We all love a 12-step skin care routine, but many of us would shudder if we learned just how harmful our favorite skin care products can be for the environment. From packaging derived from non-renewable resources to formulas incorporating microplastics that harm ecosystems and the living organisms that inhabit them, the beauty market is littered with products that have the potential to harm our planet to an irreparable degree.
“The beauty industry has a responsibility to ensure its products are safe for consumers, and consumers today are increasingly aware that the impact of beauty products goes beyond whether or not they are safe for our skin,” says Kate Williams, CEO of 1% for the Planet. “Consumers want to support companies that hold themselves accountable for their impact and support environmental solutions.”
Thankfully, research suggests that’s exactly what’s happening. A recent report from the Accenture Chemicals Global Consumer Sustainability Survey found that 72% of respondents are currently purchasing more environmentally friendly products than they were five years ago, with 81% hoping to make the switch within the next five years. That collectively places us in the perfect position to understand more about what makes a given skin care product sustainable, or an all-around better choice for the planet.
“When choosing any sustainable skin care products, I follow the following criteria,” says Candice Batista, environmental journalist and editor-in-chief of The Eco Hub. She opts for natural and organic ingredients that are sustainably sourced and have a low environmental impact, as well as packaging that uses eco-friendly and recyclable materials such as glass or biodegradable plastics, and avoids products with excessive packaging or single-use plastics like cellophane that contribute to waste and pollution. She suggests prioritizing companies that employ sustainable manufacturing practices, such as using renewable energy sources, reducing water usage and minimizing waste. When possible, she recommends avoiding palm oil or any of its derivatives “since it is largely produced unsustainably [thereby] threatening wildlife and ecosystems in the regions where it is produced,” she says.
Helpful certifications to look for include USDA Organic, Ecocert or the Leaping Bunny qualifications, which she says ensure that the products meet specific environmental and ethical standards. Dr. Barb Paldus, founder and CEO of Codex Labs, recommends the use of as many biotech actives as possible, looking for carbon footprint certifications and FSC- or PEFC-certified cartons and leaflets included in your package.
In the influencer age, it can be tempting to buy into virtually every hot skin care trend regardless of its benefit to your unique skin type, but Dr. Tina Alster, a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of The A Method, suggests reducing waste by instead sourcing your skin care recommendations from a reputable source. “A dermatologist or esthetician will explain how to use a product you actually need, rather than see you spend countless resources trying mountains of products you find online that can end up in the trash,” she says.
For a fail-proof solution for finding the best sustainable skin care, Isabel Varela, a sustainability activist, relies on the Environmental Working Group for finding vetted clean beauty products. “They’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that offers breakthrough research on safe, non-toxic products from everything from skin care, food and water to farming and agriculture. Their EWG SkinDeep database provides you with the safest, cleanest products available, so I’m always checking to see whether or not products are EWG-verified.” Plus, she also prefers to support local small businesses, especially if they “have a great social mission, [from] packaging, recycling efforts, community efforts to ethics,” or are led by someone she personally knows.
Here, a deeper dive into how to shop the best sustainable skin care products ahead of Earth Day.
Between their botanical fragrances and ingredients marketed as “natural,” it might seem like, well, all cleansers are sustainable. But that’s not quite the case. “The best cleansers are actually solid bars, like soap or shampoo bars,” says Paldus. “They’re waterless, don’t require plastic or glass packaging and only a carton that is compostable, and are zero-waste in that they are completely used up by the consumer.”
She says a sustainable cleanser is made using renewable, non-petrochemical derived ingredients such as glycolipids, which are an oil-free, sugar-based cleanser ingredient that’s fully renewable. As a rule of thumb, Alster says “you should make sure it doesn’t contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a foaming agent found to strip skin of moisture and cause imbalances, among other issues, discovered by the World Health Organization.”
“Cocoon Apothecary offers a selection of botanical skin care products that include natural face wash options made with certified organic aloe juice, jojoba beads and other plant-based ingredients,” says Batista. “Their luxurious vegan and cruelty-free offerings are made with carefully selected ingredients and they provide detailed descriptions of each ingredient on their website.” She appreciates how the brand’s products are packaged in amber glass, which can be reused in the home or returned for reuse through their bottle return program.
This top-rated gel cleanser uses an SLS-free mild coconut foam for a rich and invigorating lather and witch hazel to soothe, calm and cool the skin.
