The beauty industry has a bad habit of labeling actual change—eliminating harmful ingredients or including actual representation in imagery—as trends. Clean beauty has become a casualty of this phenomenon, which is only emphasized when brands use vague terms and greenwash their products, despite a lack of commitment to true sustainability. Hopefully, this “fad” is here to stay, with consumers continuing to demand higher quality and more eco-friendly beauty products. However, as “green beauty” is being hailed as the new cool thing, Jessica Alba and the Honest Company were one the first brands to pave the way for innovation in the space.
“No one had even heard of the word ‘non-toxic’,” Jessica Alba told ELLE.com, as she discussed the founding of her brand.Started in 2011, The Honest Company–and its later brand, Honest Beauty, which launched in 2015–were emphasizing healthy ingredients and sustainable packaging before these were common PR-manufactured buzzwords.
“Back in the day, when I wanted everything to be in packaging that’s super sustainable, it just didn’t exist,” says Alba. Prior to new innovations in the field, options for a beauty line that also cared for the environment and health of its consumers were incredibly limited. Looking back at where the state of clean beauty was just a few years ago, Alba remarks, “How is this both expensive and terrible?”
Welcome to Artist Spotlight #62 series on my blog.
Luckily, the market has come a long way, and Alba’s company has been at the forefront. Now, cartons that house Honest Beauty products are 100% recyclable or compostable, and completely tree-free. “There are no trees that are harmed,” quipped Alba. Aluminum tubes, tin compacts, and refillable jars are being implemented for customer favorite products, and all orders from Honest.com are now carbon-neutral. And that’s just a snapshot of the changes the brand is implementing, now that more options are available.
Despite having a head start on the conversation surrounding sustainability in the beauty industry, it can still feel like an uphill battle. Along with pricey product stability testing, figuring out the best way to streamline production, and making sure the consumer had the best experience with the products, another major obstacle was raising the bar of manufacturing partners, who create the components for the brand. “They even had to implement new machinery that they didn’t have before, in order to fill our products in the more sustainable packaging,” says Alba. The goal, besides making products for Honest Beauty, was to create an infrastructure “so that they can offer it at more accessible prices to more companies, including us.”
Along with new packaging and sustainability goals, Honest Beauty is continuing to create new products that combine efficacy with its planet-centered goals. Their new Daily Defense Collection, which launched on July 19th, features a waterless cleanser, purifying toner, and setting spray, and was created to be integrated into anyone’s daily routine. And like the rest of their line, all these products were created with a focus on sustainability.
While the goal may be to become one hundred percent green, there is still so much work ahead. Continuing to invest time and money into creating and innovating clean alternatives–and make them available to as many brands as possible–isn’t a goal that can be checked off easily. And yet, it’s essential to keep working towards it, even when small changes may feel feeble. As Alba puts it, “This is just common sense. You should just care about your planet, the ocean, people’s health.”
And as more beauty brands feel the pressure to address their consumers’ demands for cleaner, more sustainable beauty, the more it’s apparent that Alba and Honest Beauty were ahead of their time.
“We’ve always cared about this stuff,” says Alba. “It’s just, the marketplace has finally caught up to us.”
“Clean.” “Green.” “Natural.” For planet-conscious beauty consumers, these words can have a strong gravitational pull. But dear global citizens: The secret to saving our reefs and oceans, our forests and trees, is to do so with actions, not words. It all starts with your routine. Some actions can be small (don’t buy a new moisturizer until you’ve depleted the one you have). Some are big (seek out biodegradable or recyclable packages, or skip plastic packaging entirely). And some actions, of course, don’t rest with you, but with beauty companies. (Screaming into the void: Will anyone ever develop a truly earth-friendly mascara? Read on for intel.)
Ultimately, words like “clean,” “green,” and “natural” often have little to do with the buzzword we should really be focused on: “sustainable.” It’s the umbrella term for products that protect the planet’s resources, and the idea can seem, rather ironically, unsustainable. That’s precisely why we went straight to the women who are making a concerted effort, every day, in their own ways, to reduce their impact on the earth. They’re environmentalists, business owners, makeup artists — and they’re all unapologetic beauty enthusiasts.
The Environmentalist: Amber Jackson
After earning her master’s degree at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Jackson (and her classmate Emily Hazelwood) founded Blue Latitudes, an environmental consulting firm that helps energy companies determine whether decommissioned offshore-drilling structures can be turned into artificial reefs. She practically lives in the elements, which dictates her beauty regimen.
