bathroom sink against dark grey tiled wall

Beauty and the beast: plastic-free in the bathroom?

Plastic waste is a problem in the bathroom – from toothpaste tubes to shampoo bottles. Can you ditch plastic without sacrificing your beauty regimen?
By Roisin Mcloughlin    |      09 Apr 2018    |      10 min

Did you know that only 9% of the plastic ever made has been recycled?

With most plastic still ending up in landfills or in the natural environment we need urgent action from individuals, businesses and governments if we're to curb the amount of plastic waste we produce.

If you're trying to reduce your own plastic waste, one place you may feel a little stumped is in the bathroom. When it comes to hygiene and beauty products, plastic packaging is often hard to avoid.

So, is it possible to reduce the amount of plastic polluting our soils and seas without sacrificing a beauty routine? We asked our Facebook followers to share their top tips for reducing plastic in the bathroom.

Don’t forget to sign our petition asking for government legislation to reduce the amount of plastic washed down our drains and into our oceans.

Biodegradable cotton buds

Cotton buds are largely made of plastic, thanks to their polypropylene stem. They're one of the top 10 items found on beaches by volunteers for the Marine Conservation Society. People often wrongly flush them down the toilet and they end up passing through the sewage system and into the sea. They can be deadly to the unfortunate marine life that ingest them.

Multi-coloured plastic cotton buds in a line
Plastic-stem cotton buds

The government has announced plans to ban these items. But why wait around for that to take effect? Ban them from your bathroom now. Instead, buy organic cotton buds with 100% biodegradable card sticks.

Plastic-free bars in the bathroom

Showering and hand-washing is something most of us (we hope!) do multiple times each day. When it comes to what gets our bodies in a lather there’s tonnes of choice; from gels and milks to soap bars and bath bombs.

What many of these products have in common is the plastic packing: the bottles, tubs, tubes and pots they often come in. Factor in daily use and that can add up to a heck of a lot of plastic. Especially if you live in a large family home.

Hand pumping soap from plastic bottle
Liquid hand soap in plastic bottle

By far the most suggested tip on Facebook was to steer clear of liquid shower gels and hand wash. Instead switch to solids, replacing these products with bars of soap.

And because bar soap doesn’t contain as high a proportion of water as shower gels or liquid soaps they tend to last a lot longer and are more cost effective.

But that’s not the only reason to switch to bars...

A Swiss study found the carbon footprint of liquid soap is 25% larger than bars on a per-wash basis. Liquid soap also needs 5 times more energy to produce and can use 20 times more packaging. All of this makes liquid soap heavier and less efficient to transport from the factory to your shower.

The study did note traditional bar soaps could have more of an environmental impact on land than liquid soap. This is because they are usually made from fats and oils which come from farmed crops. However, given that most liquid soaps are made from petroleum-based chemicals, it’s still much easier to choose a natural bar soap that’s kinder to our environment.

Bars of green lemon verbena and purple lavender soap
Bars of plastic-free soap
Credit: Dimi Talen/WikimediaCommons

Here are our Facebook fans' top tips for purchasing bar soaps:

  • Choose a soap in minimal packaging (avoiding plastic).
  • Choose a natural soap, avoiding chemical ingredients.
  • Avoid soaps made with palm oil to limit the environmental land impact.
  • Buy from local farmers' markets or independent shops where possible to reduce transportation carbon footprint.

Plastic-free mane-tenance: shampoos and conditioners

Like hand soaps and shower gels, single-use plastic tends to be the default packaging for most shampoos and conditioners.

And, just like hand soap and shower gels, if you’re looking to cut plastic out of your hair care routine entirely, buying bar versions of both shampoo and conditioner is the simplest way to go.

Child with soap suds on hair
Plastic-free means everyone's happy...
Credit: thejbird/WikimediaCommons

The pros of using bar shampoo and conditioners to wash hair are pretty much the same as for your hands or the shower – no plastic (and much less packaging altogether), much longer lasting, lower carbon footprint for transporting the product, and fewer chemical ingredients.

For many beauty enthusiasts, the lower chemical content of shampoo bars is an additional benefit, as most shampoo bars are "sulphate free".

Sulphates/sulfates (Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate on your shampoo bottle) are among the most widely used ingredients in shampoo products. It’s what makes your shampoo and shower gel "lather" and foam.

They are "primary surfactants" which basically means they contain molecules that attracts both water and oil which makes them very efficient at separating dirt and oil from your hair and allowing water to wash it away.