“One of my favorite brands right now is Earth Harbor,” says Varela. “Not only do they have some EWG-verified products, but they’re made in small batches and are cruelty-free. They’re also woman-owned and use plant-based ingredients and carbon-neutral, zero-waste practices. I support the founder and all the work she does for our planet, like being certified Climate Neutral, by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and more. I also like that they use plant-based therapeutic-grade ingredient oils, and do not use the 1,300 chemicals that are banned in the EU.”
This planet-friendly bar makes for a wise addition to your skin care routine with its clarifying spirulina, purifying activated charcoal coconut and anti-inflammatory and calming lavender oil.
With its pH-balanced soap- and fragrance-free formula, ability to produce a toxin-free lather and luxurious fair trade organic virgin coconut oil base, it doesn’t get much better than this sustainable cleansing bar from Ethique, a brand Paldus recommends for its commitment to sustainability. A single bar is said to serve as the equivalent of three bottles of face wash and it comes in a biodegradable plastic-free packaging. Since 2021, the brand has prevented over 20 million single-use plastic bottles from entering landfills.
Softening your skin should start with softening the impact moisturizers tend to have on environmental resources. “A sustainable moisturizer has key actives that are manufactured using biotechnology,” says Paldus. She explains that biotech-forward ingredients do not require arable land that is best devoted towards food production; use much less water than growing plants; and require much less energy than picking, transporting and processing plant biomass. “You essentially produce pure active ingredients that are consistent in quality and highly potent so you can use less of it in the formulation. In addition, there is no plant biomass waste produced that then needs to decompose and put carbon dioxide back in the air.” Like all sustainable skin care, she says the moisturizer must be packaged in recyclable containers as well.
Batista appreciates that UpCircle’s business model is based on the circular economy, meaning each product in its lineup sources and rescues byproducts from other industries such as the food and beverage industry. “They transform ingredients that would otherwise be discarded into natural, organic beauty products that are better for you and the world,” she says. “All of the ingredients are sustainably sourced and organic, and they’re palm oil-free, ocean-friendly and 100% plastic-free.”
For a stellar sustainable option, Batista recommends UpCircle’s zero-waste Face Moisturizer with argan powder. “[It’s] the best organic face moisturizer for all skin types, formulated with repurposed argan shells,” she says. “In addition to argan powder, the moisturizer includes hero ingredients like cocoa butter, aloe vera and blood orange, which are deeply hydrating and fast-absorbing. The cream is also vegan and cruelty-free and comes in a glass jar with a metal top, making it plastic-free and zero-waste.”
For a beloved moisturizer you’d totally reach for beyond its sustainable properties, look no further than Ethique. “Ethique offers some of the best organic face moisturizers on the market, packaged without single-use pots and plastic pumps,” says Batista. “The Perfector uses hyaluronic acid and kokum butter’s essential fatty acids to hydrate those living in cold, dry climates or those with generally weathered skin. All of their formulates come packaged in compostable cardboard tubes, making them a sustainable option for skin care.”
“All of Alpyn Beauty’s products are certified vegan and made of naturally resilient plants that are grown wild and freshly picked,” says Batista. She says it uses 100% recycled glass and other recycled materials for packaging and has partnered with rePurpose Global to contribute to reducing plastic pollution with every purchase. As members of 1% For the Planet, 1% of its sales are allocated to environmental causes. “With a commitment to sustainability and natural ingredients, Alpyn Beauty is a great choice for eco-conscious skin care,” she says.
For an instant glow-up, opt for Alpyn’s plant-based and fragrance-free moisturizer that uses bakuchiol, a non-irritating bioavailable retinol to boost collagen production and reduce the appearance of fine lines, as well as ceramides to protect the skin’s delicate moisture barrier. All ingredients are gently harvested to ensure what’s left of the plant remains viable and intact in nature.
There are certain blanket guidelines to follow to ensure your serum selection process is as sustainable as possible. “A sustainable serum uses biotech ingredients, but also has a high concentration of the desired active ingredient so that only small doses are required for daily usage,” says Paldus. “It is also formulated to drive those ingredients deep into the epidermis to maximize its efficiency. In this way, a small package can last three months so that the user is not buying monthly, and thereby reducing waste that is not sustainable,” she says.
Janna Ronert, founder of Image Skin Care, says to keep packaging top of mind for serums as you would all skin care, prioritizing the likes of glass jars and recycled materials. “Ingredient-wise, watch out for squalene,” she says. “It’s a common ingredient found in serums but unfortunately, most squalene is harvested from shark liver,” she says, adding that her brand’s new Biome+ Dew Bright Serum opts for a more sustainable and vegan alternative in sugarcane-derived squalane, which brightens skin without disrupting its natural state — or the sharks.