Protect everything.“Being on boats and offshore diving, we need to make sure that we keep up with our sunscreen but always use formulas that aren’t going to run off our skin and into the water column, and contaminate reefs and fish species. I like Badger Balm — it’s zinc-based. I’m a very fair redhead with freckles, so it’s super important for me to have protection, and this formula stays on in the water.”
Think micro impact.“Some of the biggest problems in our oceans are microplastics, like the microbeads in face scrubs.” The U.S. banned plastic microbeads in 2017, but there’s no way to know if every company has adhered to the ban. So avoid products with these P’s: polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, and polymethyl methacrylate. “Those get washed down the drain, are consumed by fish, and then bioaccumulate, so you eat that plastic yourself. I love to exfoliate, and I use an Origins scrub that uses nutshells.”
Travel lightly.“We carry our own reusable bottles that we fill at home and forgo the disposable hotel options.”
The Advocate: Kathryn Kellogg
The author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, Kellogg began chronicling her experience with reducing her trash and recycling output — down to nothing — on her blog GoingZeroWaste. “Living a zero-waste lifestyle encompasses so much more than just ‘Don’t throw it away,’ ” she says. “It means not wasting water and not wasting food.”
Eliminate the middleman.“I put toner in an upcycled spray bottle so that I don’t waste the product by having it absorb into a disposable pad. I just spray it directly on my skin.”
Consume wisely.“I like the ‘one in, one out’ rule. If I want a new face mask or eyeliner, I cannot buy it until I am out of what I have. Also, ask questions of the people you’re buying from. I buy some of my beauty products at farmers markets, and it’s been empowering to be like, ‘I love your product and want to try it, but I don’t use plastic. Can I get it without that?’ So many times they’re willing to accommodate.”
Be realistic.“There are very few options for completely plastic-free mascara, aside from a couple of brands that make cake mascara, like Bésame. It’s also hard to find a zero-waste alternative for sunscreen. I wear Marie Veronique tinted facial sunscreen as my foundation. It comes in a glass bottle, and I upcycle the bottles. I put homemade hand sanitizer in them — half vodka, half water — and keep that in my bag.”
Be proactive.“We should be doing more work with businesses and emailing our government representatives to get larger systemic changes passed, like the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Products Act.”
The Business Owner: Cindy DiPrima Morisse
As co-founder of the all-things-natural-beauty destination store CAP Beauty, DiPrima Morisse spends much of her days analyzing (and reassessing) which products are worth space in her business — and in her life.
Cut yourself some slack.“Any company that’s shipping is creating some waste and pollution. The best thing we can do is to work with vendors who are prioritizing the same things we are and making sure that their practices are not creating too much stress on the environment.”
Shop smarter.“We encourage our customers to choose thoughtfully. We always say, ‘If you’ve got products in your cabinet that have been sitting there for a year, you’re not using them, and you need to simplify. Find products you love and use. Be an editor.’ We aim to deliver a streamlined collection so you’re not overbuying. We encourage customers to try things. [But] it’s more about a trusted arsenal than constant consumerism.”
Be charitable.“I have a sizable beauty cabinet because of testing for the store. Sometimes there can be a moment when it’s like, ‘I’m not going to get to that.’ There are a few charities that collect beauty products. A favorite of mine is Woman to Woman, which supports women with gynecological cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.”
The Makeup Artist: Katey Denno
She regularly paints the famous faces of Amber Heard and Felicity Jones and has been committed to green, no-waste beauty for the past decade. “I started in this industry as the only person who was really serious about green beauty. And everyone was like, ‘That is never going to fly.’ And little by little, everything changed. A lot of actresses are still like, ‘As long as you make me look good, that’s all I care about,’ but there are some that are now die-hard fans of clean beauty.”
Give new life.“I have friends who make candles, and I give them face-mask pots. I store Q-tips in reused cream pots, or use them as flower vases. I save empty RMS pots and give them to clients for their red-carpet bags. If I’ve mixed a lipstick for them, I’ll take a scraping and put it in there.”
Know your limits.“I do make compromises, like with Beautyblenders, because I have yet to find anything sustainable that re-creates that texture that I can get on skin.”
Food for Thought
What good is a recyclable plastic bottle if it still ends up in a landfill? Tina Hedges, a former Estée Lauder and L’Oréal executive, asked herself that when she created LOLI Beauty. Hedges sells raw balms, powders, and elixirs derived from organic food waste (like pressed plum seed that would have been disposed of after the fruit was harvested) and packages them in recyclable glass containers that she encourages consumers to upcycle for food storage.
