmetics aisle. Walk through any store and you’ll be struck by the amount of packaging attached to a seemingly endless amount of items lining the walls.
Euromonitor reports that in 2008 the cosmetics industry created 120.8 billion units of packaging. (I didn’t find more recent statistics, but who’d care to wager that number went up?) Worse still, a lot of cosmetic packaging comes in plastics which are either non-recyclable or are at the very least iffy for the average consumer to guess about.
And, as one article succinctly states: “Though all technically recyclable, ‘difficult-to-recycle’ waste streams are not typically profitable to recycle in our current infrastructure. Cosmetics are often packaged in containers that are hard to clean, and the packaging is often comprised of mixed materials” (source).
Many locations – especially with smaller or less developed recycling programs – do not have the capability to recycle these essentially valueless items, meaning things like pumps, lids, and products tubes are very likely to end up in the landfill.
There are alternatives like TerraCycle, which sells boxes which you fill with traditionally unrecyclable items and send the box to be recycled. A great idea in theory, but the prohibitive costs of their boxes make the program inaccessible to many. (Plus, why is it my job as a consumer to do the dirty work companies should already be doing themselves?!)
I try to avoid the problem altogether by not purchasing containers which can’t be repurposed in some way; thanks to that, my makeup routine is fairly low waste.
My zero waste makeup routine
Maybe it’s laziness (it definitely is), but all I use to wash my face in the morning is a splash or two of water. I took that hint from the queen at Paris to Go, whose skin invariably inspires envy every time I see her Instagram stories.
Because here’s the true, sad story of my skin: I used to enjoy trying new products but my skin never looked better, no matter how high-quality the product was. Because my skin is naturally unoffensive – I wouldn’t say it’s amazing, but not bad – I decided to just stop spending the money on unnecessary products. I look literally the same; plus, I’ve got a few extra bucks in my pocket.
I will occasionally use this jojoba oil to which I’ve added a little bit of tea tree oil to if my face is particularly dry, but that’s generally a winter-only thing since I use coconut oil to remove my makeup.
As of now, my actual zero waste beaut: Clean-Faced Cosmetics BB cream, Besame cake mascara applied with an old mascara wand, Fig+Yarrow lip tint, and the occasional red lipstick that isn’t zero waste but I got from someone who no longer wanted it.
I used to wear a lot more makeup but I’ve honestly become quite lazy, which is a great weapon in your zero waste arsenal.
For removing makeup, I stick with coconut oil and a cut-up washcloth. It may not be fancy, but it gets the job done (and usually ensures my face is moisturized enough I don’t need another lotion). After that I’ll wash my face with water.
If I feel like I need extra exfoliation, I’ll put about a tablespoon of baking soda in my palm and add water until it’s a paste. Gently (very gently!) apply it to your face, let it dry for a few minutes, and then gently (very gently!) wipe off your face with a wet washcloth.
My zero waste makeup is really that simple. Of course others may prefer to have more in their zero waste makeup arsenal, and that’s an absolutely valid choice. If you’re looking to have a fuller face of makeup or make conscientious purchases for yourself, follow along below to see both DIY and commercial options.
Creating a DIY zero waste beauty routine
NB: almost all of these recipes require different specialty products that are very difficult to source unpackaged so undertake DIY projects at your own risk!
Lip balm: lip balm is a very simple thing that’s easy to make (and source unpackaged ingredients). Find a nice metal tin and simply make a new batch whenever you need. Going Zero Waste has nice vegan and non-vegan recipes.
Liquid foundation: this is an oft-cited recipe by Wellness Mama that offers several ways of making liquid foundation. It requires nine ingredients, most of which you won’t have on hand unless you’re a big DIYer.
Mascara/eyeliner: full disclosure I don’t believe there’s actually a DIY mascara/eyeliner that would stay put throughout a strenuous workday, though that could be my greasy eyelids talking. This one looks promising although it requires ingredients above and beyond the norm.
Moisturizer: DIY facial moisturizer recipes abound, so I’d suggest doing some research on what’ll work for your specific skin type before springing for a lot of ingredients. That being said, a recipe similar to this worked very well for my dry skin (face and otherwise) during the cold winter months without being overly heavy.
Brands to consider
With such a wide array of cosmetics products available, it can be overwhelming to try and narrow down your options. In this section I’ve highlighted some brands that align themselves with zero waste makeup and being eco-conscious to a large degree, even if I wouldn’t deem any of them the perfect company.
