Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Matthew Kelly
There are hundreds of thousands of beauty brands on the market. In fact, in 2021 it was reported that in the US alone, there are 101,448 beauty, cosmetics, and fragrance businesses. With numbers like those, it's hard for brands to stand out — but there's one huge area of opportunity in the industry that's being met with unprecedented innovation: the plastics problem.
From unconventional concepts, to packaging solutions that take recycling and sustainability to the next level, ahead, we're spotlighting five brands that are changing the beauty industry as we know it.
When Plus Products hit the market in May of 2021, the entire body-care category was turned on its head. The brand had figured out a way to create the shower staple we all use without the bottle — no plastic, no glass, no refillable cartridge, just the wash.
"The idea came when we learned that one in three items in a landfill is from personal care and beauty products," Cathryn Woodruff, the brand's CEO and cofounder, told POPSUGAR. "And we also learned that products like body wash can be up to 90 percent water with a really small amount of active ingredients." Woodruff and her cofounder Julie Schott set out to rethink the product from the ground up and, with the help of cosmetic chemists, came up with a dry body-wash square that activates into a rich foam when it comes into contact with water.
"In order for this to be successful and for people to adopt this product, it had to be as good as the body wash they currently love."
"It comes in this dissolvable wrapper, which is made from wood pulp, that goes down your drain," said Woodruff. "Essentially, you hop in the shower, you rip open the dissolvable sachet, you pull out your body-wash square, put it under the water, and it lathers up into a foam-like liquid body wash. Then, you can drop the sachet to the drain and watch it dissolve within 10 seconds."
Neat idea, but it didn't come without its own set of challenges, like ensuring the ink used in the dissolvable packaging is actually safe and FDA and USDA approved to go down your drain. (It's approved for food contact, just as an FYI.) Then came the challenge of getting the formula just right. "In order for this to be successful and for people to adopt this product, it had to be as good as the body wash they currently love," said Woodruff. She emphasized that sustainability is incredibly important, but in order for a more sustainable option to replace the existing products on the market, it needs to perform just as well, if not better.
Image Source: Courtesy of Plus
That's a fact that Shannon Goldberg, founder of Izzy Zero Waste Beauty — the first waste-free carbon-neutral, refillable mascara — knows too well. When she launched Izzy in April of 2021, she knew her brand concept was unique, but her mascara formula had to be able to stand up to countless competitors as well. That's why the brand launched four months after her initial start date. "If we're going to change the world and the way we do things in beauty, this product had to be good," she said.
The idea for Izzy and a completely refillable mascara came to her when she moved to Florida and got to see first-hand all of the waste from the beauty industry that never gets recycled and eventually makes its way into the ocean. "My engineer and I started asking ourselves, what is the rest of the industry doing? We looked at cardboard solutions, we looked at PCR plastics, we looked at the refill business," said Goldberg. "With refills we thought, this is probably the most profound thing that we can do in beauty to make significant change, but after a closer look we found flaws in that. At the end of the day, you're giving a client a primary container, whether it's a primary plastic or aluminum container, but then you're giving them pouches or small plastic contains to pour into those larger containers."
Then the idea to use stainless steel hit her. "When you think about our jewelry or silverware and other things that are truly passed down and meant to be durable, they're stainless steel," she said, which is why the mascara tube is made from medical-grade stainless steel. This durability allows the tube to be sent back to the company every three months via a cloth pouch where it's cleaned using the same process that sterilizes surgical tools. The wand itself is melted down and reshaped into a new one and the tube is refilled and shipped back. "The mascara I'm using today could essentially be traded down to my grandchild one day," Goldberg said. "That's how disruptive this idea is."
With the goal being absolutely nothing is thrown out, Izzy needed to find a new solution for labels, too. Engraving the steel tube worked for the product name itself, but the marketing information and product directions wouldn't fit. "We decided to put a QR code engraved at the bottom of our stainless-steel packaging and also in our reusable shipper," she said.
Image Source: Courtesy of Izzy
In addition to stainless-steel mascara tubes and dissolvable body wash, Opulus Beauty Labs is another brand that just hit the market in April of 2021 with a completely unconventional concept inspired by chocolate candies. The brand's founder Robb Akridge, PhD, wanted to bring the idea of self-containing, single-servings in the candy world to beauty without single-use packaging. "I thought, how can we create single-dose cosmetics in all areas of beauty that are freshly activated on demand, create an experience that touches all senses, and give the consumer something they have never seen before?"
The idea of having cosmetic ingredients freshly activated upon use is similar to ampoules, but Dr. Akridge took it a step further (and eliminated the single-use plastic or glass component that usually comes with ampoules), and the "Opoule" was born. "It is a precise, single-dose, self-contained product, the size of a small chocolate, comprised of two separate formulations — the outer coat and the inner core — both made only of cosmetic ingredients, with no plastics or pods to toss," he said. In order to "activate" the self-containing formula, you place it into the Opulus activator, a small hand-held cosmetic appliance that acts as a mortar and pestle and breaks it down in just 60 seconds.
The result is a face cream that, unlike traditional products that are filled in a factory before stocked on store shelves, is freshly whipped moments before you apply it. The appliance also eliminates the need for a jar or bottle to house the formula and can be used for years, cutting back on single-use waste.
Loli Beauty is another major leader of sustainability in beauty that's been around for a few years but continues to redefine what it means to be zero-waste. All of the brand's products are already packaged in food-grade glass jars that can be reused for food storage, and the labels are compostable, but in March of 2021, the brand launched its Arnica Elderberry Jelly at Ulta Beauty, which pushed boundaries even more.
"I cannot tell you how many rounds it took to actually get to where we are today, because it's never been done before — we smacked our heads a couple of times because there was no benchmark to copy."
"We wanted the gel to be waterless, food-grade, organic, cruelty-free, vegan, and made with upcycled ingredients," said Tina Hedges, the brand's founder. "The next step was to ensure our packaging met all our zero-waste requirements." That's why, in addition to the recycled, recyclable glass and the compostable labels, they rethought the box itself. "We grow mushrooms to create the tray the product is placed in and wrap this with hemp paper," said Hedges. "So, our packaging is 100 percent worm food and garden compostable." It's a far cooler, more sustainable option to the cardboard that a majority of personal-care and cosmetics products come in.
But making the switch to shipping everything in mushroom paper and never throwing anything away is a big ask, which is why it's worth mentioning that plenty of other brands are making incredibly meaningful changes in other areas. For example, when Rihanna launched Fenty Skin, right out the gate all of its packaging was refillable. Then there's PYT Beauty, which has begun adding a patented ingredient to some of its packaging that chemically degrades the plastics during the manufacturing phase to act as a "safety net for when plastic doesn't get recycled," the brand said in a meeting with beauty editors. This ingredient depolymerizes and disintegrates the plastic, lowering the molecular weight by 50 percent, which reduces its ecological burden on nature.
Challenging the norm and reinventing the wheel, so to speak, is not an easy feat — but when done successfully, it's incredibly rewarding. "I cannot tell you how many rounds it took to actually get to where we are today, because it's never been done before — we smacked our heads a couple of times because there was no benchmark to copy," said Goldberg. "I always say to my team, there is no creative glass ceiling. Where there's a will, there's a way."