The products are waterless (water is a filler ingredient that just creates extra weight to ship), and can be used alone or mixed to expand their versatility — her face powder, for example, can become a scrub or a mask. “I would like the entire experience to be circular zero-waste,” says Hedges, who is now working on refillable packaging and going entirely compostable.
Makeup sponges aren’t single use like plastic straws and paper towels, but your beloved blending tools still end up in landfills when you toss them out after they start to crack and crumble.
Along with your other favorite beauty tools like eye makeup remover pads, the makeup sponge is getting a green makeover too. EcoTools has just launched the first 100% certified biodegradable makeup sponge.
While there are plant-based sponges on the market that cut down carbon emissions and water waste during the production process, EcoTools has taken things one step further with its Bioblender, which can be planted into the ground once it’s time to part ways with it. (It’s kind of like a funeral for your go-to makeup tool.)
The violet sponge is made with five bio-based ingredients including water, corn, bionanopol, natural preserve, and natural pigments. According to the brand, BioBlender reduces 59,270 pounds of single-use waste in its creation and use. The packaging is made with sustainability in mind, too. It comes in a FSC-certified biodegradable paper box printed with soy ink.
As for the actual sponge, it has a patented hybrid shape with three different edges. The triangular edge is great for swiping on cream bronzer or getting into the contours of your face. The round tip is ideal for tapping product onto large areas like foundation or blush, for example.
Using BioBlender is no different than any other sponge because it blends like a dream. I like to use to triangular tip to layer on blush and concealer where I want to intensify coverage. Then, I flip it over and tap the product in with the sponge for a seamless finish — no streaky blush stripes here!
It’s arguable that this sponge is the hardest working makeup tool out there, because once it’s retired from blending your makeup and you plant it in soil or throw it in your compost, its work doesn’t stop.
This squalane-based balm not only nourishes dry under-eyes, but it also is packed with concentrated encapsulated retinol (which is more gentle on the sensitives skin region) to smooth the look of fine lines.
From the brand’s first foray into the curly hair category, this cloud-like cream — designed for type 4A, 4B and 4C coils — gives game-changing definition. It also contains a Healthy Curl Complex, which provides a protective, strengthening barrier around each strand.
Besides looking oh-so gorgeous on your vanity, this pretty pink potion really does pack a punch. The eco-conscious brand (this packaging is 100% recyclable through Terracycle) partnered with Harvard University to develop a patent-pending booster that’s proven to pump up your skin’s natural production of hyaluronic acid and collagen.
The musician offered Allure exclusive details on the brand’s first three products and what prompted him to get into the beauty business. And, of course, when and where you can get your hands on them. Welcome to Artist Spotlight #27 series on my blog.
“Sometimes you need to cleanse your spirit. Sometimes you just need to cleanse your mind. Sometimes you’ve just got to get rid of some dead skin.” Pharrell William’s voice washes over its listener clean and cool, like himself. “Sometimes you’ve got to get rid of some bad habits. Sometimes you just need to be humidified, brought to life. Sometimes your spirit needs that.”
What our spirits might also need, Williams suggests, is three skincare products — cleanser, an exfoliant, and a moisturizer — from his forthcoming line, Humanrace, which launched November 25 on a website of the same name.
Williams is famous for many reasons. Chief among them: his talent as a hitmaking producer and recording artist, able to unite the nation’s club revelers and six-year-old Despicable Me fans under one enchanting bass line. But his celebrity has also been accompanied with public fascination about his good looks, which have been on display for decades and somehow have not changed, unless they have somehow gotten more imperceptibly handsome with time?
Williams credits this to a love of skin care he has been cultivating since his mid-20s. On set, early in his career, he’d chat up models about the kinds of products they used, and he eventually sought out a dermatologist, Elena Jones, who has treated him since and who consulted on the line.
“What struck me most about my first meeting with him was how committed to his skin and health he was at his age,” Jones tells Allure over the phone. “He wanted a routine to follow, and he’s dedicated to a skin-care regimen. He wanted explanations for everything.”
In Jones’ words, the three Humanrace products endeavour to fulfill the most basic requirements of a skin-care routine: prepare, repair, protect.
To prepare your face to receive skin care, you wash it. Jones and Williams created Humanrace’s Rice Powder Cleanser, which arrives dry. A dime-sized dusting of the stuff, mixed with water, produces a milky, lightweight emulsion that gently exfoliates using fruit alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) — compounds that dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells until they can flutter away like snowflakes into a passing breeze. (More of these to come later). Over half of the cleanser formula is kaolin clay, a common skin detoxifier mined for centuries for the manufacture of porcelain.