Next, Batista recommends trying before you buy. “Take advantage of companies that offer samples or smaller sizes of their products so you can see how the natural face serum interacts with your skin before committing to a full-size product,” she says. “Reactions can happen, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Batista recommends this serum for its low-impact packing materials made with post-consumer waste and its focus on sustainable, clean ingredients. For a planet-friendly option, invest in the brand’s refillable skin care and serum pouches that “help keep products fresh while reducing plastic waste and diverting carbon dioxide emissions,” Batista says. Why’s this important? She says the brand’s US-based manufacturing means said pouches only travel 8,300 miles, compared to the approximately 17,000 miles of travel required per cycle of recycling and remanufacturing for glass containers.
This fan-favorite serum uses gentle yet effective ingredients like licorice root extract to reduce redness and dark spots, zinc to diminish the appearance of fine lines by shielding your skin from harmful ultraviolet rays and a form of sulfur to soothe sensitive skin.
“Ethique’s Saving Face Solid Face Serum is a great option for baby-smooth skin,” says Batista. “This organic face lotion includes shea butter, rosehip oil and pomegranate oil, providing the necessary nutrients and hydration for firm and healthy skin.” Like the rest of the brand’s inventory, it’s free of palm oil, uses fair trade and ethically sourced cocoa butter and coconut oil, comes in compostable packaging and includes one tree planted for every order. What’s more is that you can use it on your lips, cuticles and more for a jack-of-all-trades product for every lifestyle.
French skin care brand Yves Rocher sees the forest for the trees when it comes to manufacturing sustainable skin care. Protecting biodiversity is at the core of the brand, which it promotes at its botanical garden that functions as an open-air laboratory housing over 1,500 species (and growing) of butterflies and other insects. Through the Plant For Life program, the brand has planted over 120 million trees.
An extension of its eco-conscious practices is Yves Rocher’s Rose Oleo Infusion Serum — a luxurious silky formula infused with rose petals and the oil of a thousand roses said to regenerate the skin for a supple feel and luminous appearance. Its jars are made from both recyclable and recycled glass and come in forest-friendly FSC-certified cardboard boxes.
The sun is setting, you’ve completed your chores and now there’s nothing left to do but indulge in some serious self-care. The obvious choice? A rich and fragrant face mask for an instant pick-me-up. But here’s the issue: “Many face masks tend to include physical exfoliating components such as microplastics or beads, which are definitely something to avoid since, unfortunately, fish and birds can often eat them,” says Ronert, adding that sound alternatives include crushed walnut shells or bamboo spheres.
In an ideal world, Paldus says a sustainable face mask should come in powder form, where the user adds their own water, and where the packaging comes in the form of a compostable pouch. “If this is not possible because the actives need to be formulated with water, then the amount of water required should be minimized and the packaging should be made from mono-materials so that it is fully recyclable,” she says. Sorry, face mask devotees. Astler warns they can create a larger carbon footprint in terms of waste due to the packaging and the mask itself.
K-beauty brand Etheskin knows what’s up when it comes to crafting a sustainable face mask that delivers spa-quality results. Available in dozens of varieties to address different concerns from cooling peppermint to soothing lavender and detoxifying charcoal, this three-piece face mask kit comes in powder format and requires users to mix in their own water. It’s good for up to 30 uses and comes with a mixing bowl and measuring spoon. If you’ve already got those tools on hand at home, opt for the standalone peel-off mask to save on plastic materials.
Paldus recommends Loli Beauty as a top-tier zero-waste sustainable skin care brand, and you’ll definitely want to start with this do-it-all face mask for a lit-from-within look. The organic food-grade powder consists of invigorating matcha, anti-inflammatory coconut milk, purifying kaolin, protective moringa leaf and more. Simply add water to create your desired thickness, and wait 20 minutes before gently washing it off.
Choosing the right J&L Naturals product for your skin type is almost as fun as using it. Paldus recommends this brand for its sustainability efforts, including its carbon-neutral, biodegradable and plastic-free shipping; small-batch manufacturing to avoid waste; and in-house recycling program.
This bestselling face mask comes in five varieties, from calming to balancing and hydrating, and it uses food- and planet-safe ingredients like green tea, beetroot and turmeric to provide the ultimate eco-conscious spa day experience.