Single-Use Makeup Wipes Can Be Wasteful — So Try These 18 Alternatives

Swap your throwaway wipes for these sustainable options.

by Jessica DeFino and Mackenzie Sylvester
Originally Published: 
Rifka Hayati/E+/Getty Images
These alternatives to makeup wipes are better for the planet.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that pollution is bad, but I’ll say it anyway: Pollution is bad. A perhaps more surprising fact: The beauty industry is far from innocent when it comes to contributing to the planet’s pollution. It produces 120 billion packaging units per year — most of which aren’t refillable or recyclable. Household and personal care products (including makeup wipes) account for 38% of the volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions polluting the air in major cities — rivaling that of vehicles. What’s more, single-use cleansing wipes take hundreds of years to break down as they’re stockpiled in landfills. In fact, according to Mia Davis, vice president of sustainability and impact at Credo Beauty, “the hard truth is that nothing breaks down in a landfill. That wipe you use once might outlive you.” Yikes.

But there's some good, too: Baby steps — like opting for eco-friendly face wipe alternatives (or at least, eco-friendlier ones) — can make a big difference. “Even at Credo, a relatively small (but mighty!) [clean] beauty retailer, we were able to stop over 3,000 pounds of trash from going to landfill[s] annually by removing single-use wipes and similar items from our assortment,” Davis tells TZR, adding that the brand took action to ban single-use products.

Actually, switching out your go-to makeup-removing wipes is probably the simplest and most significant way you can reduce your environmental impact, since reports suggest that single-use cleansing wipes, made to use once and throw away, are some of the most wasteful products in the world. Thankfully, beauty brands are taking note — and taking action. Danish manufacturing company LastObject is on a mission to eliminate single-use items by providing sustainable alternatives. “Everything single-use is bad for the environment,” Isabel Aagaard, the company’s co-founder and designer, tells TZR. “The amount of energy, water, and raw materials needed for manufacturing a product that will only be used once and then discarded just doesn’t make any sense. Add to that the amount of waste they create, and the CO2 emissions from transporting those products. There’s really no justifying it.”

So, what are the alternatives?

Reusable Cotton Rounds

LastObject offers solutions to common single-use products like cotton swabs, tissues, and makeup-removing pads. Their seven-count pack of the latter replaces up to 1,750 single-use wipes and can be easily washed with soap and water. So, if you’re wondering what to use instead of makeup wipes, consider starting here. Made with 100% renewable raw materials, the rounds look and feel almost identical to their disposable counterparts once you add liquid. “Single-use makeup wipes are made mostly of cotton, which is the largest user of water among all agricultural commodities,” says Aagaard. By using reusable makeup wipes, you’re actually reducing your overall water consumption. (Who knew?)

Melanie Bender, founding president of Versed Skin, is also helping the beauty industry to pivot toward sustainability. In September, she organized a partnership with over 200 beauty and wellness brands, CodeRed4Climate, to unite in the fight against climate change. While the majority of Americans think our leaders “should be doing more to address climate change, and all of the beauty leaders I’d spoken to identified climate change as one of the greatest current threats to humankind, I saw that we weren’t backing up those attitudes with action,” she tells TZR. “CodeRed4Climate is a call to our lawmakers, peers, and consumers to join us — acting for our collective health, our collective rights, our collective livelihoods, and our collective future.” The initiative calls to pass “the critical climate legislation that’s needed,” take responsibility for climate impacts, and foster climate education. “Because we can do this,” Bender says. “But we cannot do this alone.”