To repair your face from all of the general damage it experiences, you exfoliate, using a chemical peel like the Lotus Enzyme Exfoliant. Formulated foremost with glycolic acid — a favourite ingredient of Williams’ — at the relatively high concentration of 8%, the cream invites new and fresh cells to the skin’s surface.
The last product, the Humidifying Cream, is inspired by the downy atmospheres of the places Williams has lived and loved — his hometown of Virginia Beach, his now home of Miami, the mist-covered Japanese archipelago. It’s a dense and creamy blanket of moisture, formulated foremost with snow mushroom extract, a moisture-binding organic ingredient with roots in Chinese medicine that behaves similarly to hyaluronic acid. (According to board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman, however, the snow mushroom particle size is much smaller than that of HA, allowing it to absorb into the skin’s layers more easily.) And anyway, the cream has HA, too, plus soothing rice water and niacinamide. Williams is also preparing to launch a sunscreen!
A review of the full ingredients list for each product by an impartial cosmetic chemist reveals: They are formulated beautifully.
The packaging is grass-green in color and grass-green in sustainability: 50% of the plastic used to house Humanrace’s products comes from post-consumer recycled plastic, with only a small amount of virgin plastic used — and each product has a removable inner chamber that can be exchanged for a refill. The cap is embossed with a raised logo that is nice to run your fingers across — making it easy to ‘read’ in Braille.
To Williams, a skincare line is more than popping cheekbones and acid-based exfoliation: it’s a small, three-minute gesture of self-compassion.
The Humanrace skincare line, including the Rice Powder Cleanser ($32), Lotus Enzyme Exfoliator ($46), Humidifying Cream ($48), and Routine Pack ($100), are available at humanrace.com.
You know what I think about a lot? That time Jason Momoa called out Chris Pratt for posing with a single-use plastic water bottle on Instagram by commenting, in part, “Bro … WTF.” Since then, whenever I scroll past a picture of serum-soaked polyester plastered to an influencer’s face, I can’t help but wonder: When will the sheet masks be Mamoa’d?
It seems the moment has come. Clean beauty retailer Credo recently announced it will stop selling sheet masks and other single-use skincare products, like makeup wipes and exfoliating pads, by June 2021—an industry first.
“‘Clean’ has to include sustainability,” Mia Davis, the Director of Environmental & Social Responsibility at Credo, tells ELLE.com. After all, what good is a product that’s supposedly safe for your skin if it’s unsafe for the earth, contributing to the health- and skin-degrading pollution particles that precipitate the need for “clean” skincare products in the first place? A 20-minute sheet mask, for example, is typically made of petroleum-based fibers, packaged in a non-recyclable foil packet or non-recyclable coated cardboard, sandwiched between two sheets of non-recyclable plastic, and covered in cosmetic chemicals—more of a sachet of superfluous waste than a skincare product, really. “We realized that prohibiting these items [at Credo] would, at a minimum, keep 3,000 pounds of trash out of the landfill,” Davis shares.
Yes, sheet masks are literal trash.
“Usually, none of these components are recyclable and all of them end up in the rubbish—at best, in a landfill; at worst, in the ocean,” Susan Stevens, the founder and CEO of Made With Respect, explains. Over hundreds of years, these materials break up into microplastic particles or break down and release greenhouse gasses, eventually polluting the air, water, soil, and bodies of all living beings (humans included). “Synthetic cosmetic chemical ingredients may make their way through waste-water treatment plants and into the ocean when they are washed down the drain, polluting marine life and causing environmental damage,” Stevens adds. But this visible excess—the foil packets, the plastic inserts, the product itself—only scratches the surface of the unsustainability of sheet masks.
The production of petroleum-based materials affects human health.
“Plastic affects our health way before it becomes a waste management issue,” Dianna Cohen, the co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, says. She notes that the same goes for many cosmetic chemicals used in sheet masks, including petrochemicals (derived, like plastic, from petroleum) and the endocrine disruptors found in some synthetic fragrance formulas.
“When you look at the process of extracting crude oil, then converting it into hydrocarbon monomers, then converting that to plastic, you see that we’re polluting the environment and local communities by releasing greenhouse gasses and harmful chemicals into the water and into the air,” Cohen shares. Along that production line, potentially toxic substances like bisphenols and phthalates are added to the mix. “When we finally manufacture it and mold it into various products”—microfiber or polyester cloths, outer packaging, and cosmetic petrochemicals, just to name a few plastic products associated with sheet masks—“we are polluting the people who work at those factories and the communities surrounding those factories,” the co-founder says.
