What a zero-waste beauty routine looks like – from the women leading the charge in the UAE

Sustainability experts show how we can play a part in solving the growing plastic problem

The beauty industry produces about 77 billion units of plastic, of which 70 per cent ends up in landfill. Getty
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Bathroom shelfies, 11-step skincare routines and try-before-you-buy subscription boxes. The modern beauty mantra demands maximalism. But whether we define our routines as self-care or self-expression, there’s no debate they are wreaking havoc on the planet.

While industries from food to fashion have been laid bare by eco-warriors, the beauty industry has yet to find itself under tantamount attack. Take Instagram, where #zerowastefashion currently pulls in 135k more results than #zerowastebeauty.

But when it’s estimated that 7.6 billion pounds worth of cleansing wipes are binned annually and approximately 70 per cent of the 77 billion units of beauty-industry plastic end up in landfill each year, it’s hard to filter out the ugly truth.

Case in point: Global Plastic Overshoot Day – which marks the point when plastic waste produced is higher than the world's capacity to manage it – has come around earlier than usual this year, on July 28.

Also, Earth Overshoot Day – which marks the point when humanity's resource consumption exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources – is on August 2 this year, compared to December 25 in 1971. Elsewhere, wildfires, floods and typhoons are ravaging entire countries.

“Take a look in your bathroom bin, and you’ll get a real glimpse into how much waste our skincare, cosmetic and personal care regimes really create,” says Doua Benhida, founder of The Zero Waste Collective. And while people like Benhida live the most extreme of sustainable lives, is a zero-waste beauty routine really achievable for the rest of us?

Zero to hero

Eco-friendly, biodegradable and sustainable are terms most of us have come to grips with. But when it comes to the principal pro-planet movement, there’s one question looming for outsiders looking in: does zero waste literally mean not a single tiny piece of waste?

Not exactly, no.

It’s not about making your life overly difficult, but about breaking away from an over-convenient lifestyle
Amruta Kshemkalyani, founder, Sustainability Tribe

“To us, ‘waste’ means what ends up in landfill,” says Amruta Kshemkalyani, founder of the Sustainability Tribe. “We are trying to minimise this as much as possible. We do create what outsiders might consider ‘waste’, but we do everything we can – reduce, reuse, refuse, compost – to avoid adding to the problem.”

Consider everything many of us use each month – face wash, body lotion, shower gel, shampoo, deodorant, hand cream and cotton pads – and this can be a challenge. For Kshemkalyani, she started reducing her bathroom waste by turning to her kitchen.

“My go-to moisturiser is coconut oil. I use shikakai, soap nuts and coconut mix as shampoo, yoghurt milk for my face and body wash, and lots of honey and lemon.”

Anticipating the “Isn’t that redirecting the waste?” question, she quickly follows up: “I try to get loose products. If that’s not possible, I’ll source the largest size and bulk buy. If I can’t avoid packaging, I’ll look out for paper or cardboard or a container that can be reused or recycled.”

Single-use plastic, she says, is a very last resort.

Pick your beauty battles

While viral articles and videos may show zero-waste beauty in its very extreme form, even those championing the movement admit the cause is about picking your battles.

“If I have too many assignments and I realise I don’t have enough time, I do turn to shop-bought beauty supplies sometimes and opt for sustainable products,” says Kshemkalyani. She takes the same approach with cosmetics, seeking out the genuine eco-friendly offerings, and making what she does invest in last longer by minimising make-up to special occasions.

“It’s not about making your life overly difficult, but about breaking away from an over-convenient lifestyle.”

Benhida echoes the sentiment: “I never prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach. We all have a different scalp, hair texture, skin type and hormone influence.”

Achieving a zero-waste beauty routine can depend on your biology and what you’re willing to compromise on. If you can’t ditch a medicated cleanser, for example, focus your energy on switching to reusable cotton pads and eco-friendly cotton buds instead.

The pandemic also put hygiene on everyone’s minds. “I’ve recently started investing in a product by KJ Serums for my face,” says Benhida. “They are bottled in glass, and the business owner used to collect and reuse them before the pandemic. So now I do the best I can by recycling them myself.

“While it’s not 100 per cent zero waste, it is local and ethical, so in a way in contributes to the movement.”

From her viewpoint, when you’re deeply invested in such a lifestyle, it inherently becomes about supporting local businesses (which can minimise travel pollution) and sourcing goods that are ethical and fair trade (as this involves environmental protection).

Accessibility is also a very real obstacle. From bulk buying to price point, Benhida stresses, “we should not forget the financial aspect of it. If you can’t afford certain products right now, focus your energies on what you can achieve.”

Moves in the right direction

In the shower: One of the simplest swaps you can begin with is switching from a liquid shower gel and haircare – often packaged in single-use plastic – to a solid soap bar. These are often sold without packaging at all, too. Check out The Zero Waste Collective’s shop for options. If you can, upgrade disposable plastic razors to metal or bamboo alternatives.

Dental care: While Kshemkalyani recommends a DIY recipe of dried neem leaves, coconut oil and mint leaves, Benhida sings praises for Blanco Care UAE. The Emirati company creates sustainable tooth tablets formulated by a dentist.

Blanco is made from natural ingredients, and is also recyclable, refillable, biodegradable and sustainable. You can pick up a bamboo toothbrush from them, too.

Skin and body care: The good news is, there are plenty of things already in most homes that can be substituted here. Olive, coconut and avocado oils are great for hydration, while enzymes in fruit and its peel – from pineapple to orange – can help reinvigorate oilier skin types.

Honey, yoghurt and bananas can be used to create treatment masks, while other nuts and berries can help to protect the skin against sun damage. For exfoliation, opt for oats as a gentle option and coffee granules for something a little more intense.

Cosmetics: While there are certainly zero-waste cosmetic hacks out there – using activated charcoal and shea butter for mascara; beetroot and coconut oil for lips; and cinnamon as eyebrow powder – buying sustainable products with a long shelf life may be the easier option for most. Head to shops such as Green Beauty Box and Aspire that focus on stocking clean and eco-friendly beauty brands.

Ditching plastic earbuds and make-up remover wipes, and investing in products such as reusable cotton pads will make a big difference, too.

Step up

Of course, the greatest responsibility lies with the decision-makers at the top. When explaining her transition into the movement five years ago, Benhida says: “It really made me angry that so many of those companies that are responsible for the waste were not taking action.”

But things are beginning to shift. The L'Oreal Group has pledged to be completely sustainable by 2030, while Unilever has committed to 100 per cent recycled packaging by 2025.

Anecdotally, Kshemkalyani – who has been zero-waste for 10 years – began to notice a collective shift about eight years ago. Before, living such a lifestyle was often difficult. However, as more companies, brands and even individuals become aware of their need to be a part of the solution, she warns: “Nowadays, it’s trendy for everyone to say they are green and sustainable … words people cling on to in the marketing industry. But sometimes this can hijack the initiative and drown out the smaller voices genuinely trying to make a difference.”

So, while it’s best filtered from the top down, the experts stress there’s no need to wait around for change to happen – be it the one compromise to your beauty routine you can easily make, or committing completely to the zero-waste lifestyle.

As Benhida puts it: “We really need to do what we can before it’s too late – and we’re getting closer to that stage.”

Updated: April 16, 2024, 9:09 AM