Sustainable Skincare | Options to Reduce Plastic Waste

Sustainable Packaging in Skincare

by Nichole Fazekas and Candice Betty

The Plastic Waste Problem

Sustainable skincare packaging is one of the most important issues in the beauty industry, especially for those of us who love trying new products. One of the largest threats facing the planet right now is climate change. The sale of single-use plastic products largely affects the trajectory of this issue. We may think our skincare products are recyclable, but the reality is that the cosmetics industry is one of the leaders of non-recyclable plastic waste.

Using beauty products doesn’t mean we have to contribute to the current plastic waste issue. There are beauty-specific recycling programs, creative ways to upcycle and reuse packaging, and product refill options available to help us reduce our contribution to this issue. We can still try all the products we want to while learning about each brand and reducing our impact on the environment.

This Packaging Can’t be Recycled?

Say you order a product from one of your favorite skincare companies. When you receive the product, you’ll get multiple forms of packaging. Most of it is disposable, and you can think about it as three different types of packaging.

Once your product ships, it arrives in a cardboard box at your doorstep within a few days. You cut open the tape on the cardboard shipping box and remove the sheet of plastic air pouches or paper padding used to protect the product during shipping. The box and the shipping materials are the third type of packaging used for your product. We’re counting backwards from three here…

Woman opening package

You remove the product you ordered from the box, and it comes in a shiny branded box surrounded by a thin sheet of plastic. You tear off the plastic and open the box to see a folded paper inside, a product insert printed with tiny letters. These are called secondary packaging.

Finally, you remove the jar with your skin care product and open it to see how it smells! This jar is called the primary packaging because it is the main vessel that your product is stored in.

Now, think about all of the cardboard and plastic you just touched. You may see cardboard and plastic and think, Oh great, I can recycle all this, but that is not necessarily the case. Here’s why.

Cardboard packaging can be recycled if it is not coated and printed with certain colors that will make it unusable for recycling and making into raw materials for a new product. Only 9% of plastic packaging from cosmetics ends up being recycled.

What? That’s crazy right? Much of plastic’s exterior design or colors make it so it gets rejected at the recycling plant. When you purchase cosmetics with pumps, caps, or wands, these parts of the packaging are not recyclable.

Always make sure you leave the caps off any bottles or jars that you intend to recycle. Otherwise, they will go into a landfill because the people at the recycling plants do not open capped containers.

You can see how it can be difficult to know what is going to be accepted at a recycling plant. If you’re serious about sustainable skincare and reducing the waste you send to the landfill, the best course of action is to educate yourself and evaluate the items you purchase.

PCR & OWP Recycled Materials for Sustainable Skincare

If you’re reading this article, it’s safe to say that as a consumer, you’d like to know that you’re doing your part to save the planet with your purchasing decisions. There are many sustainable skincare packaging options that brands can use, including post-consumer recycled (PCR) paper, plastic, and cardboard. PCR materials are different from 100% recycled materials, which may be recycled scrap material that has not yet been used by a consumer.

Plastics are sorted and washed as the first steps in the recycling process, before being made into raw materials for PCR packaging. Plastics can go through 2-3 cycles of recycling before their quality decreases and they can no longer be used.

Ocean Waste Plastic (OWP) is a type of PCR plastic that is made from plastic collected across the world’s oceans. Companies like Ocean Waste Plastics believe that a major first step to protecting oceans is to remove the plastic waste that kills the animals in the ocean ecosystems.

Brands that use PCR and OWP materials offer a new life to cardboard, paper, and plastic that has been recycled or collected from the ocean. Both of these are great ways to increase sustainable skincare options and affordability and prevent recyclable materials from entering landfills.

Local Recycling Solutions & Programs for Sustainable Skincare

If your skincare and cosmetic products have a #1 or #2 recycling symbol on the bottom, most municipal recycling programs will be able to recycle them. Remember to clean out any remaining product and remove the cap. If your area doesn’t have a city-sponsored recycling program, it is likely your area will have private recycling collection sites.

Depending on where you live, there may be programs close to you that can help you recycle skincare and cosmetic packaging that local municipalities may consider non-recyclable. Zero Waste Wisdom is a good resource to find out more about recycling “questionable” items like personal care, makeup, and skincare primary packaging.

If you live near a Nordstrom location, you can drop off any brand of cosmetic packaging to their BEAUTYCYCLE program. Their “brand-agnostic” approach to recycling cosmetics is a great option for recycling your indie or smaller brands because Nordstrom can leverage high volume when collecting products and paying for shipping to recycling companies. You can find their nearest drop-off location on this digital map feature

Nordstrom ships their used container to Terracycle, which is currently the largest recycling program in sustainable skincare and actually spans across all industries. Terracycle goes a step further than recycling plants in ensuring that plastic stays out of landfills. Terracycle sells collection bins to companies, cities, and customers to collect and ship back used packaging that has been deemed “non-recyclable.” This includes pumps, bottle caps, tubes, and wands. Brands that partner with Terracycle pay for customers to ship used packaging through the mail for recycling.

Refillable Products are Sustainable Skincare

One of the most sustainable ways to prevent waste from entering landfills is to use refillable products. Products that have the option available to purchase refillable cartridges, or the option to return for a refill are a great way to start your sustainable skincare journey. Some skin care products, like this moisturizer, have the option to send your cleaned container back to the manufacturer for a refill. This option ensures that your product is not adding to environmental waste because you’re extending the life of your product packaging!

Upcycling Packaging for Sustainability

Reusing empty packaging is one of the most sustainable skincare options. Put on your creative mood because upcycling is the most fun way to give your packaging a new life! Upcycling is creative reuse; the process of transforming stuff you’d normally toss into new materials to make something artistic or more expensive.

Upcycle hanging rose vases_reuse cosmetic containers_plastic bottles
Upcycling with Plastic Bottles to Make Hanging Rose Vase Wall Decoration

Empty moisturizer containers can be painted and turned into jewelry containers. Empty bottles of cleanser or foundation can be decoupaged and turned into vases for flowers or small plants. Eye cream bottles can be reused for travel to pack small amounts of face cream or serum.

Large empty boxes can also be used as keepsake boxes and smaller boxes can be used to organize or section off drawers. These are great ways to create personal and meaningful decor around your house, without spending a lot of money or creating unnecessary waste. 

Collect your used mascara wands because they are in high demand with wildlife rescue organizations. Wands for Wildlife cleans and reuses mascara wands to clean animals that have run into environmental pollution.

Although the beauty industry contributes a significant amount to plastic landfill waste right now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t steps each of us can take to reduce this. You’ve read about a few ways to curb your impact on the environment through your product purchases and recycling habits.

Saving empty products in a bag under your sink for your next trip to Nordstrom makes it easier to recycle with Terracycle. Reusing and upcycling your packaging is one of the most fun and cost-effective ways to reduce cardboard and plastic waste.

We’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below with your ideas on how to reduce cosmetic packaging waste and any creative ways you reuse your packaging.


Plastic Pollution, Our World in Data.

Alejandra Borunda. National Geographic. The beauty industry generates a lot of plastic waste. Can it change?

Recycling, The Aluminum Association,cost%20of%20its%20own%20collection.

How the beauty industry is feeding plastic to you and the planet, Commercial Waste.

Recycling Q&A: How About Recycling Spray or Pump Tops? Kane  County Connects.,bottles%20with%20home%2Dmade%20cleaners

Ocean Waste Plastics.


Wands for Wildlife, Appalachian Wild.

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