LONDON — Sheet masks in all shapes and sizes have taken the Western skin-care world by storm and while they offer beneficial skin-care properties and are easy to use, these single-use products are also detrimental to the environment.
False eyelashes, makeup wipes and cotton pads and buds are among some other frequently used cosmetic aids, although some of them face extinction. The European Parliament has enacted a continental ban on 10 throwaway products, including cotton buds with plastic parts, as of 2021 in an effort to clean up the oceans and part of their broader strategy to build a stronger circular economy.
“People don’t always realize that wipes often contain plastic fibers that don’t break down in the same way as toilet paper. Sewer pipes are small and can easily become blocked when wet wipes combine with fats and grease to form ‘fatbergs.’ These blockages can cause sewers to overflow and pollute receiving waters,” said Rachel Wyatt, water quality program manager at the Marine Conservation Society.
At the moment, facial wipes and sheet masks are safe from the Europe-wide ban, but they are still under heavy scrutiny. While larger beauty corporations are still hashing out their sustainability goals, a handful of emerging beauty brands are already creating sustainable alternatives for existing single-use products.
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“We’re seeing that some indie brands have the upper hand with regard to sustainable beauty as they have built their business practices around ethics and environmentally friendly practices,” said Sharon Kwek, senior innovation and insights analyst at Mintel beauty and personal care.
For Jo Chidley, founder of Beauty Kitchen, sustainable beauty can be affordable, fun, and effective — in defiance of all the prejudices that often plague eco-friendly products. The brand employs a cradle-to-cradle approach for its single–use beauty items, which Chidley describes as “mimicking the regenerative cycle of nature. In nature, when a tree or animal dies or creates waste, that waste breaks down and becomes nutrients for another process and our beauty wipes are entirely compostable.”
Beauty kitchen also sells facial sponges that aren’t single-use but have a life span of three months. They’re made from Konjac root, “a big Asian potato,” according to Chidley, and are fully compostable.
There are many brands employing a cradle-to-cradle approach. The brand Yes To produces facial wipes made from compostable Forest Stewardship Council-approved fabric, while their facial sheet masks are made with recyclable and eco-friendly paper.
Korean brands Innisfree and E Nature use eco-friendly materials for their popular sheet masks. The former produces its facial masks from recycled paper and the latter has developed a ‘skin-fit felt’, an eco-friendly fabric.
“The everyday consumer is becoming more aware of the amount of waste they create in their daily lives and sheet masks are no exception. Since sheet masks are meant for one-time uses, our biodegradable cotton fabric has really resonated with our eco-conscious customers,” said Anna Kim, marketing and PR specialist at E Nature.
Similarly, Love Beauty and Planet, a new personal-care brand created by the consumer goods giant Unilever, stocks a range of sheet masks for the face. “Our sheet masks are not only made of natural fibers and are biodegradable, they also feature ethically and sustainably sourced natural ingredients like murumuru butter,” said Molly Landman, global director at Unilever.
Larger brands are big consumers of cotton buds, pads and facial wipes within their own stores and beauty counters. Coty Inc. and The Estée Lauder Companies declined to comment about their sustainability efforts in using and treating these single-use items.
Brands offering biodegradable alternatives to single-use products still have much work ahead of them, trying to match the performance properties of traditional materials.
According to EDANA, the European Disposables and Nonwovens Association, single-use products have specific functions such as softness, strength, bacterial barrier and sterilization and fabrics must be manufactured to meet these criteria, much like single-use plastic packaging.
“We must remember that plastic is a useful material which confers many benefits, the main aim for packaging is to protect its contents from spoiling and protecting the consumer,” said Dr. Emma Meredith, director of science at CTPA, the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association.
“It is important that there are no regrettable substitutions and that any replacements do not have their own unintended consequences, otherwise you could end up with more waste, damaged products and packaging that consumers will not want to buy.
“The crucial thing to remember with wipes is to dispose of them correctly; non-disposable facial, makeup removal wipes and face sheet masks have the potential to be disposed of via the toilet given they are more likely to be used in a bathroom, but they must not be flushed,” said Meredith.
Wyatt from the Marine Conservation Society added that non-flushable items, “like cotton bud sticks and wet wipes accounted for about 6 percent of all litter found,” according to a survey conducted by Great British Beach Clean, which is the U.K.’s biggest beach clean. The survey also revealed that, on average, 12 wet wipes were found per 100 meters, with an increase of 300 percent over the last decade.