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Are Plastic-Free Beauty Products Just a Trend or the Wake Up Call We Need?

We ask the “why”, “what” and the “don'ts“ behind planet-positive cosmetics7 min read15 March 2023 (Updated: 4 April 2023)

When one hears phras­es like “plas­tic-free” or “zero-waste”, there's an im­me­di­ate sat­is­fac­tion that comes from know­ing that some­thing we do or buy is go­ing to be good for the en­vi­ron­ment. Or, at least, not as bad as oth­er op­tions avail­able, which we may have used in the past too. While the use of plas­tic in beau­ty prod­ucts has been a con­cern for some time in the beau­ty in­dus­try, the trend to­ward plas­tic-free op­tions has gained sig­nif­i­cant at­ten­tion in re­cent years. More and more peo­ple are be­com­ing aware of the neg­a­tive im­pact that plas­tic has on the en­vi­ron­ment, and are ac­tive­ly seek­ing out sus­tain­able and eco-friend­ly al­ter­na­tives.

And yet, the savvy con­sumer may al­ready be trained to spot the easy and quick green­wash­ing tech­niques of ma­jor cor­po­rates. In­deed, af­ter scratch­ing the sur­face, things get murky. At Dis­rup­tor Lon­don, we have spent more than two years re­search­ing al­ter­na­tives to plas­tic-pol­lut­ing cos­met­ics, and one thing is clear: it's not easy. Here we share some of our thoughts dur­ing an on­go­ing jour­ney.

The Im­pact of Plas­tic on the En­vi­ron­ment

For dif­fer­ent rea­sons, most peo­ple pre­fer plas­tic-free beau­ty prod­ucts, such as zero-waste sham­poo bars, sol­id mois­turis­ers and many oth­ers. When we ask our cus­tomers about their top rea­son to do the switch, more of­ten than not, plas­tic pol­lu­tion comes at the top of their an­swers. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have been warn­ing every­body about this for decades. In the UK, it took a BBC doc­u­men­tary, nar­rat­ed by the amaz­ing Sir David At­ten­bor­ough, to bring ocean plas­tic pol­lu­tion to light. The re­lease of a piece on ocean pol­lu­tion as part of Blue Panet II in 2018 sent waves of con­cern and wor­ry across the coun­try. All of a sud­den, even politi­cians were re­leas­ing state­ments and draft­ing laws to com­bat the is­sue. It's de­bat­able how much im­pact those ef­forts have had, but this was a na­tion­al mo­ment of no re­turn.

Plas­tic is one of the most wide­ly used ma­te­ri­als in the world, and for good rea­son. It's durable, light­weight, and can be mould­ed into vir­tu­al­ly any shape or size. It's also very cheap, some­thing which pack­ag­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies most cer­tain­ly love. How­ev­er, the wide­spread use of plas­tic has come at a great cost to the en­vi­ron­ment. Plas­tic takes hun­dreds of years to de­com­pose, and even then, it nev­er tru­ly dis­ap­pears. In­stead, it breaks down into small­er and small­er pieces, even­tu­al­ly be­com­ing mi­croplas­tics that are near­ly im­pos­si­ble to re­move from the en­vi­ron­ment.

The im­pact of plas­tic on the en­vi­ron­ment is far-reach­ing and dev­as­tat­ing. Plas­tic waste is re­spon­si­ble for killing ma­rine life, pol­lut­ing our oceans and wa­ter­ways, and clog­ging our land­fills. The Ellen MacArthur Foun­da­tion has es­ti­mat­ed that by 2050, there will be more plas­tic in the ocean than fish. Plas­tic waste also con­tributes to cli­mate change, as the pro­duc­tion of plas­tic re­quires large amounts of fos­sil fu­els.

It seems very clear now: plas­tic waste is a sig­nif­i­cant en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lem, and us­ing plas­tic-free prod­ucts can help re­duce the amount of plas­tic in land­fills and the ocean. Or can they?

Should We Trust Claims About Plas­tic-Free Cos­met­ics?

I wish I could give a de­fin­i­tive an­swer here, but it all de­pends on the prod­uct and brand. When it comes to sus­tain­abil­i­ty claims, it’s best to pro­ceed with cau­tion and do re­search into the com­pa­ny’s prac­tices. Learn more about the com­pa­ny be­yond mar­ket­ing slo­gans and try read­ing up on in­de­pen­dent third-par­ty re­views that can pro­vide in­sight into a prod­uct’s ac­tu­al in­gre­di­ents and man­u­fac­tur­ing stan­dards.

One quick tip to spot green­wash­ing is to go be­yond the head­lines and prod­uct names. What does a beau­ty brand re­al­ly mean by “plas­tic-free”? For ex­am­ple, a prod­uct may claim to be “plas­tic-free,” but upon clos­er in­spec­tion, you may find that its pack­ag­ing still con­tains some plas­tic com­po­nents, such as a plas­tic pump or cap. One ex­am­ple of this is the tra­di­tion­al drop­per bot­tle. Al­though the body may be made from glass, the cap is usu­al­ly made of mul­ti­ple ma­te­ri­als like rub­ber, plas­tic and glass, which no re­cy­cling plant would even dare to touch.

