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How to Create a Low-Waste Skincare Routine in 10 Simple Steps

Creating a sustainable, low-waste skincare routine is easy. Here's how one author made hers more eco-friendly in 10 simple steps.

Written by
Celia Murphy

Looking to start or upgrade your skincare routine? Overwhelmed with product options and wondering if it’s possible to care for your skin sustainably? With years of experience and plenty of mistakes, I was once in your shoes.

However, I quickly learned that perfection isn't the key to success in sustainability. Instead, it's about adopting behaviors and habits that work for you.

The skincare and cosmetic industry generates a significant amount of waste, from single-use plastic bottles and containers to microplastics and harmful chemicals in our exfoliants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), containers and packaging—including containers for cosmetics and personal care items—made up about 82.2 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generation in 2018.

That's how I figured out my skincare routine. I took my values of wanting to decrease waste and better the environment and combined them with my daily routines to find the methods that work for my skin and personal needs.

Needless to say, it is possible to implement a routine that’s good for your skin, your wallet, and the environment. Here are my 10 steps for creating a low-waste skincare routine.

10 Steps to Sustainable Skincare

1. Keep It Simple

Navigating skincare in the era of TikTok influencers and millions of products on the market isn't easy. It seems like everyone is telling us we need serums, toners, essence, eye cream, lip masks, and more serums to achieve the perfect routine for clear, dewy skin. Thankfully, you don’t.

I found that the best skincare routine for me only requires a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen. That’s it! I use a cleanser and moisturizer in the morning and at night, and sunscreen is applied every morning (this is the most important part!). And the cool part? You can now opt for zero-waste sunscreen that keeps your skin safe and protects the planet.

You can add more products later based on your specific skin concerns, but remember to only add one product at a time. Not only does taking small steps prevent waste from ending up in the landfill, but it also prevents skin irritation and saves you money.

2. Start Small

My first instinct when starting my skincare routine was to buy huge containers of the products I used. After all, buying in bulk is usually cheaper—and I assumed it was better for the environment to have one large container instead of a bunch of small ones. I soon learned my mistake.

Many of the products I bought in bulk either expired before I could use them or I decided to switch to a new product—meaning I wasted money and added more waste to the landfill. Now, I only buy big containers of products I love and know I will use up before the expiration date. 

3. Use Every Last Drop

This small tip has saved me so much money. You have no idea how much product is left in the containers you think are empty! If you're reaching the end of your favorite lotion, cleanser, etc., I highly recommend cutting open the tubes and using up the rest of the product.

Besides saving you money, it prevents waste! Plus, this can also help you clean out the inside of those tubes, so you can correctly dispose of them when the time comes. There are even tools available that help you scrape out every last drop.

4. Be Mindful of Packaging

This is probably the first step that comes to mind when you think of low-waste skincare. Most products come in unrecyclable, plastic containers—which is something most of us are trying to avoid. One great alternative is glass bottles, like the products from Youth to the People.

If you can’t find glass, look for recyclable plastic or containers that you can reuse or refill. Lucky for us, refillable beauty and skincare are on the rise. That means our favorite products are coming in packaging that can be refilled and reused indefinitely!

Beauty bars are another low-waste trend we're seeing in the clean skincare space. These bars can be soap, shampoo, conditioner, and more—and they don't need plastic packaging. Instead, they come in compostable packaging, and they cut back on water waste.

However, if your favorite product doesn't come in these types of packaging, you can still try to avoid buying products with plastic pumps. Why? Because those pumps typically cannot be recycled, even if the rest of the container can.

5. Find Alternative Uses for What Doesn’t Work

When learning what works for your skin, it's almost inevitable you'll try a product you don’t love. It's all about the experiment and the learning process. However, you don't have to throw out the products you don't like.

Scrubs that are too harsh for your face might be great for exfoliating your body; creams that are too thick can be used on your hands and feet; serums that make you break out can be used on your neck and chest.

And if you still don't like the products you tried? Donate them or pass them on to a friend! Check local charities, nonprofits, and homeless or women's shelters—these organizations may be looking for skincare products. And if not, it's perfectly alright to regift and pass along the gently-used products to someone you know.

6. Read the Label and the Ingredients

I spent years slathering my face with topicals that promised to clear my acne. All they did was dry me out. I assumed that more product meant less acne, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Many acne treatments and products, like retinol, recommend using a pea-size amount. This is because they're very strong and can irritate your skin if too much is used. Once I started using the recommended amount, my skin was less irritated—and I saved lots of money and waste.

Additionally, when buying new products, it's crucial to check the label. Search for organic, Fair Trade, vegan, and cruelty-free products. Many of us already do this when shopping for food or clothes, but sometimes we forget skincare counts, too.

And to further protect your health and the earth, do some research on what ingredients you are comfortable using on your skin. I like to use the Think Dirty app to check my products for harmful ingredients before I buy them.

7. Swap Makeup Wipes for an Eco-Friendly Alternative

If you haven’t heard this before, let me be the first to tell you: Stop using makeup wipes. They’re single-use and wasteful—with 7.6 billion pounds of wipes thrown into the landfill each year. That adds up to about 1.3 billion wipes thrown out every day.

And while these figures include other types of wipes like baby wipes or hand wipes, it's safe to safe makeup wipes account for a big chunk of that. Plus, makeup wipes can damage your skin with drying ingredients like alcohol. It's time to say goodbye to them.

If you wear makeup, it is important to take it off before you sleep, but try double-cleansing or using a gentle makeup remover and reusable organic cotton pads (which you can buy or make at home). Check out the reusable bamboo makeup remover pads featured in the Brightly Shop. They're certified organic and eliminate waste.

8. Choose DIYs Wisely

If there’s one skincare phase I’d recommend everyone skips, it’s putting lemon juice and toothpaste on your face because Pinterest said it would get rid of your pimples.

I love a good DIY as much as the next environmentalist, but I no longer put kitchen ingredients on my face. Unless your dermatologist says something may be beneficial for your skin, it's not worth the irritation and breakouts that could require other products to fix.

I still like to make my own body scrubs and hair masks, but I leave the skincare to the experts. And I recommend the same for anyone hoping to avoid skin damage. However, if you're still looking for eco-friendly DIYs to incorporate into your skincare routine, try this gentle exfoliating lip scrub.

9. Use What You Have—Including Tools

Personally, I discovered the only tools I need for glowing skin are my own two hands. If you love your jade roller or gua sha because it relaxes you and is part of your self-care routine, then, by all means, continue. But don’t buy new products because you think you need to.

The best thing you can do for the environment is to use what you already own—not buy new products on the market. Constantly buying new ramps up the demand for these products, thus contributing to production and transportation emissions and other forms of waste.

Plus, most tools don't provide any long-term benefits to your skin, and some even cause damage (looking at you, cleansing brushes). Do your wallet, your skin, and the planet a favor and skip the all-new tools. Instead, use the tools you already have, and be sure to clean them to prevent breakouts and bacteria build-up.

10. Do What Works Best For You!

Last but not least, the best skincare routine is the one that works best for you. Give yourself a little grace—no one is perfect, and the planet knows that. I've been known to occasionally use single-use face masks, products with fragrance, and even sleep with my makeup on. We're human; it happens!

I strongly believe the purpose of a low-waste lifestyle, as well as a skincare routine, is about making progress, not achieving perfection. Doing your best is the most important thing you can do for the planet, and every step you take is important.