The One Thing You Shouldn’t Do When Making Your Self-Care Routine Greener, According to Experts

published Oct 15, 2021
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You probably learned in grade school that skin protects the body and regulates temperature, but for all of the practical, science-y information out there, many folks simply want their skin to look and feel good. After all, though a stubborn blemish or puffy morning eyes are completely normal, they might not help you feel your best.

With all of the serums, masks, oils, and treatments on the market, it can feel challenging to wade through ingredient lists and vague language — especially if you’re trying to be more sustainable as a consumer and in your home life. Buzzwords such as “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” and “clean” can seem enticing, you might not know exactly what the manufacturer means when they put them on a label.

Although some of these terms are meaningful, a mindful self-care routine is more than just scanning ingredient lists, and sustainability is broader than simply considering what’s inside your products.

But if you’re looking to make your routine more sustainable, there’s one thing you shouldn’t do:

Don’t adopt an all-or-nothing approach and throw everything you already have out, just to start fresh.

It’s easy to think you need to clear your medicine cabinet of every product that doesn’t fit your eco-aware lifestyle, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Making small steps and easing into finding planet-conscious products is better than ignoring the problem, or making unnecessary waste. You already bought those products, so the most sustainable thing to do is use what you have. And when it comes to replacing those items, research your current skincare routine, and swap products as you see fit. 

From packaging to functionality, here are five ways to actually make your self-care routines greener.

Be leery of the word “fragrance” in the ingredient list.

“My number one recommendation is to avoid anything with the word ‘fragrance,’” advises Emilie Hoyt, the founder and CEO of LATHER. Although it’s common to think of the term “fragrance” as scent, it can cover a whole host of things, including chemicals — both synthetic and natural — that manufacturers don’t need to disclose. 

“In skincare products, fragrance is added either to give a product an enjoyable aroma or to mask the natural odor of the product,” explains Dr. Michele Green, MD, a New York City-based cosmetic dermatologist. “Even a skincare product that is labeled as ‘natural’ or fragrance-free’ may still contain ingredients that naturally give it a scent. Varying essential oils are often incorporated into the formulas of skincare products that are labeled as fragrance-free, causing them to be scented.” If certain smells bother you, see if you can sample a brand before committing to a purchase, and research their stance on using organic and artificial fragrances.

Credit: Sarah Wintle

Use the web or an app to thoroughly research brands.

Companies that focus on eco-conscious practices will often have their philosophy clearly defined on their websites, and more companies than ever are being truly transparent about everything from their supply chain to how consumers can mindfully recycle their products. Additionally, apps like Think Dirty and CodeCheck rate ingredients, and the web is a wealth of information. “It may sound boring, but self-education is key,” Olga Ringquist, who co-founded Oquist Cosmetics with her father, told Apartment Therapy. “Identify what you find important when it comes to sustainability.”

Vivian Wong, owner of artisan skincare brand Butter & Me, echoes using the web as a resource. “Educate yourself with more green beauty information like visiting the EWG website or follow a reputable green beauty blogger so that you know how to make your choice,” she says.

If your primary concern is that the company uses organic ingredients, start there. Slowly work through your skincare routine and include new products as you run out of your current stash. “We all have the option to question what is being marketed towards us, and a double-check is just a click away,” offers Ringquist. 

Take the packaging into consideration. 

Beyond thinking about the potentially toxic ingredients inside, a product’s packaging and shipping can be just as harmful to the environment. As a result, some companies offer refillable bottles and pouches, which may produce less waste than the traditional-sized bottles. This is just one step towards a more conscious lifestyle, so be sure to appropriately recycle any shipping materials, bottles, and plastic pumps as needed. 

When a product has to be mailed, try to stock up on shelf-stable items to avoid multiple shipments over time. Another alternative is to visit a farmers’ market to find a vendor that offers body products; not only will you prevent shipping waste, but a local business may also be willing to refill your bottles.

Some companies are taking their efforts a step further. For example, all of Butter & Me’s packaging is plastic-free and is shipped in recycled materials. “There is only one thing in my mind: no plastic,” says Wong. “My packaging is either recyclable, compostable, or at least biodegradable. Most importantly, I encourage repurposing the packaging such as reusing the cotton bag to keep small personal items.”

Oquist Cosmetics houses its skincare line in terracotta vessels that you can repurpose as a vase or decorative art piece once the container is empty. “We knew from the start that we wanted to have packaging that one would want to have out on display and that one could repurpose after the product inside is finished,” says Ringquist. Mindfully making small changes in reducing waste aligns perfectly with a green routine.

Only purchase what you will use. 

Sure, there are times you optimistically buy a new product only to realize it really doesn’t agree with you, but tossing skincare products before the bottles are empty could unintentionally be harming the environment. “Try to buy only what you will really use until the last drop,” advises Ringquist. “We all have that drawer in our bathroom with all those spontaneous purchases that are just lying around for years.” She suggests remedying this by researching and finding products you will enjoy until the end. You can also commit to trying testers of a product before buying the full-sized version if you’re not sure you’ll use it.

In addition to using everything to the last drop, using less of your skincare regimen will stretch the product and your pocketbook. Hoyt suggests only using what you need. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to skimp on your usage, listen to your skin and follow its cues when it tells you that you might be using too many products for its liking. “Use less,” she says. “Look for good ingredients and support honest companies.”

Have an open mind about trying a different brand.

Products may look, smell, feel, and function differently than your current regimen, but giving a conscious skincare line a try may ramp up your routine and give you better skin in the process. “Be open-minded and try out new green skincare products,” says Wong. “They might not be the same as your non-green products, but keep trying.” 

Additionally, finding out how your skin responds to a different line takes time, so be willing to stick it out as long as you aren’t experiencing adverse symptoms, such as a rash. “Skin irritation such as redness, swelling, excessive dryness, itching, burning, peeling, rash, or breakout are indications that use of a skincare product should be ceased,” advises Green, who suggests performing a patch test, which involves putting a small amount of product on a hidden area, such as your inner arm, and observing any reactions after 48 hours. “If there is no discomfort or irritation noticed after waiting this amount of time, the product should be safe for use without sensitivities,” she says. As long as you don’t have an adverse reaction, what begins as an experiment may lead to a new, positive experience with the added benefit that you’re doing your best to be kind to the earth.