Is Sustainable Beauty Even Possible?

Jan 18, 2022by Heather Smith

Sustainable Beauty. Like other buzzwords, this niche category for the skincare market is unregulated and not fully defined. If we truly seek a zero waste beauty routine, we wouldn't buy products at all. As consumers, we must acknowledge and accept that we're a huge contributor to the problem.

Skinimalism = minimalism. Buy less stuff.

I'm guilty of shopping for serotonin. Have a bad day? Hop on to Sephora and solve all the world's problems by buying a dreamy pink cloud cream and 14 samples and minis. COVID got you down? There's a handbag for that!

Once we acknowledge that rampant consumerism and throwaway culture are driving the market forces, we can educate ourselves and make decisions that could have an actual impact.

"We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly".
Marie Bonneau

Let's start by doing away with the belief that zero waste is possible. Redefining this keyword is essential. Reduced waste or low waste skincare routines are possible, but zero isn't. Another thing that is currently pretty much impossible is being 100% plastic-free. I think bareLUXE is at about 98%, but even when we do our best, plastic is everywhere (I recently watched with much pain as the UPS guy wrapped my compostable mailer in a giant plastic address label).

When it comes to sustainable beauty, the priorities are waste reduction, choice of skincare containers, packaging materials, and awareness of the ingredients' source, and ethics.

Ingredient origin and source also matters. Some superfoods and superfruits have caused reduction of biodiversity and even deforestation to make room for the new market demand. Using ingredients that contribute to farmer options as well as reforestation, like the sacha inchi crop, is important. 

There is an onus placed on consumers to become educated. Hence, they can spot marketing traps like greenwashing and bluewashing, which might exist. Unfortunately, not all brands want to be truly sustainable; many are happy just to appear so. Some consumers are similarly content remaining unaware.

The concept of conscious consumerism also gets called into question. 

"Conscious consumerism is a lie. Small steps taken by thoughtful consumers – to recycle, to eat locally, to buy a blouse made of organic cotton instead of polyester – will not change the world".
Alden Wicker

She explains that small, ethical purchasing decisions will not make a significant or fast enough difference if the need for global structural change is ignored. That is, turning every shopping purchase into a moral decision serves only to make us feel better about our powerlessness as individuals. A good example is the electric car. Transportation's impact on the climate is more than just the fuel used. Suppose we are serious about urgent and significant attention being paid to the climate crisis. In that case, solutions involve sustainable urban redesign, micro-mobility (scooters, bikes, e-bikes), and mass transit.

So, on the one hand, you have the opinions of someone like Marie Bonneau who says that if every person makes minor changes, the collective will have an impact. On the other hand, you have opinions like Alden Wicker's that the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. If we don't start making massive, global, and systemic changes, the ability to impact climate change will pass us by.

We think both are true.

Combating climate change requires drastic and decisive action by large corporations and governments. These changes need to be rapid and substantial. However, small efforts by individuals do matter. This is true for all the ways you improve the sustainability of your lifestyle, not just with your beauty routine. In all facets of our lives, accepting culture change and shifting norms require that we, as consumers, care. Perhaps one individual choice won't have a massive impact, but as voices increase, so too will the political and commercial pressures needed to have an effect.

What does sustainable beauty really mean?

It means choosing products with the least negative impact on the environment and human livelihoods. It means accepting that it's impossible not to impact the environment but being educated and making wise choices does matter. We've published our top 10 list of eco friendly beauty tips that you can start immediately. You can also have a beauty BFF and throw a throwaway party. 

What does conscious consumerism really mean?

It means you must make decisions about what you want versus need. Buy less. Go without. Simplify your life. Swap and share. Avoid buying new when able. When you do need to buy something new, choose wisely. Shop with intent.

Key Sustainable Beauty Principles:

  • Buy what you need
  • Use up what you have
  • Start working on being plastic-free, especially single-use plastics
  • Use reusable and biodegradable replacements for plastic: bamboo toothbrush, konjac sponge, cotton makeup remover pads
  • Become educated and able to spot greenwashing, bluewashing, and whatever colour washing is next
  • Find out how waste materials are handled in your municipality – can you recycle coloured plastic? What happens to materials coded as #7? Do containers need to be rinsed? Do labels need to be removed?
  • Consider corporate ethics beyond just environmentalism:
    • What are their animal testing policies?
    • Do they sell products in countries where animal testing is required?
    • Do they ensure no exploitation of children (i.e. unregulated Mica Mining, textile production)?
    • How are ingredients sourced and are they monitored for agricultural exploitation?
  • Look for brands that submit to voluntary audits and certifications: 1% for the Planet, B corporation, Fairtrade, COSMOS, Ecocert, etc.
  • Look for skincare containers and packaging that are reusable and refillable, easily recyclable (ie. aluminum and glass), or even compostable (though that is a different topic). Brands that help ensure their products are recycled by taking containers back should get special attention. Brands like Low Beauty who build circularity and zero waste into their products from day 1 should be rewarded. 
  • Look for brands that give back in a meaningful way. Those who support local communities or work hard to offset their own environmental impact through vetted organizations. 

Most importantly, work to spread the sense of urgency for substantial change. Advocate and amplify the voices that are pushing the global agenda. Be the 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.