In fact, sulphates are sometimes so efficient at cleaning away dirt and oil from your hair and skin, that they end up stripping away natural oils needed to keep your them healthy. They can also aggravate the skin, particularly in those with dry skin conditions such as eczema.

Here are some of our favourite shampoo bars:

Girl having her hair shampooed at hairdressers sink
Woman getting her hair washed at a hairdresser's sink
Credit: Brentron2000/CC0-Wikimedia Commons

Some people might find the switch from bottle to bar too tough on their tresses. You might miss the lather of a liquid shampoo, or lack the variety of hair-type specific treatments in bar form.

Have no fear, our Instagram followers still had some great advice on how to reduce single-use plastic in your haircare regime without sacrificing your barnet.

Buying in bulk and recycled plastics

Bulk buying is a great way to ease into reducing your plastic consumption. Not only does it cut the total amount of plastic you consume, but also reduces the carbon footprint of shipping the products.

Even better if you can bulk buy from brands that use recycled plastic.

Fortunately it seems beauty industry is finally waking up to the environmental impact of its packaging. Many salon brands are pledging to use only recycled materials in their packing.

Here are our top suggestions for buying bulk and recycled plastic:

  • Faith in Nature is an award-winning organic, vegan beauty company that uses 100% PET recycled plastic for all its packaging. You can buy both shampoo and conditioners in huge 5-litre bottles which will last you (almost) a lifetime.
  • Our partner Neal's Yard is another brand that promises to use 100% recycled plastic in its packaging, sourced wherever possible from within the UK to reduce transportation miles. Shampoo and conditioner are sold in larger sizes.
  • If you're into luxury hair care, salon brand Aveda was the first beauty company to use 100% recycled plastics. You can also buy shampoo and conditioner in salon-sized bottles.

Plastic-free loo roll

Finding recycled toilet paper that also doesn’t come in plastic packaging can be tricky. Many supermarkets produce recycled or "eco" toilet paper, but despite the green credentials of the actual product, the irony is that they inevitably come wrapped in single-use plastic.

Make sure you check the packaging in-store to see if recycled (recyclable) or biodegradable packaging is on offer.

A roll of toilet paper in a holder on a bathroom wall
Can you find plastic-free toilet rolls?
Credit: Emdot/Creative Commons 2.0

If you’re struggling to find a recycled plastic alternative in your local supermarket, here’s another instance where buying in bulk (or the largest size available in the supermarket) can help reduce plastic waste.

But if you’re keen to go completely plastic-free in this department, there are a number of online options:

  • Who Gives A Crap is made from 100% recycled materials and plastic-free packaging. The company donates 50% of profits to help build toilets for people in need of better sanitation.
  • Another great option is Greencane toilet paper. It’s made from recycled bamboo and sugar cane and also guarantees completely plastic-free packaging and product.
  • Finally Ecoleaf toilet paper is made from 100% recycled paper and the packaging is compostable.

Plastic-less toothbrushes and toothpaste

Keeping those pearly-whites shining can be a nightmare for the plastic-avoider. Our twice daily habit (particularly if we use a disposable toothbrush) could be sending thousands of tonnes of single-use plastic to landfill each year.

In fact it’s estimated that in the US alone between 850 million and over a billion toothbrushes, representing over 50 million pounds weight (22 million kgs) of waste, are discarded and end up in landfill each year.

Yellow plastic toothbrush with toothpaste squeezed onto the bristles
Yellow plastic disposable toothbrush
Credit: Creative Commons CC0 License

Luckily there are quite a few options to cut down on toothbrush-related plastic waste.

Try a biodegradable bamboo toothbrush. The market for bamboo products has exploded in recent years and there are now quite a few bamboo toothbrushes to choose from, although you’d be hard pressed to find one in your local supermarket aisles.

One exception is the Humble Brush which you can find stocked in Waitrose and Whole Foods as well as Boots and Superdrug (and many more). The handle is made from 100% biodegradable bamboo, although the bristles are nylon and will need to be removed before composting.

If you’re looking to go completely plastic-free you could try the wooden brush from German company Life Without Plastic. They’re made from sustainably harvested beechwood, and the bristles are made from pig hair. Which means that, although they’re not suitable for vegans, they can be completely composted after use.

Finally if neither of these options work for you, a conventional toothbrush or electric toothbrush with replaceable head (rather than throwing away the whole thing) will reduce single-use plastic consumption. The Source toothbrush is made from recycled materials and claims to reduce "93% of waste from standard brushing".

Check out lots more tips and products for going plastic-free in the bathroom on our Pinterest board.

And don’t forget you can sign our petition asking the government for new plans to drastically reduce the amount of plastic pouring into our oceans.