Is Refillable Skincare the Future of Beauty?

Dec 20, 2022by Heather Smith


Increasingly, consumers are looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact. One potential solution is to use refillable skincare products. The possible benefits of skincare refills include:
  • Reduced shipping size and weight
  • Reduced plastic waste
  • Improved recyclability
  • Reduced costs to the consumer
  • Improved carbon emissions profile

Plastic production significantly impacts the environment, with approximately 8.3 billion tons produced since the 1950s and only 9% of it having been recycled. In addition to microplastics and cosmetic chemical pollution, the production of plastic also has a significant carbon footprint, as it requires a lot of fossil fuels and energy to produce. By using refillable skincare products, individuals can help reduce their contribution to plastic waste and the associated carbon emissions.

In addition to the environmental benefits, refillable products are more cost-effective in the long run. Overall, the use of refillable skincare products can help individuals make a positive impact on the environment while also saving money.

The Problem with Glass

We love glass, but it isn't without its own downside. While it's true that glass is usually a better choice than plastic, it's important to consider the full life cycle of both types of packaging to determine which is better overall.

One factor to consider is the production process. Glass is typically made from raw materials like sand and limestone, which are abundant and widely available. However, producing glass requires significant energy, as it must be melted at high temperatures in a furnace. This energy use results in a much higher carbon footprint than the production of some types of plastic, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Another factor to consider is the transportation of the packaging. Glass is denser and heavier than plastic, so it requires more energy to transport. This can be particularly impactful if the product is shipped long distances, as is the case in the online shopping world. In addition, glass is more fragile and can break more easily during transportation, leading to higher rates of waste.

It's essential to consider the end-of-life disposal of the packaging. Glass is generally considered to be more recyclable than plastic, as it can be melted and reused indefinitely without losing its quality. That said, often, glass is not recycled because it is frosted or coloured or painted in such a way that the optical sorting machines pull it out of the recycling stream.

The recycling process for glass also requires a significant amount of energy, and not all communities have the necessary infrastructure to recycle glass.

When glass gets to the landfill, it will stay for a million years.

Anti-Plastic Activism

Activist brands have a clear mission, but looking at the overall risks and benefits is needed to maximize their voice. Taking a black-and-white approach leaves missed opportunities. 

The environmental impact of packaging depends on a variety of factors, including the production process, transportation, and end-of-life disposal. It's important to consider the full life cycle of both glass and plastic packaging to determine which is the more sustainable choice in a particular context. This means making calculated, well-thought-out decisions when choosing materials matters most.

In order for a product refill system to be considered more sustainable than the alternative, 4 key features should be measurable

    • a reduction in total waste (plastic or otherwise)
    • a reduction in plastic used
    • a reduction in shipping weight and bulk
    • improved recyclability 

Top 5 Strategies for Refillable Skincare (and why #5 is the best)

These are currently the 4 most common approaches to refillable skincare that are used by beauty brands today.

#1 Large Bottle Refill Stations

Picture of a person pumping a product refill from a larger bottle into a smaller one.

This is an excellent option for indie brands with a strong local presence in their hometown. It could also work well for large brands with a national distribution network. This strategy requires customers to travel to a filling station to refill their primary containers. Aluminum bottles are a great option for this because they are large and unbreakable, making them suitable for things like shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion.

#2 Large Refill Pouches

picture of a white plastic bottle next to a white plastic refill pouch

This isn't one of our favourite options because we think there's a missed opportunity to change the primary packaging.

If a brand believes the large volume refill pack is more environmentally friendly and if there is no significant reduction in size, weight, or shipping bulk, then why not just change the primary packaging?

#3 Refill Pods and Modular Packaging Systems

photo of a cream jar beside a skincare refill pod


The use of insertable modular refill systems is catching on. Packaging manufacturers like them because they can market entire kits and packaging systems to brands. Brands like them because they can still have ornate and expensive outer packaging while maintaining the appearance of improved sustainability.

We think there's a sustainability benefit, but the cons of this approach are quite numerous. The main issue is that the pod itself may not be recyclable, and its bulky shape won't reduce shipping bulk much at all. It's still likely better than reordering the primary container over and over again, but it likely doesn't change the overall sustainability profile much.

An exception is seen with makeup products, especially eyeshadow, which are excellent for this strategy. Pair the tiny size of eyeshadow refills with a plastic-free bamboo palette holder like this one, and you've got some serious anti-plastic change happening.

#4 Glass Refills

photo of 2 black glass vials, one has a plastic lid, the other has aluminum lid

This approach is unique to brands that are strictly anti-plastic with their containers. It meets the requirement to eliminate plastic (glass vial, aluminum lid) but doesn't reduce shipping bulk or weight. Replacing one glass bottle with another doesn't count as a refill per se. Still, it does eliminate the waste and plastic of the original dropper and dispensing system - which is never recyclable. To be 100% sure of recyclability, brands who choose this route should ensure the glass selected is clear, green, or amber and also unfrosted.

 #5: Small, Recyclable Packets  

As founder, I'm so excited to share the details about our program and why we've made specific decisions along the way.

When it comes to containers and packaging, there is never a perfect solution, but I'm proud of where we are starting and excited for where we are headed. 

Every option has pros and cons, but I believe small, recyclable packets are the best skincare refill packaging available. Here's why:

bareLUXE Skincare Refill Program

3 images showing the benefits to having small, refill packets

We've weighed and measured (literally and figuratively) every option and have come up with a beauty refill program that we're proud of. Our program utilizes as many 'pros' as possible while minimizing as many 'cons' as we can. Using plastic responsibly is an important fact in manufacturing decision-making.

The refill packets we've chosen are plastic. Unlike other flexible materials, these are fully recyclable and "blue bin ready" because they are an unlined, foil-free, mono-material made from HDPE or PE (recycle code #2). Like with everything, being recyclable doesn't guarantee that it happens. In order to increase the chances, the material and handling instructions are written very prominently on the back of the packet.  

The packets also weigh less than the plastic in the primary dropper - so it's a win-win situation. Coupled with the fact that shipping weight and bulk are dramatically reduced, we've got a plan that meets all 4 of the critical features for a refill program:

    • reduced waste
    • reduced plastic
    • reduced shipping bulk and weight
    • improved recyclability

But What's the Actual Impact?

Of course, the best answer is to reduce consumerism and throwaway culture. The most sustainable purchase is the product you choose not to buy.

We fully acknowledge that the net difference in plastic is tiny. For this to make a measurable impact, brands like us need to make it to the big leagues to amplify our voice. That said, setting up this business model from day one will enhance our ability to do this for the long haul.

bareLUXE challenges big brands to step up and join us. If 150 billion containers are produced each year, and each has 1g less plastic, the result becomes both measurable and substantial.


All bareLUXE products have a refillable option which also includes an opportunity to subscribe for even more savings. 




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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.