I Went Plastic-Free for My Beauty Routine. Here's What Happened

The cosmetics industry is one of the biggest plastic polluters globally. But what happens when a beauty junkie like me tried to swerve plastic for a whole week?

by Sirin Kale
Nov 6 2018, 4:02pm

All photos courtesy of Zing Tsjeng

I am truly grateful to the beauty industry, and I mean that sincerely. Without it, I would hate how I look. I know that some people reading this will say that the cosmetics industry is the cause of my self-hatred and that I might feel differently if I were liberated from the oppressive beauty standards imposed under late capitalism.

But they’re wrong, even if it’s true that I never saw women who looked like me in adverts growing up. I just hate how I look without makeup: I have half-moons of purple under my eyes, and my scalp flakes when I am stressed. My eyes only look good when ringed heavily with liquid eyeliner and kohl. Powder tamps down my oleaginous skin. I wear super-strong deodorant because my greatest fear is finding out that people think I smell, and have been gossiping about it. When I appear in public without makeup, my friends either make ostentatious comments about how good I look (a sure sign that they’re lying) or avoid eye contact. Men who say they prefer the natural look make me puke.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling conflicted. On a recent holiday to Cambodia, I saw firsthand the polluting effects of the cosmetics industry. Empty shampoo bottles and wrung-out toothpaste tubes floated in the sea. On roadsides across the country, enormous piles of plastic slowly mouldered under the beating sun.

As consumers, we’re all to blame, with around 12.2 million tonnes of plastic waste deposited in the marine environment every year, according to The Green Alliance. Products commonly used by the global cosmetics industry, like the microbeads in exfoliating products, wash into the sea each year, damaging wildlife and often ending up in the human food supply. (Plastic microbeads were banned in the USA in 2015, and 2016 in the UK.) Research shows that only 50 percent of the products we commonly use in our bathrooms are recycled.

But things are slowly changing. “We’re seeing consumers, particularly younger ones, becoming more mindful of their environmental impact, and they expect beauty brands to be too,” says Andrew McDougall of market research firm Mintel. According to McDougall, 47 percent of shopper purchase natural or organic beauty products specifically because they’re better for the environment. “Consumers are becoming more conscious of their plastic consumption, and it’s impacting personal care brands to rethink their use of plastic products and packaging.”

A selection of plastic-free beauty products.

101 Ways to Go Zero Waste author Kathryn Kellogg tells me: “It’s crazy to see how the no-plastic movement has absolutely exploded. We’re starting to think, hey, is this the best thing for my body? Is it the best thing for the environment?” Kellogg prefers to make her own skincare products, but she purchases the bulk of her makeup from ethical, no-plastic retailers. “I think it’s super important to support brands that are doing really awesome things!”

Here’s an ugly truth: we’re to blame for the cosmetic industry’s polluting behaviors. If we exercised our spending power and demanded that cosmetics companies invest in truly sustainable packaging, cute little sea turtles probably wouldn’t be choking to death on Q-tips right now. But how easy is it go zero-plastic in your healthy and beauty regimen? I decided to give it a go.

The blue eyemakeup look.


I’m on a gym flex at the moment which will certainly be entirely short lived, so I wake up and stumble to the gym. I meant to try the Lush deodorant bar their PR helpfully sent me, but unhelpfully none of the Lush products I’ve been sent have been individually labelled, so I have no idea which one it is. As I don’t want to accidentally use a hot oil treatment on my armpits, I go without.

After the gym, I take a shower using REN’s Ocean Plastic Bottle, which is made from reclaimed ocean plastic. It smells like the shower gel you steal from fancy gyms, which is to say, very nice. I get out of the shower and start moisturizing with Happy Holistic’s soothing aloe vera, lavender, and chamomile body butter, but I get distracted and only moisturize one leg, though it smells very nice and feels supple and smooth.

I rub some Fat and the Moon All Cream into my face. It’s an incredible night moisturizer because it’s super-rich, but it’s not the one for the morning—my face looks like a basted Thanksgiving turkey right before you shove it in the oven. I eventually locate the Lush deodorant bar, which immediately crumbles all over my clothes and floor. I assume I’m probably doing it wrong. But when I Google the correct application of the bar, forums are full of people bitching about the aforementioned crumbling, so I figure it’s just a crappy product.

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I apply Fat and the Moon lip and cheek stain, which I love—it provides a sheer wash of colour that reminds me of Clinique’s cult Black Honey lipstick. Under my eyes, I apply RMS Uncover Up, which is a great shade match and blends easily. It's a Monday morning and I’m already running late for work, but it seems like a good time to experiment with a Kjaer Weis cream eyeshadow in Enticing—the eyeshadow looks like a deep midnight blue.

First impressions are pretty good: I’m normally devoted to my eyeliner, but I line the eyeshadow under my eye using an wooden pencil brush from Antonym. The overall effect, I decide, is Bianca Jagger riding a pony into Studio 54. I finish with Kjaer Weiss mascara, which is literally the only mascara I’ve been able to find that comes in metal packaging. The only thing I can say about the mascara is that it’s fine. This is a fine mascara. It’s fine.

It's a different matter when I arrive (definitely not late) at work. “Are you doing that plastic piece this week?” my Broadly colleague Zing asks quizzically. When I answer in the affirmative, she nods. “That’s why your eye makeup is so messed up.” I head to the mirror: My eyeshadow is a mess. I look like I have two sparkly black eyes.

A natural look.


