What is eco-friendly packaging in skin care? Here's how to find it

Hoping to transition to a zero-waste lifestyle? Here's where to start with your beauty and skin care routine.
Eco-friendly zero-waste skin care
Is your skin care packaging harmful to the environment?Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY
By Aly Walansky

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When shopping for skin care products, we research and investigate ingredients to find out which formula will be least harmful to our health. But is the same consideration given to how that product will impact the environment?

More and more, brands are starting to focus on packaging that is less harmful, zero-waste or eco-friendly in some form. Here's everything you need to know to become a more conscious consumer.

1. What is eco-friendly packaging?

Eco-friendly packaging focuses on whether the container holding the skin care formula is biodegradable, made from recycled materials or is recyclable itself. This can be a challenge as the products need to be kept safe, clean and undisturbed from the packaging.

"Biodegradable materials ... come with their own challenges," said dermatologist Dr. Erum Ilyas. "The materials need to maintain stability for products that contain water or oils."

The reality is that the cosmetics themselves could start to prematurely breakdown the packaging and lead to a shorter shelf life.

Glass and metal containers, however, are fully recyclable. These are wonderful options to look for when it comes to products, Ilyas said. The challenge tends to be the pumps. “These are usually a combination of plastic with metal springs and, of course, can be attached to a metal or glass bottle,” said Ilyas.

In some ways, eco-friendly packaging can also help customers avoid certain chemicals if that's a concern.

“It should be noted that in recent years there has been some concern over whether the chemicals in plastic packaging can be harmful to our health. Think BPA and phthalates. These chemicals are thought to be endocrine disruptors and possible carcinogens,” Ilyas added.

2. What are eco-friendly materials?

The best option is "no-waste" packaging, which doesn't necessarily mean a lack of packaging altogether.

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"Technically ‘no waste’ is meant to refer to products where no portion is sent to landfills, oceans or incinerated. I think of it as a ‘waste-management’ goal to minimize the amount of waste produced," said Ilyas.

Packaging options that can be recycled include biodegradable paper or cardboard, metal containers and glass bottles and jars. The biodegradable paper is often used for the boxes and outer packaging of the products.

"Biodegradable paper is often coated with potato or corn (as opposed to plastic),” said Ilyas.

3. Why is sustainable packaging important?

Sustainable packaging for skin care products has become an important issue for many green-conscious consumers.

“We all know how much waste there is from just one beauty product. The box it comes in followed by the container itself (at the very least). Only a small portion of the product you get off the shelf is actually usable,” said Dr. Jenny Sobera, chief medical officer at FaceMDPlus.com. “Sustainable packaging can cut down on harmful chemicals in our environment and reduce the amount of discarded plastic — the EPA estimates that only 9.5% of discarded plastic was recycled in 2014.”

Also, have you ever used a product that comes in a container that feels impossible to empty? Does it seem like it was designed to stop your fingers from getting out every last bit?

“The reality is that some products just make it too difficult to get out the last drops. This is not good for our skin care budget and not good for the environment. Although bottles with pumps can help us measure out the exact amount needed for daily use, it may make sense to either choose products available in jars or open-top containers that give you the ability to access the products,” said Ilyas.

Illyas further explained that the pump in many products (think moisturizers, hand soaps, some shampoos, etc.) are meant to make it easier to pump out the exact amount of product needed and to keep the product ‘clean’ by reducing our hand contact and minimizing bacterial exposure.

But, "pumps tend to be made of plastic and cannot access all of the product in the bottle. The plastic tube that meets the base of the bottle can only pump out the product that comes into contact with it. Some people will just toss out the bottle once the pumps do not provide any further product. Others will take it a step further and unscrew the top that contains the pump to try to squeeze out any product left over," Ilyas said. "Think about the extra plastic involved in making it and how much more waste it can contribute to producing. If you are concerned about minimizing waste, then thinking about different aspects of the packaging can help."

The best zero waste skin care products:

  • 1. Burt's Bees Hand Salve, $9, Amazon

“Hands down, one of my favorites! These little metal tins can be used (again and again). They can be upcycled as candles or even jewelry boxes with little to no effort. Easy!” said Hillary Kline, a freelance makeup artist.

  • 2. Tata Harper Clarifying Cleanser, $68, Amazon

“Most products (from this brand) are in recyclable glass containers. Labels are printed with soy ink. They use mostly recycled paperboard. The 'plastic' they use is a resin made form corn rather than petroleum,” said Sobera.

  • 3. L'Occitane Shea Butter Hand Cream, $29, Amazon

“They use recyclable packaging and offer refill pouches for many of their products so that fewer containers are wasted. They also try to avoid outer packaging when possible,” said Sobera.

The best products are those that keep working even when you are finished with them. Once you are finished with this bar of soap, you can plant the packing to grow non-GMO tomatoes!

“Their packaging is super cute. Plus, it is made from bamboo grass plant. The cosmetics also incorporate oils, leaves and powders derived from bamboo grass plant, too,” said Kline.

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