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 factoid: The beauty industry contributes to a sizable portion of the planet’s pollution. It produces 120 billion packaging units per year. Personal care products account for 38 percent of the VOC emissions polluting the air in major cities. Upwards of 20 million single-use makeup wipes are tossed in the trash every day. But there's good news, too: Baby steps — like opting for eco-friendly face wipe alternatives (or at least, eco-friendlier ones) — can make a big difference.
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 the third-most wasteful product in the world. (According to Bustle, landfills accumulate a cool 7.6 billion pounds of wipes with each passing year.) Thankfully, beauty brands are taking note — and taking action. The U.K.-based retailer Selfridges even went so far as to ban the sale of plastic-based beauty wipes in its stores earlier this month. “Single-use beauty wipes have been a staple of many beauty drawers, but they are incredibly harmful to the environment,” Daniella Vega, the company’s director of sustainability, told Dazed. “We’re proud to have made this commitment and to continue our legacy as a leader in the industry when it comes to our sustainability initiatives.”
Instead, Selfridges redirects customers toward Face Halo, a reusable cloth that replaces up to 500 single-use wipes, and Sarah Chapman’s terrycloth Professional Cleansing Mitts. Similar options include Croon, a microfiber pad that can be used to remove makeup, cleanse, and exfoliate; or even basic muslin cloths (both Shiffa and Pai offer organic versions).
Another alternative that’s started to attract attention? Biodegradable wipes, like Almay’s Biodegradable Longwear Makeup Remover Cleansing Towelettes. 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 the wipes are still single-use, 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, 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 skincare and makeup products also contain synthetic chemicals that could actively harm the soil supply; like microplastic glitter, for example.
Perhaps the most sustainable and fool-proof option is to eliminate the need for a physical wipe or cloth altogether, with a cuts-through-anything oil cleanser. I find that One Love Organics’ Vitamin B Enzyme Cleansing Oil renders all wipes useless. It removes everything — and I mean everything, from waterproof liquid liner to Kylie Cosmetics Lip Kits — and washes off easily with just a few splashes of water.
That said, cleansing wipes are and always will be a neccesity for those with disabilities. “I use baby wipes and facial wipes daily,” Michaela Hollywood, a Trailblazers Campaigns Officer at Muscular Dystrophy UK, recently told Dazed. “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.” She 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.
If “convenience” is the reason you continually reach for single-use products — and it is, right? — it might be a good idea to revisit your definition of convenience. 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 onto an eco-friendly option — like the 13 face wipe alternatives ahead.