Today I decide to go for a more familiar approach: brown eyes, pink cheek, and pink lips. I dust on Antonym Cosmetics Baked Foundation in Nude using a fluffy plastic-free powder brush made from wood and horsehair from Spanish brand Sin Plastico. The foundation acts more like a traditional setting powder than a foundation, but it does the job, and I like the all-wood packaging.

I apply a deep brown and a lighter taupe color from Antonym’s Quattro Eyeshadow Palette in Noisette. The colors blend easily into the socket. Everything is going great until I attempt to use Elate Cosmetics liquid eyeliner. Disaster! The application is horrible, like applying eyeliner with a twig (the packaging is made of wood).

What I’d normally do in this situation is swirl a Q-tip in some micellar water to remove the eyeliner, but I’m not allowed to do that because micellar water comes in plastic bottles. I’ve been using a jar of coconut oil as makeup remover, but this doesn’t work if a) you’re already running late for work b) you’re wearing contact lenses as oil causes them to blur.

I immerse my face into a sink full of warm water and remove all my makeup and start afresh—kidding! I am half an hour late for work already and I value my continued employment in a secure staff job with benefits more than I value a choking baby sea turtle. After I’ve removed the eyeliner smears, I cast around for another eyeliner, realize I don’t have one, and apply the very average Kjaer Weis mascara from yesterday. I sigh as I realize that my unlined eyes look like the puckered half-lemon I once found stuck to the shelf in my fridge. I finish up with RMS Lip2Cheek in shade Modest, which I love: it’s a perfect pinky-orange flush that works on both my lips and cheeks.

Red lip, natural eyes.


All week, I’ve been putting off washing my hair with one of the many solid bars I’ve been sent, because it just seems like a lot. But I can’t put it off any longer, so I wake up early and shampoo my hair with a solid bar from Peace from the Wild, which works fine—it doesn’t really lather at all, which is disconcerting, but my hair feels clean when I wash it out. The Peace With The Wild conditioner bar is less successful, leaving my thick hair looking limp and clumpy. (In their defence, the packaging advises you to use the product sparingly, so it’s possible I used too much.)

I’m too exhausted from the hair washing to make much of an effort today, so I apply some Kjaer Weis mascara and Elate Vibrant lipstick in Blaze. I love it—it’s a great dupe for my much-beloved and tragically discontinued Chanel Rouge Allure in shade 97. I finish off with Ben and Anna solid deodorant, which comes in paper packaging and smells nice, and Le Labo’s solid perfume bar in Santal 33. I’m curious to try Santal 33 because it receives huge amounts of online hype. It doesn’t disappoint: It smells like the sort of sex that much more attractive and wealthy people than myself have on luxurious cotton sheets in their light-filled beach houses in the Hamptons. It smells like how I imagine Gwyneth Paltrow smells after having sex, basically.

Reunited with my beloved eyeliner.


All week I’ve been struggling with the fact that I haven’t been able to find a plastic-free eyeliner that isn’t totally shit, but this morning I rummage through my drawer and realise, to my delight, that my Bobbi Brown gel eyeliner actually comes in a glass jar with a metal lid. Relief at being able to line my eyes again for the first time in almost a week courses through me. I sweep a deep, reddish brown called Eye Coal from Fat and the Moon over my lids and then gratefully apply the gel eyeliner.

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I also use Lush’s new solid foundation bar in shade 12/W. The foundation is shaped like a hard boiled egg, and it feels a little weird rubbing it onto my face. But the product blends easily and gives me a natural-looking, dewy finish. I'm also impressed by the shade range on the Lush website—all skin tones are catered for. I set it with the Antonym Cosmetics baked foundation, which I’m using as a powder, and then apply RMS Lip2Cheek as blush and lipstick.

I’m rapidly learning that many plastic-free products are heavily reliant on waxes and solid oils for their structural composition, meaning that they have a tendency to slip and slide around your face. This is fine if you don’t have particularly oily skin, but if you have greasy eyelids—like I do—your eye makeup will smear all over the place. I find myself longing for my trusted Urban Decay eyeshadow primer.


I’m on a shoot all day today, so I don’t have the time or inclination to wear makeup. When standing out in the freezing cold I apply Neal's Yard Skin Soothing Salve to my chapped up hands, which really helps. Otherwise, it’s a no-makeup day.

Red eyes, natural look.


Another all day shoot! So, no makeup in the day. But I’m going to a party later this evening, and someone (OK, more than one person) I banged is going to be there, so it’s imperative I look fantastic. I briefly consider just applying my normal makeup and lying, but I’m trying to be a better person lately. I use the Lush foundation again, sweep RMK Beauty Living Luminize illuminator down my cheekbones, and decide to experiment with a red eyeshadow. I dust some pressed powder across my eyelids in the hope this will help tamp down the grease, and them apply Elate Cosmetics Universal Creme in Keen, which is a sheer, burgundy red. I finish off with mascara and then apply Keen to my lips and cheeks. Normally I’d go for a much heavier makeup look, but people at the party compliment me on how fresh-faced I look. Maybe I’ll start wearing less makeup.


I’m exhausted after spending all day Saturday working, so I literally just lie in bed smelling Santal 33 over and over again whilst Googling pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow’s boyfriend and beach house. Mostly I’m just relieved the week is over so I can be reunited with my beloved eyeshadow primer and liquid eyeliner, but overall it’s been a good experience. The main thing I’ve probably learned is that I’ve been stuck in a makeup rut for years.

Being forced to wear much less makeup than I’d usually use encouraged me to feel more confident with a more bare-faced look, even if I initially hated it. Going forward, I’ll try to be more sparing with both the products that I buy—even if it’s not possible to be fully plastic free—and sparing with their application, too.

cosmetics industry
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