V = vegan / CF = cruelty free / O = certified organic / PFP = plastic-free packaging
$ = drugstore prices / $$ = mid-range / $$$ = splurge
Brands with Take-Back Programs
While they might not be zero waste oriented, there are some brands that offer take-back programs for packaging that would be otherwise thrown away. Better yet, most of these companies are much more accessible than the others listed below. Lush ($$), Kiehl’s ($$$), Origins ($$), and MAC ($$$) are a few.
Elate ($$ – CF / V / PFP)
Overview: Elate Clean Cosmetics dubs itself as a sustainable company boasting vegan, cruelty free, gluten free, and toxin free cosmetics made in Canada. Their cases and containers are made of sustainable bamboo, although some do contain plastic parts which are so small I doubt they could be recycled and as far as I can tell, they don’t have a take-back program.
Packaging: “We use water soluble packing peanuts made from corn to pack your order. Any plastic you may find for added protection is always re-used by our company and never purchased. If you are taking a plastic free challenge or have a plastic free lifestyle please let us know in the notes section at checkout and we will do our best to accommodate you.” While that’s nice, it would be nicer if they just didn’t include the plastic. Don’t put that job on the consumer, companies.
Fat and the Moon ($-$$ – PFP)
Overview: Fat and the Moon is a small business that sells natural “potions” for the body including creams, deodorants, and cosmetics. The company touts its organic ingredients but is not certified organic; likely because of the cost rather than anything shady in their ingredients. Several sites claim they are vegan although the company does not explicitly state that on their site.
Packaging: on their site, Fat and the Moon state their priority “is to use reusable, recyclable containers, and to minimize superfluous packaging”. Products are in metal tins or glass and shipped with minimal packaging.
Kjaer Weis (CF / O / PFP)
Overview: Kjaer Weis sells luxury, sustainable cosmetics. If I had a coherent aesthetic, this would be it. Their compacts and other cosmetics containers are high-quality metal which are meant to last; the company offers refills for its products that drastically reduces the amount of packaging you create with their products.
Packaging: they don’t comment on their packaging or how they send their items safely, but it is possible to buy the items in-store to avoid shipping packaging.
RMS Beauty (O / CF / PFP)
Overview: RMS Beauty products are formulated with raw, food grade and organic ingredients in their natural state. If you’re into all-natural, RMS is where it’s at. They offer foundation, lip, and blush products in metal and glass, but be careful; they’ve recently included plastic containers for some of their new products.
Packaging: RMS Beauty states “Packaging for RMS Beauty products is minimal, and all of it is biodegradable, recyclable or reusable.” The website doesn’t state what they use for shipping, but there is a space for comments on the order.
Alima Pure (CF / PFP)
Overview: not only are the ingredients natural and not tested on animals, Alima Pure has some major dedication to the Earth. They’re a carbon neutral company (unlike any other on this list), they donate 1% of their gross sales to grassroots organizations, and all their ingredients are listed and explained in an easy-to-understand way.
Packaging: they offer refillable compacts with magnetic pans for an easy switch-out once you hit empty. A lot of their sustainability works makes me inclined to support them even if they don’t offer a return program. In terms of shipping, Alima Pure ships their items in paper with minimal plastic waste.
Besame Cosmetics ($$ – CF / PFP)
Overview: Besame Cosmetics is one of my favorite brands because of its vintage-inspired looks. While not specifically zero waste in any way, their cosmetics are packaged in the sturdier, non-plastic packaging of the past, making them beautiful and functional.
Packaging: Besame comes with minimal cardboard packaging on their items. The packing peanuts they include in their shipping are water-soluble.
Etsy has a huge range of zero waste makeup options from sellers all over the world. I’ve listed just a few below
Clean Faced Cosmetics: Clean Faced Cosmetics is a vegan, handmade cosmetics business with a healthy range of products from makeup to skincare to lotion and more. I have their foundation powder and mixing medium and I can’t recommend it more for simple, sheer coverage. [MI, USA]
URBAPOTHECARY: this shop offers “plant centered organic body care for mind, body, spirit”. It offers face masks, beard oil, candles, and more – all in low-waste packaging. If you’re looking for a larger gift, I’d suggest one of their lovely themed sets. [CA, USA]
SunnyBrae Buzz: Items for adults, kids, and pets alike! It’s not all vegan (some items use local beeswax), but everything else is fair trade and organic. Best of all the packaging is either reusable metal tins or recyclable/compostable cardboard tubes. [PA, USA]
Coghlan Cottage Farm: while this shop has plenty of items, if you’re looking for unpackaged soap this is the place to be! From face soap to standard body soap to shampoo bars, Coghlan Cottage Farm has it all. (Be aware that they do produce lard soap, all you vegans out there!) [CAN]
Mega-post done! What zero waste beauty brands can you recommend from your personal experience? Any luck with good DIY projects? Please let me know in the comments below!