Upon hearing from their community that there had to be a better alternative to things like disposable wipes and cotton rounds, “we agreed,” Bender tells TZR. “The products we consume impact the planet we all share in many ways, including generating greenhouse gas emissions, releasing pollutants into air and waterways, and leaving behind landfill waste that may take centuries to break down … single-use items like makeup wipes that are used up and replenished at a high rate have an outsized impact on our environment. By swapping out those single-use wipes for a washcloth or even some soap and water, you’re lightening your contributions to climate change, landfill waste, and other impacts — and I bet your skin won’t even know the difference.” The Versed Down To Earth reusable cotton pads are made to replace classic rounds in their entirety — for everything from makeup removal to swiping on toner. Then, just toss them in the laundry. “You’ll nix 730 single-use wipes over the course of a year,” Bender says.

Biodegradable Makeup Wipes

Another alternative that’s started to attract attention? Biodegradable makeup wipes. The idea here is that biodegradable materials will break down over time and thus, won’t pile up in garbage dumps — which is admirable, if not a little misguided. Besides the fact that the packaging for these types of products still uses a considerable amount of plastic, and they are not reusable face wipes — still a one-and-done, biodegradable materials very rarely actually biodegrade. Many studies have found supposedly biodegradable items in landfills, fully intact, decades after they’ve been thrown away. “Excavations of landfill sites across North America have uncovered … [that] newspapers are still readable after almost 40 years; 10-year-old carrots are brown on the outside but bright orange on the inside; and 20-year-old steaks still have meat on the bones,” reads one report from the Environment and Plastics Industry Council. Landfills simply don’t offer enough oxygen, light, or soil to facilitate the breakdown of plant-based fibers.

Compostable Wipes

Compostable wipes, like the ones that Simple Skincare offers, are better in theory — but composting comes with its own set of issues. Compost is defined as “decayed organic material used as a plant fertilizer,” and the concept of composting hinges on the fact that compostable materials cycle nutrients back into the earth. Before you toss your makeup removing wipe in the compost, then, you have to ask: What did I just wipe off? If any of your skincare or makeup products contain silicone, there’s a good chance that cloth is no longer compostable, as silicones (also listed on ingredient labels as dimethicone, cyclomethicone, cyclohexasiloxane, cetearyl methicone, cyclopentasiloxane) are bioaccumulative — meaning, they build up in the environment, rather than break down. Everyday skin care and makeup products also contain synthetic chemicals that could actively harm the soil supply, like microplastic glitter, for example.

Perhaps the most sustainable and foolproof option is to eliminate the need for a physical wipe or cloth altogether with a cuts-through-anything oil cleanser. One Love Organics’ Vitamin B Enzyme Cleansing Oil is an option that renders all wipes useless. It removes everything — everything, from waterproof liquid liner to Kylie Cosmetics Lip Kits — and washes off easily with just a few splashes of water.

Why People Use Disposable Wipes

That said, cleansing wipes are and always will be a necessity for those with disabilities. “I use baby wipes and facial wipes daily,” Michaela Hollywood, a Trailblazers Campaigns Officer at Muscular Dystrophy UK, told Dazed in 2019, adding that the ease of use was extremely important for her. “It’s also important to remember that for those of us with carers and personal assistants, not all of them will be comfortable using an alternative. I have to use the best products to match their skills.” Hollywood added that many single-use personal care products were originally created for disabled folks, and were later adopted by the general public for the sake of convenience rather than necessity.

“It’s not always easy to change our habits, and the throwaway mindset is very ingrained in our society,” says Aagaard. If “convenience” is the reason you continually reach for single-use products, it might be a good idea to revisit your definition of the term. After all, what’s more convenient than a reusable cloth that you only have to purchase once, can be tossed in with your laundry, and may help divert billions of pounds of waste from landfills across the world?

One last note: Don’t rush to throw away your current stash of single-use wipes in the name of sustainability — it’s far better to put current products to use than send them straight to a landfill. Better yet, donate your leftover single-use items to a women’s shelter in your area (local programs are more likely to accept partially-used products than national donation centers). Once you’re ready for something new, move on to a planet-friendly option to use instead of makeup wipes — like the 18 reusable face wipe alternatives ahead.

Shop Face Wipe Alternatives

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