We have also talked about the im­pact of plas­tic pack­ag­ing in the oceans, but pack­ag­ing is only part of the sto­ry. Some peo­ple may be con­cerned about the po­ten­tial health ef­fects of some types of plas­tic, such as those that con­tain chem­i­cals like ph­tha­lates and BPA. Thank­ful­ly, the UK passed leg­is­la­tion ban­ning the use of mi­crobeads (tiny mi­croplas­tics in prod­ucts like ex­fo­lia­tors and make-up), but that hasn't stopped cos­met­ics com­pa­nies from us­ing oth­er petro­chem­i­cals in their for­mu­la­tions. This is why we de­vel­oped some­thing called “The Hon­est List”. You'll find it in all our prod­uct pages, like our Bal­ance sham­poo bar. We do not hide any in­gre­di­ent, and all we put in our sham­poo bars is there for every­body to see. Not only that, we have de­vel­oped a wid­get where you can swap be­tween the le­gal INCI list that all cos­met­ics have to pub­lish by law, and the equiv­a­lent in old plain Eng­lish for us mor­tals to un­der­stand.

An­oth­er con­sid­er­a­tion is the ac­tu­al en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of the prod­uct. This is what a sus­tain­able of­fi­cer would re­fer to as “life­cy­cle analy­sis”. While a prod­uct may be mar­ket­ed as plas­tic-free, it may still have oth­er en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts, such as the use of en­er­gy and re­sources in pro­duc­tion or trans­porta­tion. Look for prod­ucts that have a low en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact across their en­tire life­cy­cle, from sourc­ing of in­gre­di­ents to pack­ag­ing and dis­pos­al. Ar­guably, this is the most dif­fi­cult in­for­ma­tion to find out, since it's not easy to mea­sure and doc­u­ment.

Do­ing all this re­search is ex­haust­ing, but, thank­ful­ly, in this day and age, there are many in­de­pen­dent or­gan­i­sa­tions that ex­ist to ver­i­fy sus­tain­abil­i­ty claims made by com­pa­nies and make our lives eas­i­er. They pro­vide third-par­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tions and rat­ings that any­body should be able to con­firm. For ex­am­ple, all Dis­rup­tor Lon­don prod­ucts are cer­ti­fied to be an­i­mal cru­el­ty-free and ful­ly ve­g­an, and you can check our cer­tifi­cate here. Sim­i­lar­ly, we have asked the En­vi­ron­men­tal, So­cial and Gov­er­nance (ESG) Mark to cer­ti­fy that we fol­low the best prac­tices when it comes to sourc­ing in­gre­di­ents, man­u­fac­tur­ing and cor­po­rate prac­tices. You can ver­i­fy our sta­tus here.

It Only Takes An­swer­ing Three Ques­tions

De­spite all the noise, green­wash­ing and clut­ter around us, plas­tic-free beau­ty prod­ucts must be here to stay. For there is too much at stake. They are not just a pass­ing trend, but a wake-up call for the beau­ty in­dus­try and con­sumers alike. Plas­tic waste has be­come a glob­al cri­sis, and it's time for all of us to take ac­tion to re­duce our plas­tic foot­print. By em­brac­ing sus­tain­able and eco-friend­ly prac­tices, we can cre­ate a more sus­tain­able fu­ture for our­selves and for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

But it's not al­ways that easy. There are so many sus­tain­abil­i­ty claims float­ing around the beau­ty aisle. Even each prod­uct seems to tell an en­tire­ly dif­fer­ent sto­ry! Can you com­pare pears with ap­ples? Most cer­tain­ly not. This is why, as con­sumers, we may have to take one small ex­tra step to go be­yond the head­lines and ask our­selves whether the prod­ucts we buy are tru­ly sus­tain­able.

This doesn't mean it has to be hard, though. In our jour­ney to plan­et-pos­i­tive skin­care and hair­care, we have been able to re­duce the com­plex­i­ty to just three ques­tions:

  • How “plas­tic free” is the pack­ag­ing?
  • Can I be sure that no in­gre­di­ents come from petro­chem­i­cals or oth­er plas­tic sources?
  • How is the prod­uct made?

If, as a con­sumer, I have to bend over back­wards to find that in­for­ma­tion, then some­thing is start­ing to smell fishy. On the oth­er hand, there are many com­pa­nies and or­gan­i­sa­tions like Dis­rup­tor Lon­don, that are dri­ven by a mis­sion to ef­fect plan­et-pos­i­tive change. Thanks to their work, next time you reach for a beau­ty prod­uct, you are tak­ing care of both your­self and the en­vi­ron­ment.