Refillable beauty products: how to make the switch

By planetm | January 17, 2022

The tide is turning on throw-away beauty packaging as more and more people embrace a new, sustainable approach to looking and feeling good. Welcome to the world of refillable beauty, says Sarah Dawson.

With 120 billion units of packaging produced by global cosmetic companies ending up in landfill every year, the stats on sustainability and the beauty industry are anything but pretty.

From deodorant cans and shampoo bottles to single-use face masks and skincare minis, the waste is building up at a terrifying and unsustainable rate.

The problem with plastic

If nothing is done, National Geographic reports that by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills – the equivalent of 35,000 Empire State Buildings.

Thankfully consumers are calling for change, with the British Beauty Council’s recent Courage to Change sustainability report sharing that 91 per cent of us want less packaging and 88 per cent want to be able to refill their cosmetics.

So, is there a way to still indulge in beauty products, without a detrimental effect on the environment? Refillable cosmetics have been sitting on the periphery of the beauty industry for some time, but 2021 has seen the idea of beauty refills becoming more mainstream and a lot more accessible.

Taking action

Claudia Gwinnutt was inspired to set up beauty refill business, Circla, after a sobering look at her own cosmetics collection. “I have always been a bit of a beauty junkie, but a few years ago, as the ‘David Attenborough effect’ took over regarding plastic packaging waste, I opened my bathroom cabinet and suddenly didn’t feel too good about it,” she explains.

As well as overhauling her approach to how she consumed beauty products, Claudia launched her door-to-door refill company to make it as easy as possible for others to make the switch – but she was originally met with some hesitancy.

“The biggest misconception is around the inconvenience or lack of quality. Unfortunately, sustainability is still associated with faff or compromise, and that’s why I spend all my time trying to make sure that refilling your shampoo bottle is just as convenient as throwing it in the bin.”

Now, Claudia’s able to offer refills on everything from cleanser, face wash and face masks to body scrubs and shampoos – she even offers refillable candles. But, she admits, the beauty industry needs to do more to help the cause.

“The biggest thing that annoys me is the amount of greenwashing that exists in the beauty industry,” she says.

“Lots of brands have started providing refills in pouches, but in the UK lots of those pouches can’t be curb-side recycled – so actually, a normal shampoo bottle is a better option. There’s so much opportunity to innovate and develop the actual packaging itself and support the transition to reusable packaging.”

Claudia is positive about the future of beauty refills and believes it will eventually become the norm.

“When I first started talking about Circla two years ago, most people could not understand it – fast forward to today and consumers are really getting on-board. I don’t think we’ve reached the tipping point yet but give it another year and we will see refills become mainstream.”

Is eco beauty any good?

Embracing a more sustainable approach should be a no-brainer, but, as student Amanda Clarke shares, there’s a lot of misconceptions surrounding beauty refills.

“I do all the usual things of recycling my food packaging and food waste and did feel guilty about the amount of plastic recycling my day-to-day beauty routine was producing,” she explains.

“But I’m a beauty product snob and thought beauty refills meant basic quality. It put me off for a long time, but recently I started swapping out my usual shampoo and conditioner for refills, and the quality is amazing. For me, it’s just the start and I don’t think I could go back to single-use.”

Even the travel sector is moving towards refills, like Bethnal & Bec, who offer luxury rural retreats in Hertfordshire. “The hospitality industry is notorious for offering small, single-use beauty products, that are often simply thrown away unopened and unused,” shares owner Vicky Saynor.

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“We’ve always put sustainability at the core of our decisions and wanted to provide complimentary products to our guests, without the environmental impact.”

Now offering refillable shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand wash and body lotion, guests get to experience first-hand the kind of quality available for beauty refills, and Vicky hopes it will inspire people to give it a try at home.

Although the beauty industry as a whole has a long way to go, there are some key players making huge steps towards a more sustainable future.

Much loved for their trailblazing eco-credentials, it’s no surprise that The Body Shop are leading the way. “Switching to refill, collectively we could save over 25 tonnes of plastic every year – the equivalent weight of 21 MINI Coopers,” explains the brand.

After the success of refill stations at two of their stores, The Body Shop are rolling the idea out to 500 stores by the end of next year. After an initial purchase of an aluminium bottle, you can then refill from an ever-growing line of haircare, shower gels and hand wash.

Thinking outside the box

Of course, some products lend themselves to refills more than others, but it hasn’t stopped other companies from trying to find solutions to the problems. The highly Instagram-able brand, Wild, have created an eco-friendly, refillable deodorant case, with refills sent straight to your door in 100 per cent recyclable packaging.

Even make-up brands are taking steps to reduce packaging, with Charlotte Tilbury offering a whole line of refillable lipsticks and iconic brand MAC selling customisable and refillable eyeshadow palettes to avoid excess waste.

If you want to make the switch, there are lots of options out there. Check the websites of the brands you usually buy – you might be surprised to find they already offer some kind of refill service. If they don’t, email them to ask why!

Health food stores are a great place to shop for refillable beauty, and you might discover your new favourite brand along the way.

Beauty refills are getting more accessible and there’s never been a more important time to switch – so why not give it a try!

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This article first appeared in issue 20 of Planet Mindful magazine.