The beauty industry as a whole is incredibly wasteful. In fact, only nine percent of the 120 billion units of plastic packaging produced by the industry is actually recycled each year. That means most of the plastic jars, cellophane wrappings, pumps, tubes, and coated boxes end up in landfills, or worse, our oceans.
Some products certainly cause more harm than others in terms of their environmental impact, and at the top of the list is anything single use. This includes makeup wipes, cotton rounds, cotton swabs, and those indulgent sheet masks that we all love to use so much, which are possibly the worst offenders of all. Sheet masks are often wrapped in a plastic-foil pouch and surrounded by a paper or plastic material on either side of a cotton mask — none of which is usually recyclable in most curbside programs.
"This is because [the packaging is] made out of complex material in the form of multiple plastic types or a combination of aluminum and plastic, rendering it too difficult to separate and process," Alex Payne, a publicist at TerraCycle, told POPSUGAR. "As for the sheet mask itself, if yours is nylon or synthetic (which you can find by reading the ingredients label on most masks), it is not cost effective for conventional recyclers to clean and process."
The retailer Credo Beauty has already made moves in that direction, announcing earlier this month that it will be eliminating single-use products at its stores by June 1, in the hopes of preventing 3,000 pounds of sheet masks from ending up in the trash.
"As garbage, they're bound for the landfill or incinerator, and too often, garbage ends up as pollution in the environment," said Mia Davis, Credo's vice president of sustainability and impact. "Even though this type of product is super convenient, the undesirable 'end-of-life' scenario led us to take action."
"As garbage, they're bound for the landfill or incinerator, and too often, garbage ends up as pollution in the environment."
Rosalina Tan, a sustainability expert and founder of skin-care brand Pili Ani, has a less-is-more philosophy when it comes to skin care and also doesn't encourage the use of sheet masks from an "organic advocate point of view," as well as an efficacy standpoint. "We don't necessarily need the sheet for an effective moisturizer or firming or brightening mask," she said. "We just need to be more informed on how to properly apply the products — we can incorporate jade rollers for faster absorption or massage techniques."
That said, Ani doesn't think sheet masks will go extinct anytime soon; rather, the industry needs to "get more creative in our formulations." This includes making sustainable options, which a handful of brands have already done — Honest Beauty has the Reusable Magic Silicon Sheet Mask ($15), and Nurse Jamie has the FaceWrap ($30).
There are biodegradable or compostable sheet masks on the market, but those products pose some issues of their own. For starters, Davis said most people don't compost, and while opting for these "planet-friendly" alternatives is a step in the right direction, "it's still not a great thing for the environment."
Payne added: "Some sheet masks are 100-percent cotton or made from bamboo or bio-cellulose, so they theoretically can be composted, however, it's important to check if they have a synthetic beauty product coating or filler." If they do, the mask won't compost properly. This puts an added burden on the consumer to research the materials and ingredients in their masks, which is less likely to happen, but that's not all.
"It's also worth mentioning that 'biodegradable' and 'compostable' aren't interchangeable terms," he said. "Everything technically biodegrades eventually — even plastic — so look for sheet masks that are compostable, since that means it will break down over a clear time frame in the proper circumstances."
With its decision to eliminate all single masks, even those that are deemed "biodegradable," Credo Beauty hopes to inspire other key industry players to follow suit. "Sustainability is not a trend nor a 'nice to have' marketing initiative," Davis said. "It's imperative."