Going plastic-free is an admirable goal, but it’s tougher than it sounds. And, let’s be honest, it sounds pretty tough.
The truth is: Plastic is everywhere, from the lining of your paper coffee cup to your tea bags that looks so innocent.
It’s even found its way into the food we eat — a 2017 study found microplastic in 16 different brands of salt from eight countries.
While there’s no way to return to a completely plastic-free world, it is possible to up your eco-friendliness by reducing the amount of new plastic you consume.
One place to start is with your bathroom cabinet. Yes, that might mean ditching some cult favorites or tried-and-true products you’ve used forever. But doing good for the planet doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality. It just means you have to find what works.
This process can take some trial and error, which, in itself, isn’t necessarily Earth-friendly. To take out some work (and waste), read on for a list of my favorites and some tips on finding sustainably packaged products.
Traditional plastic is made from crude oil, which isn’t very eco-friendly. But, even if we look beyond what it’s made from, plastic still gets zero brownie points for trying.
While the plastics industry may want you to believe that plastic is fully recyclable, some types aren’t. And even the types that are recyclable in theory don’t often get recycled in practice.
In fact, 2017 research estimates that just 9 percent of plastic manufactured between 1950 and 2015 was recycled. Another 12 percent was burned, while a whopping 60 percent ended up in landfills or somewhere else in the natural environment (hello, Great Pacific Garbage Patch).
The same research found that, of the plastic that was actually recycled, only 10 percent was recycled more than once. Plastic loses some of its integrity each time you recycle it, so it can’t be reused forever.
Lastly, plastic that ends up in landfills or oceans never fully breaks down and disappears completely. Instead, it just breaks up into tiny little pieces known as microplastics.
Truthfully, the most sustainable thing to do is avoid packaging altogether. For example, if you can find products in bulk and put them in your own reusable tins, bags, and jars, you’re acing it.
That’s not always possible, though, especially if you don’t live near a bulk store (or if your bulk bins are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic). And not all bulk options work for every skin type or concern.
So, shop in bulk when you can, but if you do have to buy something packaged, be mindful of the materials used.
Glass isn’t a perfect substitute for plastic. For starters, it’s typically made from sand, a nonrenewable resource. It’s also heavier than plastic, meaning it takes more energy to transport.
The big advantage with glass, however, is that it’s infinitely recyclable. It doesn’t lose any of its integrity no matter how many times you melt it down and reuse it.
Still, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only 31.3 percent of glass is recycled in the United States. A lot of it ends up in landfills, where it can take a long time to break down. But, unlike plastic, it doesn’t emit harmful chemicals during this process.
Aluminum is mined from the earth, and, again, it’s nonrenewable. Still, it’s a better choice than plastic, and maybe even a better choice than glass.
Like glass, aluminum can be recycled an infinite number of times. It’s also lightweight, so it takes less energy to transport.
Again, though, only 34.9 percent of aluminum is actually recycled in practice. (Seeing a trend?)
The obvious downside to paper is that it’s made from trees. Though trees are a renewable resource, deforestation is a major issue, and not all paper is made responsibly.
Where paper wins is in its ability to be recycled and composted. It’s recycled at a rate of about 68.2 percent. If it does happen to end up in a landfill, it breaks down pretty quickly.
Opt for glass, aluminum, or sustainably sourced paper packaging over plastic.
Be sure to recycle or reuse your packaging materials, so they don’t end up in landfills. When you can, buy products made with recycled materials rather than new materials.
In my quest to cut down on personal plastic use, I spent some time swapping out my skin care products with more sustainable choices.
Here’s what I found that worked best.
- $ = under $10
- $$ = $10–$20
- $$$ = over $20
Trial and error tip
If you try something that doesn’t work for you, don’t just dump it.
Instead, consider donating your unused or lightly used products to an organization, like Project Beauty Share. They take products that are at least 3/4 of the way full, so long as they meet a few requirements.
Best plastic-free soap bar
UpCircle Chocolate Charcoal Chai Soap Bar
I have to admit, I wasn’t too excited about switching from body wash to bar soap — partly because body wash comes in so many fun scents, and partly because bar soap has a reputation for being drying or leaving a wax-like coating on the skin.
This bar from UpCircle, though, is a total game-changer. It cleanses with charcoal but smells like dessert, thanks to the addition of cacao and upcycled chai spices. And it definitely doesn’t leave me with any dryness or waxiness.
Plus, this bar lasts forever — way longer than a bottle of body wash. I use this bar on my body and face, and it works great for both.
What I love most about UpCircle is their commitment to sustainability, which shows up in more ways than just their packaging. Not only is their whole product line almost entirely plastic-free (they use aluminum, glass, and paper), but they also make use of upcycled fruit pits, coffee grounds, and chai spices that would otherwise be wasted.
UpCircle is UK-based, but they have a U.S. version of their site, too. Rest assured that their shipping materials are as plastic-free as their products. Even the tape is paper and made from recycled fibers.
You can also find some UpCircle products, including this one, online at Ulta. Keep in mind that Ulta may ship with plastic bubble wrap or in plastic shipping envelopes.
