Beauty's Hidden Beasts

By Grace Woodburn


It’s not news to anyone that the beauty industry has experienced an environmental backlash of late, particularly when it comes to plastic. Everything from microbeads to disposable face wipes have come under the spotlight for their wasteful and polluting nature, but what lurks beneath the surface of our beauty cupboards that might be next on the hit list?

1. sheet masks

Beloved K-Beauty staple, the sheet mask, is certainly one to keep an eye on. It’s basically the same as a face wipe, which are responsible for clogging drains and forming into fatbergs in sewers. Designed entirely for single-use, and often containing plastic, sheet masks are just as likely to end up exactly where wipes do – blocking and degrading key infrastructure, breaking down into plastic microparticles that are eaten by marine life and end up in the food system.

What’s the alternative?

Luckily for us, a number of beauty brands have pre-empted the sheet mask backlash and created biodegradable alternatives. These are still single-use, but the materials they use break down quickly after use, limiting their impact on the environment. Opt for Maskologist’s plant cellulose mask which is able to biodegrade and has fully recyclable packaging. The Body Shop’s Drops of Youth sheet mask range will also decompose completely within one month, just pop it in your food bin after use.


Tampons are a necessity of life for many, particularly if you can’t get on with the more planet-friendly moon cup. But tampons traditionally come encased in plastic and accompanied by plastic applicators that are thrown straight in the bin after use. They’re also mostly made from a number of synthetic materials like rayon and plastic that don’t biodegrade once flushed. The average woman uses 11,000 tampons in her life, and all 11,000 of them will still be around after she’s dead.

What’s the alternative?

A number of brands have taken on the unsustainable period industry of late. Dame is a new brand offering the first reusable tampon applicator on the market, and have also calculated their carbon footprint, offsetting twice as much carbon as they use to become a climate positive brand. Freda is another brand using sustainable, ethically-sourced materials. Tampons and pads are made from organic cotton that breaks down far quicker after use than the cotton most tampons are currently made of. That’s because organic cotton is made without any synthetic fillers like plastic that take years upon years to break down naturally. When it’s organic, it degrades within five months, a similar time frame as an apple core

3. dental floss

Daily flossing is a sure-fire way to keep teeth fresh and clean. Unfortunately, most floss is made from waxed nylon, a material derived from crude oil that takes many many years to break down. The single-use nature of floss adds to the impact it has on the environment, not to mention those plastic floss picks that have become so commonplace of late.

What’s the alternative?

While the flossing industry hasn’t quite truly cracked the zero waste mandate just yet, it is possible to make more considered choices in this area, just by paying attention to the floss fibre and investing in reusable packaging.  If you’re after a biodegradable floss, opt for floss made from ethically sourced silk, like these from Dental Lace. If you’re following a vegan lifestyle, and don’t want to compromise on silk, Georganics offers a certified vegan floss made from a combination of charcoal fibres and polyester. However, this floss will have to go into your regular trash bin once you’re finished using it as it is neither biodegradable or compostable. Both of these alternatives comes packaged in a refillable glass container that can be used time and time again, and in a box made from 100% post-consumer fibre. Dental Lace is open about the aspects of the product that aren’t quite up to scratch yet – like the plastic-based label. Other options include Knotty Floss from the US, a substitute for those single-use picks. While the floss is made from polyester mixed with bamboo – meaning it can’t be recycled – the handles of each pick are made from corn starch, and therefore aren’t made using finite oil resources.


Finally, the issue of sunscreen. This is an imperative part of any beauty routine, but unfortunately standard sunscreen formulas – in fact more than 3500 of sunscreens on the market – include a chemical called oxybenzone, known to damage coral reefs and other marine life. You might think this is only an issue if you’re wearing it in the sea but seeing as our drains all lead to the ocean our choice of sunscreen makes an impact far beyond the UV rays it protects us from. So much so that Hawaii is the first state in the US to ban the sale of toxic sunscreens, effective from January 2021.

What’s the alternative?

Reef safe sunscreens are luckily becoming more common, and the market is slowly being infiltrated with brands looking to put a stop to this damaging practice. However, this is an area, as in so much of the beauty sector, where greenwashing is becoming a problem. Many brands claiming to be reef safe in fact use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to block UV rays. While in their natural form these minerals are perfectly safe for the oceans, many brands have started reducing the size of the particles to create nanoparticles, so small that they can be ingested by marine animals, causing internal damage. They can also react to heat and sunshine, turning into hydrogen peroxide which is damaging to phytoplankton – a vital nutrient for many reef species. Aethic is a brand committed to fully reef safe sunscreen. They have the monopoly on a naturally occurring ingredient found in seaweed which protects from UVA and UVB rays. Coola is another mineral sunscreen that uses non-nano zinc in its formulas. When choosing the right sunscreen for you, consider where you’ll be wearing it. If it’s just day-to-day protection opt for a mineral base because it’s usually healthier for you. If you’re headed for a swim, Aethic’s approach is best.