Plastic Beauty

For many women, the morning routine includes applying makeup -- concealer, mascara, some form of lip gloss, lipstick, chapstick, etc. And, if it’s that time of the month, they’ll also use some form of tampon or pad. Just like that, they have already encountered many different plastic-coated items. This is just another barrier that women must hurdle over in the journey of going plastic-free.

Over the past few years, consumers have shown intense disinterest for microbeads, which can be found in face and body scrubs as well as in toothpaste. Microbeads are tiny ball-shaped pieces of plastic used for scrubbing off dead skin and plaque before being washed down the drain. After major pushback from environmentally conscious consumers, products containing microbeads were mostly discontinued. But microbeads are just one of many examples of plastics in the beauty industry.

The beauty industry has reached almost a $90 million value in the U.S. alone. The feminine hygiene industry is worth almost $3 million in the U.S. Zero Waste Week reported that the beauty industry produces 120 billion units of plastic each year.


“My makeup routine has been the part of my life that I have neglected the most as far as making it plastic-free,” said University of Oregon marine biology alum Erin Parker.

Parker has been working on moving towards a plastic-free life for a little over a year. She has been relatively successful in the shower hygiene department, creating her own skin scrub out of sugar and coconut oil and using Lush shampoo and conditioner bars to wash her hair. She’s even managed to find razors made from recycled plastic. Parker also uses coconut oil for a makeup remover and machine-washable cotton wipes that can be washed in a mesh bag. Yet, Parker has found it hard to reduce her plastic use in the beauty and feminine hygiene areas.

“Sustainable products are not something you see in a Sephora or places you would go and test out makeup in person,” Parker said. “That definitely makes it more difficult to do that exploration and find that product, especially when you’re trying not to spend a ton of money on makeup.”


Makeup is often important to see in-person in order to get the correct color match for skin tones. The nearest place to Eugene that sells sustainable makeup brands is in Bend (SAGE Beauty Boutique). Other than that, products are mainly only offered online. Some popular brands include Elate Cosmetics, Kjaer Weiss, and MRS Beauty. A higher priority than look is feel. Both beauty and feminine hygiene products go on or in the body, so it’s important to find products that feel right.


“For me personally, I have extremely sensitive skin, so that can be kind of daunting to explore new skincare products,” said Parker.

Even products that are deemed vegan – cruelty-free makeup has been popular in recent years – can dry out the skin or cause a break out. More ‘natural’ feminine hygiene companies, like Sustain, have popped up recently to push back on the amount of chemicals put into tampons and pads that contact a sensitive part of the body, but there is still often plastic-coated packaging involved. Menstrual cups, like the Diva and Fun cups, are a possible solution because they are reusable, but these products don’t work for everyone. They sometimes leak, or suction too well and get stuck.

“I’ve tried various different styles of menstrual cups, but I’ve found them to be very painful and uncomfortable,” Parker said. “[Period products are] another thing where I cringe on the amount of plastic I use, but I haven’t found an alternative yet.”

All this and sustainable products tend to be more expensive than their disposable, plastic counterparts. For example, plastic-free mascara can cost around $20 to $30, not including shipping fees, whereas generic mascara from Maybelline, L’Oreal, or Covergirl can be picked up from Hirons or Walgreens for as little as $5 to $10. The Eco Collective, Seattle’s first zero waste store, was started in 2017 to at least help make sustainably made and packaged products easier for locals to access. Co-founder Genevieve Livingston said they came up with the business idea through experiencing difficulties in their own zero waste journeys.


“I had started making my own products, like my own deodorant and toothpaste, and it just occurred to me how much time that takes,” Livingston said. “I’m a person that loves the outdoors, really cares about sustainability, but I also had a full-time job at the time. Not everyone who cares as much about sustainability as I do has the time or willingness to [move towards zero waste], so why not make it easier for them and put all of these sustainable alternatives in one place?”

She then got the idea to open a zero-waste store in the Pacific Northwest after seeing a similar store open elsewhere in the U.S. The bottom line is that right now these decisions need to be made by the consumers or small business owners. Parker hopes that this responsibility will soon fall on the companies instead. Plastic-free makeup is packaged in bamboo, metal, and glass instead of plastic. Many companies will refill products for a lower price than the initial product if the initial product is mailed back to them. The only product that can’t be refilled yet is mascara, according to Elate, because it requires an airtight fit so the product doesn’t dry out too fast. This reusable packaging model, sometimes called the “milkman model” or “loop,” would do away with a lot of disposable plastic packaging. The idea is that the consumer would borrow packaging and companies would be responsible for packaging the waste they produce. However, this would result in more CO2 emissions in the transportation sector, so a decrease in overall consumer demand might help lessen overall environmental impacts.


“I think that would be a very good option for the industry,” Parker said. “That way I can continue to use products that I already trust, that don’t break out my skin, instead of having to look for different products.”