Water (aqua) tops the list of ingredients for almost all our beauty products. According to The International Natural and Organic Cosmetics Association, water comprises 60 to 85 percent of a cream formula, while rinse-off products may contain up to 95 percent. On top of this, the manufacturing processes used by the beauty and personal care industries often require thousands of litres of water. H2O, a precious resource to both humans and nature, is just as vital to our skincare rituals, and this is why the beauty industry—as a whole, and cosmetic brands both big and small—are making significant strides to innovate from a water-conscious perspective, through reformulations, ocean conservation, anti-pollution efforts, greener packaging, optimised manufacturing processes and environmentally friendly alternatives.
The problem with packaging
According to the Statista Consumer Market Outlook, the global cosmetics market’s revenue in 2021 was US$80.74 billion—and it’s slated to surpass US$100 billion by the end of this year. As optimistic as it all looks, another set of correlating numbers is that of beauty packaging, which sees more than 120 billion units of packaging produced every year globally. Unfortunately, most of these are not truly or fully recyclable—and the numbers are rising just as quickly—making the personal care and beauty industry one of the key contributors to the millions of tonnes of plastic waste that are dumped into our oceans annually.
“One of the biggest ways the beauty industry harms the ocean is through single-use plastic,” says Christine Tan, founder of Gentle Mood, a small-batch, handcrafted, artisanal soap brand. “Beauty brands have a strong focus on packaging when it comes to marketing their products, and this results in excessive plastic waste that ends up in landfills and the ocean. This is one of the main reasons why we are dedicated to reducing waste and not using any plastic packaging, even if it might cost us certain opportunities.” Besides containing little to no water in their formulas, bar soaps boast one of the eco-friendliest options when it comes to packaging, with many brands opting for paper wraps or boxes, versus plastic containers.
Over at industry stalwart, L’Oreal Paris, a major transformation is in motion to step up its international processes. The beauty conglomerate has spent the last 10 years reinventing the ways it does business, shifting its sights to more sustainable business models. And today, L’Oreal Paris has embarked on the second phase of its sustainability journey, presenting 2030 targets to preserve natural resources, control consumption and innovate new solutions in accordance with what our resource-constrained planet needs, all with the goal of cultivating a strong circular economy.
Statistics-wise, the company is targeting to have 95 percent of the ingredients in its products to be bio-based, derived from abundant minerals or from circular processes; 100 percent of plastic used for packaging to be either recycled or from bio-based sources; 100 percent of plastic packaging to be refillable, reusable, recyclable or compostable; and 100 percent of waste generated to be recycled or reused—all to be reached within the next three to eight years.
Microplastics being a huge impact in the beauty industry
“However, it’s not just packaging itself,” adds Tan. “Cosmetics commonly include polymers such as polyethylene and dimethicone, which are microplastics that end up in the ocean; shower gels and shampoos include microbeads to help exfoliate, but microbeads are actually easily avoidable by choosing products with natural exfoliants such as coffee grounds or salt, which can be found in our Peppermint + Coffee and Pink Salt + Bergamot soap bars.”
No doubt, the prevalence of microplastics in the environment has become a major global conservation issue. And research has identified personal care and cosmetic products as a primary source. Despite being banned in certain regions, microbeads are still widely available for sale in certain markets, found in facial exfoliating formulas, shower gels, toothpastes, lip products and more. Realistically speaking, there are multiple loopholes in how microbeads have been phased out over the years, with big beauty players from Japan and South Korea to France and the US committing to eradicate these particles, but only from rinse-off products that exfoliate or cleanse, rather than all functions, which is how they’re still available in countless top-shelf formulas.
Isabel Aagaard, founder of LastObject, explains: “Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that are a big threat to the environment and human health. One of the biggest sources of microplastics is the cosmetics industry, which has been purposefully adding tiny beads of plastic to a lot of products such as body wash, toothpaste and make-up for over 50 years. These microplastics get washed down the drain and are too small to be caught in filtration systems, so they end up in our oceans where they get ingested by marine species at the bottom of the food chain and are eventually consumed by humans. Microplastics often contain toxic substances such as phthalates and polychlorinated biphenyls, which have been linked to cancer and a range of other serious health conditions.”
The thing with these little capsules is that unlike other sources of environmental microplastics, they can be easily replaced by natural ingredients. According to Amore Pacific, microbead alternatives include mineral and plant-derived materials like silica and zeolites. Chanel uses exclusively natural beads such as jojoba; while at L’Oreal, they come in the form of powdered fruit kernels, mineral-based perlite or any other natural polymer.
As a sustainable brand, Sigi Skin is always finding ways to be more eco-conscious. Founder Xenia Wong explains: “We introduced our first refillable packaging for our Garden Party Deep Cleansing Clay Mask. This helps to reduce plastic waste and our carbon footprint greatly as the refills are much lighter. Also, our Bright Skies Peeling Gel Exfoliator instantly removes dead skin cells without any microbeads.”
One of the biggest sources of microplastics is the cosmetics industry, which has been purposefully adding tiny beads of plastic to a lot of products such as body wash, toothpaste and make-up for over 50 years.
When asked if recycling or reducing was the more sustainable option, Aagaard affirms that “reducing consumption will always be the more sustainable option”. She adds: “It’s easy to focus only on disposal when considering the environmental impact of a product, but we should take into account the entire life cycle of a product to determine what the most sustainable choice is. By reducing and reusing, we also reduce the amount of energy, water and raw materials needed for manufacturing new products. Also, the CO2 emissions and other pollution caused by transportation are much lower.”
It is this mindset that led her to found LastObject, to create reusable beauty essentials that eliminate the need for disposable products, such as Q-tips, cotton rounds and menstrual pads. A single LastSwab, LastObject’s version of the reusable Q-tip, replaces up to 1,000 single-use swabs, “so by making the switch we can all do our bit to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans. We wanted to go a step further so we decided to use recycled ocean-bound plastic in our products. This way we are also cleaning up our oceans from existing plastic. So far, we have helped eliminate over three million single-use products.”
Besides alternative packaging and reusability, brands have also invested in formulas that do not harm the ocean and its inhabitants. Representing a new wave of beauty brands that seeks to make a positive impact on our skin and the planet, One Ocean Beauty offers a clinically proven clean skincare line formulated with sustainably sourced marine actives to smooth, firm and nourish complexions. “We do not harvest from the ocean. Instead, our marine ingredients are recreated sustainably in the lab,” says Kat Bryce, head of brand. One of its star products is the Replenishing Deep Sea Moisturizer, which is formulated with nutrient-rich wakame extract from an algae native to the Sea of Japan, and cryoprotective marine actives. “We also have a long-term partnership with Oceana [one of the world’s largest ocean activist charities] and have an ongoing campaign called Love Ocean, which helps to drive awareness and provide support for the protection and conservation of the world’s oceans,” she adds.
Sustainability’s constant evolution
Ultimately, the definition of sustainability is one that’s ever-evolving, surrounded by mounting challenges, misconceptions and easier-than-you-think alternatives.
Aagaard sums it up best: “There is nothing that is absolutely 100 percent zero footprint, and is also an ever-changing field. New materials are created that are better than before, new possibilities in manufacturing arise and new knowledge comes to the table. The key to becoming more sustainable is to keep innovating and keep searching for new possibilities—which also makes this one of the hardest challenges in sustainable beauty. There is no one answer or one truth about anything. You can create something and think this will be ever sustainable, but you can only create something to be the most sustainable right now with the notion and opinion you have now. This can change tomorrow. Which also makes it exciting and happy, to see the world is moving.”
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