This pollution primarily impacts low-income communities and communities of color.
“These facilities are built in the neighborhoods where they live,” Cohen says, noting that this is known as environmental racism. “It’s a relic of colonialism and slavery and how we treat people as disposable and have built a culture around disposability with materials, but none of these materials are actually disposable,” she says. “Nothing is disposable.” Everything goes somewhere. The component parts of a sheet mask will live on in the environment, outliving the user.
Even “natural” and “plant-based” sheet masks present problems.
Davis points to the massive amount of resources required at the production level, “from the pesticides used growing cotton, to the water used growing crops [for plant-based materials].” For reference, producing just one pound of organic cotton demands 1,320 gallons of water; that means hundreds of gallons of water are wasted on each and every short-lived cotton sheet mask.
As for “biodegradable” or “compostable” versions? They are rarely biodegrade. “The unfortunate truth is that most people who are using those products are throwing them in their waste bin, and that’s going to a landfill, and nothing biodegrades in a landfill,” Davis says, confirming that Credo’s ban on sheet masks extends to these supposedly “eco-friendly” iterations as well. “We don’t want to lull anyone into a false sense of action. It’s not real.” Even if consumers plan to compost at home, ingredients matter. A plant-based sheet mask isn’t doing the soil any favors if it’s coated in a petrochemical-infused serum.
All of the above issues apply to regular beauty products, of course—it’s just that sheet masks have a particularly concerning product-waste-to-product-payoff ratio, no matter what they’re made of.
Can a ban on sheet masks really make a difference?
Like previous bans on plastic straws, bottles, and bags, a ban on sheet masks—even one from a small-scale retailer like Credo, which has proven to be a leader in the clean space—is more than a ban. It foreshadows a shift in the culture of consumption. The same way seeing a single-use water bottle on Instagram now calls to mind the plastic it’s made from and the marine life it could harm, spotting a sheet mask on social might soon signal the small pile of garbage sitting out of frame, the chemicals it leaches into the soil.
“When I see an influencer using a sheet mask, I do consciously think about the waste they’re creating,” Avery C. Banks, the beauty blogger behind The Boheaux, explains.(Banks used to sheet mask four times a week, but stopped earlier this year in an effort to be more eco-friendly.) “I don’t judge their sustainability journey, though. We’re all out here trying our best and maybe they simply haven’t thought about the environmental impact of that little mask.”
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remain ignorant of said impact, if Credo’s stance on single-use skincare (and the urgency of climate change) is any indication—not that it was necessarily easy to ignore before. Consumers need only gaze upon their bursting garbage bins to realize the product is problematic.
“I was taking out the trash and all I could see were mask packages,” says Clare Neesham, a recently reformed sheet mask obsessive. She was sheet masking twice a week at the peak of her habit. “After a while, I started thinking about all the waste that was being produced, not just the masks themselves, but all the serum [and] the package,” Neesham recalls; too much for a few fleeting moments of self-care.
Still, eco-conscious retailers may have a hard time convincing customers to give them up.
“We let go of a sheet mask because it wasn’t fully biodegradable, and people complained that we didn’t have it anymore,”says Jeannie Jarnot, the founder of green beauty retailer Beauty Heroes. Credo’s Davis anticipates a similar reaction. “I do think that there will be some customers that are really bummed, and it will affect our bottom line,” she says. “We’re hoping some of the larger retailers”—Sephora, Ulta—“will make the same commitments, so that we will increase consumer awareness” and decrease the industry’s impact on the earth. This push-pull between companies and their customers is “the chicken or the egg” of the current climate crisis: Who bears the burden of creating a more sustainable future? “Corporate waste is the majority of the problem,” adds Aja Barber, a writer, stylist, and consultant in the environmental space. (100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions, as The Guardian reports.) “But corporations don’t change unless the general public takes an interest and holds them and our government regulators to account, and I think to do all of that, it starts with changing your own habits,” Barber continues. “A lot of people saying ‘I’m not interested in this product anymore’ changes the system.””In the comparison between individual action and corporation action, the question isn’t either/or,” Cohen agrees. “It’s that every action matters.”
Credo’s ban may be the catalyst to inspire that action, to make posting a sheet-masked selfie as taboo as posing with a plastic water bottle—to create a mass-scale Mamoa moment, if you will. It just may be the beginning of the end of the sheet mask.