How sustainable is your skincare?

While somewhat of a rebel, I’ve always considered myself to be fairly responsible. It's therefore with some embarrassment that I confess it is only recently that I’ve put some serious time into researching the climate change “debate”.

Stephen King could learn a thing or two from author David Wallace-Wells. His bestseller, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, is a horror story that rocked me to the core.

It unleashed in me a roller coaster of emotions. Anger, sadness, shame, frustration and then utter helplessness that any individual attempt I might make to try to reduce my carbon footprint would be merely an insignificant drop in a massive, plastic-infested ocean.

To say I had an epiphany would be a massive understatement! Since then I have begun questioning every action I take with the intent of exploring the impact it has on the planet.

This was particularly concerning when it came to my beauty routine. I came to realise that many of the skincare products I was using, even those who claimed to be eco-friendly, included components that were distinctly UN-planet-friendly!

This created a major dilemma for me. After all, I am fairly addicted to my beauty routines!

What I mean is that for me, my morning and evening cleansing rituals are akin to holiness! Equally as fulfilling and important as my daily exercise or meditation. Simply non-negotiable. Even for the sake of healing the planet!

This set me on a journey to try to identify what components make up a sustainable skincare brand.

Along the way I discovered many products that call themselves green, eco-friendly or sustainable but what does it really mean to live up to these labels?

After considerable research I have compiled 4 factors I believe to be important when evaluating how truly planet-friendly a skincare product is.

1. ALL-NATURAL INGREDIENTS

There is nothing inherently wrong with synthetic ingredients in skincare formulations. My preference however has always been for natural.

Natural generally refers to any ingredient that has come from a plant, mineral or animal by-product.

Natural is not a regulated term in cosmetics which means a product can be branded natural if it has only one or two natural ingredients even if the balance is made up of synthetic ingredients.

Be aware though that just because it doesn’t sound natural, doesn’t mean it isn’t! For example benzyl alcohol is a plant derivative and is used as a natural preservative.

My advice? Look for products branded All-Natural and read the label! Keep in mind that a product that is all-natural uses natural preservatives which means it generally has a shorter shelf life of anywhere from 6 – 18 months.

Just a note regarding organics. The term “organic” is a reference to how an ingredient is farmed.

Generally speaking this means without the use of chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics or hormones. It is a highly regulated term within the beauty industry.

To use the term “Organic” to describe a skincare product, over 70% of the ingredients in the product must be certified organic by the Australian Certified Organic association (ACO).

2. ETHICAL PRACTICES

Ethical production means to adopt holistic philosophies and procedures that take into consideration the well-being of the entire planet plus the people, animals, habitats & eco-systems it supports.

This could mean ensuring that workers are treated with fairness and respect, that habitats are preserved and not destroyed or damaged and that animals are not harmed.

Many products for example, list themselves as Palm Oil free since the clearing of rainforests to produce Palm Oil is claimed to be responsible for 4% of greenhouse gases and 8% of emissions globally.

If purchasing products with Palm Oil, it is important to examine the source of the palm oil to ensure it has been produced without destroying natural habitats.

Vegan beauty products generally follow ethical guidelines although there are some ingredients such as bees wax that remain in question.

I want to mention here the use of animal by-products. Some skincare ingredients can be extracted from a variety of sources. An example of this is Hyaluronic Acid, a skincare ingredient that is reputed to help alleviate dry skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

There are two main sources of Hyaluronic Acid, the first being animal extracted (typically from rooster cones) and the second being bacterial from fermentation. When considering ethical products, always look for those free from ingredients extracted from animal by-products.

3. RECYCLABLE CONTAINERS

This was the area where I found the biggest contradiction with regards to the term sustainable beauty. While I had made every effort to purchase products that were natural and ethical, the vast majority of these products were delivered in containers that were almost impossible to recycle.

The obvious offenders come in the form of pumps and spray attachments. While now standard inclusions, these conveniences contain mechanisms made up of small parts with a mix of materials including metal, plastic and glass.

To recycle would require dismantling and recycling each individual component separately. This is simply not practical so they end up in landfills.

With regards to container materials themselves, what is touted to be recyclable is not always as rosy as it sounds.

Glass for example, while definitely recyclable, is not highly sought after in Australia due to the fact that recycled local glass is often significantly more expensive than new glass sourced from China.

This means that glass you think you are recycling, often ends up in landfills where it can take up to one million years to biodegrade!

Even PET plastic degrades significantly each time it is recycled which means after only 2-3 cycles it generally ends up in composite products such as carpets that end up in landfills.

There is no simple solution here as each material has it's pros & cons. In the end it comes down to the overall value of the recycled material which is where we are seeing an increase in the use of materials such as aluminium in the cosmetic industry.

Aluminium is light and durable, highly valued, can be recycled almost indefinitely with little to no degradation and biodegrades in a landfill in less than 100 years.

Another gripe I have about trying to recycle traditional cosmetic containers is that you need to remove any residual product before putting empties into recycling bins.

If you have ever struggled with trying to remove cleanser or moisturiser from the bottom of a plastic bottle then you will understand my frustration! Not only am I watching valuable product (that I have paid for!) go to waste, but I also risk contaminating recycling processes if any product remains in the bottle.

My recommendation? Save yourself the headache and simply buy skincare in jars not bottles!

Of course, products free from any container at all is the ultimate goal of anyone moving toward a truly zero-waste beauty routine. I am always experimenting with “naked” products.

An obvious solution for soaps and shampoo bars but to date my experience with naked skincare products has fallen short. They are inclined to coat the skin rather than absorb due to the waxy substances required to hold a solid form.

Lush Cosmetics appear to be leading the charge in exploring this avenue but have not mastered it yet in my opinion.

4. SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING

There is nothing that annoys me more in this enlightened age, than receiving a product in a fancy box! I have a whole closet full of fancy boxes in all shapes and sizes sans products.

If you want to avoid my wrath, send your products in small, padded recyclable envelopes with only the minimal amount of protective packaging. And of course, make sure that packaging is both re-useable and biodegradable.

Just a word here about compostible materials. Please don't throw these in the trash! They are designed to breakdown in organic compost piles, not landfills. If you don't compost at home, then check out commercial composting facilities in your area.

Keep marketing material to an absolute minimum. I will go to your website if I want more information. In my post-Uninhabitable Earth mindset, the first question I ask about every single item I pick up is, what am I going to do with this! If I can't use it, then how will I dispose of it?

In addition to the 4 factors above, I also believe that every sustainable business should support a cause larger than itself.

Sustainability is about balance and interdependence. Whether for the benefit of people, animals or the planet, choose businesses that give back!

When it comes to sustainability, there is no clear-cut solution. Every action has an environmental impact.

As a general guideline though, buy local when you can, cut out the middleman and channel your powerful purchasing dollars into supporting small businesses who are genuinely trying to make a difference.

It might cost a little more, but you will feel good knowing that you are investing in the future of our planet!

Remember, every mighty ocean is made up of seemingly insignificant drops!

Photo Credit: David Clode - Unsplash