Secrets of the Beauty Industry: The Impact of Plastic Skincare Containers

Aug 1, 2023by Heather Smith


I spent a lifetime uninformed about the impact plastic skincare containers have on our environment and oceans.

That changed in August 2019 when we took a family trip to Vancouver. We visited the art exhibit by Douglas Coupland at the Vancouver Aquarium  - a provocative display highlighting the extent and the impact of plastic trash in our oceans.

It really stuck with me.

Always one for a good case of mom guilt, I felt overwhelmed about my own contribution to the problem. I ruminated about the fact that somewhere out there lies every single toothbrush I've ever used. Every single diaper my kids ever used (and the ones from when I was a baby, 40 some odd years ago). Every straw. Every ribbon, piece of packaging, grocery bag, and iconic coffee drink stopper.

Everything. It's all still out there somewhere.

So, I cancelled my beloved beauty sample box. I LOVED my beauty sample box. It was like Christmas every month. That shiny, pink bubbly envelope would arrive and I could feel my brain bursting with glee, knowing I'd get 5 shimmery, fragrant, joy-bringing items (most of which would shortly find their way into my cosmetics graveyard).

When I got my "tell us why you cancelled" email, I answered: "Too many single-use plastic items, nothing recyclable, have to make a change."

Nobody really cares if I personally subscribe or not, but if 1000 or 10 000 or 100 000 people all did the exact same thing, companies would pay attention.

Brand owners have a corporate and ethical responsibility to do our research too. Eco friendly, sustainable skincare containers exist and technology is ready to replace plastic. Consumers have the power to challenge the status quo and force corporations change!

The petroleum, plastic, and beauty industries only started to develop exponentially in the 1920s. That's only 100 years ago.

In less than 2% of our time here on Earth, consumerism has created a climate catastrophe that threatens our own survival.

In 2017, the beauty and personal care market size was over 455 billion dollars - and growing at a rate of 5% per year. It's estimated that global production of cosmetics containers is 120–150 billion per year.

Simply packaging skincare products into 'recyclable containers' and thinking they've done enough is an error companies make. It puts the responsibility on to the consumer. What needs to happen is total redesign of our system.

The beauty industry needs to step up.

What's the Best Material for Sustainable Skincare Containers?

Nothing is perfect.

We love glass as an alternative to plastic. However, glass is heavy. It costs more to ship. It can shatter (so not the best option for bath products). It persists in the environment literally forever if it's thrown away. Mining sand from ocean and riverbeds also has environmental consequences.

The great thing is that glass is infinitely recyclable, and it will never leach toxins into the environment or produce microplastics. However, not all glass bottles or cosmetic containers are able to be recycled, and many that can still never make it to the depot.

Cosmetic packaging can be tricky to sort out. The bioplastic and plastic-alternative worlds are growing and very promising. However, greenwashing and misinformation is tricky to spot sometimes.

What Drives Unsustainability: 3 Things The Beauty Industry Doesn't Want You To Focus On

Pricing Illusion: The Hidden Costs of Branding and Packaging

Much of the cost associated with skincare products is not for the formulas themselves, but the brand image, packaging, and shopping experience. For example, a luxury face serum might sell for $300, but the product's production cost doesn't warrant such a price. Instead, consumers are paying for the prestige of the brand, the packaging, and the unboxing experience, contributing to the price inflation and unnecessary waste.

The opposite end of the spectrum – affordable skincare brands – are often viewed as 'disposable' due to their lower price points. This mindset, however, encourages overconsumption and results in increased plastic waste, as these products usually come in plastic containers.

The private label skincare industry is another aspect adding to the complexity. These brands buy generic formulas in bulk, repackage, and market them as unique or premium, sustaining the illusion of pricing.

As consumers, we can challenge these practices by being aware of these pricing illusions and understanding the environmental impact of our choices. Our purchases can prompt the industry to seek truly sustainable alternatives to their packaging needs.

The Deceptive Lure of Impulse Buying

Another driver of unsustainability (and profits) is impulse shopping. Brands expertly leverage this propensity to buy on a whim through various strategies, such as offering add-ons, paid samples, mini-trial sizes, and subscription boxes. These tactics are intricately designed to stimulate the release of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that boost our mood and make us more inclined to purchase.

One of the most prominent impulse buying lures in the beauty industry is the concept of "free samples." These are usually small-sized versions of a product given out for free, either as a standalone offering or included as a bonus when purchasing other items. The allure of receiving something for free can be a strong motivator, leading consumers to spend more than they originally planned. 

The tactic of offering "paid samples" is another twist in the impulse buying game. These are mini versions of products available for purchase, often at a considerably lower price point than their full-sized counterparts. The smaller price tag can make these samples seem like a bargain, but the environmental implications are far from cost-effective. Much like free samples, paid samples also generate a significant amount of plastic waste due to their packaging.

Skin care sample containers and packets are rarely recyclable. Given the size, even if they are able to be recycled, most usually are not sent down that pathway. They just sit in your discard drawer for a few years and get dumped into the trash when you do some spring cleaning.

Subscription boxes present another challenge. While these services can seem like an excellent way to try multiple products at a discounted rate, they also encourage overconsumption. Many consumers end up with products they don't need or won't use, leading to wasted product and excess packaging.

And let's not forget the impact of shipping. Brands often set a minimum purchase amount to qualify for free shipping, knowing full well that many consumers will buy more to avoid the shipping fee. This tactic contributes to overconsumption and, consequently, more plastic waste from excess product packaging.

Certainly, the charm of pretty little things is hard to resist, and most of us, consciously or unconsciously, fall into the trap of impulse buying. As consumers, though, we have a responsibility to scrutinize our shopping habits and the choices we make. 

The Paradox of Overconsumption and Convenience

At the heart of a truly sustainable lifestyle is minimalism - using only what we need and making mindful choices about our consumption habits. That's where the slow beauty movement originates.

In the context of skincare, the concept of Skinimalism emerges. It reflects a pared-down approach to beauty routines, urging consumers to prioritize quality over quantity.

However, an important message often gets lost in this conversation: overconsumption of even 'sustainable' products can be environmentally detrimental.

Regrettably, the beauty industry has frequently prioritized convenience over sustainability. Single-use plastic packaging remains a pervasive choice for many brands due to its low cost and convenience for consumers. Though the emergence of refillable containers is a promising trend, it is yet to become mainstream. It's also fraught with its own paradoxes, but it's still a step in the right direction.

Consumer sentiment is a powerful catalyst for industry transformation. When we, as consumers, start shifting our focus towards more sustainable choices, large corporations are left with two options: adapt or risk irrelevance. We all play a role in driving this change.


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About the Author

Dr. Heather Smith developed her love for skinimalism and clean beauty years ago when she began making home remedies for her newborn's eczema. She is an expert in natural ingredients and active botanicals and has now launched bareLUXE Skincare - a full line of effective oil serums. She dedicates this blog to consumers who are researching ingredients and working to make their beauty ritual more natural and sustainable.


This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Smith nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content should consult their physicians about their skincare concerns and routines.