Best (mostly) plastic-free toner
cocokind Rosewater Toner
This product from cocokind is made with just one ingredient: certified organic rose water. Rose water is a natural toner that removes excess dirt after cleansing. And there’s an added bonus: it’s hydrating rather than drying.
This toner comes with a spray top (the only plastic piece on the bottle), so it can be applied directly to your face. I prefer to spray it onto a reusable cotton round and apply it that way.
I’ve noticed this toner makes my skin feel soft and hydrated, and my moisturizer seems to go on more smoothly after using it. It also has a really nice light rose scent.
A woman-owned business, cocokind makes all their products in the United States. Even the glass bottles they use for packaging are sourced in the United States rather than internationally, which cuts down on the brand’s carbon footprint.
Thanks to the single organic ingredient, this toner bears the USDA organic seal. It’s also cruelty-free, and the outer box is made of materials from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified forests, recycled materials, and FSC controlled wood (FSC Mix).
The brand ships in recyclable paper boxes with paper padding. However, the tape used to seal the boxes is plastic.
You can also find some cocokind products, including this one, in stores or online at Target, Ulta, or Whole Foods.
Best plastic-free facial oil
UpCircle Face Serum with Coffee Oil
I’m pretty new to facial oils, but this one has me sold. Not only does it make my skin glow, but it also smells delicious thanks to the addition of coffee oil from upcycled grounds. I like to layer it on top of my moisturizer. A little goes a long way, so you really only need a couple drops.
Made with a blend of oils, including sunflower seed, safflower seed, jojoba seed, rosehip, and raspberry seed, this serum’s ingredients list is 98 percent organic and rich in vitamins and antioxidants. So far, I’ve only used it on my skin, though UpCircle suggests it can be used as a hair oil as well.
The cool thing about this serum is that, although the pipette has a rubber and plastic top, you can purchase refills that are topped only with an aluminum cap. That way, you’ll only ever have to buy — and use — one pipette for as long as you choose to continue using the product.
So far, this refill option is only available to UK-based customers, but it’s coming soon to U.S.-based customers as well.
In addition to buying straight from UpCircle, you should be able to find this serum online or in stores at Ulta and Credo Beauty.
Best plastic-free daytime face moisturizer with SPF
Green Goo Solar Goo SPF 30
I’m a stickler for sunscreen, especially on my face. I’ve used the same one for years, but when I went looking for a plastic-free alternative, it was nearly impossible to find. Everything I found was sticky, chalky, or impossible to rub in — or it was chemical-based.
This option from Green Goo, though, is a winner. It’s made with only seven ingredients, including coconut oil, sunflower oil, and calendula oil (which may have some sun protection properties itself).
Thanks to all those oils, I’ll admit it feels pretty greasy going on. But it soaks in quickly, comes in a fully recyclable aluminum tin, and it’s reef-safe.
Best (mostly) plastic-free nighttime face moisturizer
Juice Beauty Nutrient Moisturizer
This moisturizer from Juice Beauty is lightweight and hydrating. I have a habit of rubbing my moisturizer in my hands before applying it to my face, but this one forces me to apply it the correct way, à la Jonathan Van Ness.
If I apply it any other way, it’s nearly gone by the time I touch my hands to my face — it soaks in that fast.
Instead of water, Juice Beauty uses their signature organic white grape juice as the base for this moisturizer. It’s also packed with other hydrating ingredients, like aloe, shea butter, and jojoba seed oil. And, true to the name, it’s got its fair share of nutrients, like vitamin C and E.
Straight out of the jar, this cream has a fairly strong, sort of herbal, scent. But it’s not unpleasant, and it fades quickly after applying it.
The only bummer is that the packaging isn’t entirely plastic-free. It comes in an FSC box and glass jar, but the cap is made from plastic.
However, the good news is that Juice Beauty is in the process of transitioning all of its plastics to recycled plastic.
If you buy directly from Juice Beauty, your order ships in a recyclable cardboard box with tissue paper padding. The tape used to seal the box is plastic.
You can also find some products in stores at Ulta if you want to skip the shipping altogether.
Best plastic-free body cream
Meow Meow Tweet Skin Cream
If you’re looking to pare down your skin care routine, this cream from Meow Meow Tweet might be just the thing. It can be used on both your face and body.
The rosehip fruit oil and vitamin E are particularly helpful for facial skin, while shea butter and sunflower seed oil provide hydration. Almost everything on the ingredients list is certified organic, and the shea butter is also certified fair trade.
This body cream comes in a glass jar with an aluminum lid — both of which can be recycled. The outer cardboard box is home compostable or recyclable. If you opt for the bulk size, you can send the packaging back to Meow Meow Tweet to reuse when you’re finished.
Bonus: I also recommend Meow Meow Tweet Lavender Bergamot Deodorant Stick, which comes in a paper tube with no plastic whatsoever. And, yes, it actually works.
Other sustainable skin care brands
If you still haven’t managed to find your go-to products, here are a few more brands you might want to check out.
While I haven’t tried these brands myself, I’ve heard good things about them.
Going plastic-free may seem daunting. But, if you do a little digging, there are tons of sustainable and effective options out there.
Be sure to forgo packaging when you can, and opt for products packaged in recyclable glass, aluminum, or paper.