The greater beauty industry is not, by definition, in the business of ugliness. But even the fluffiest, most fragrant roses have their thorns — thorns which, in beauty, come wrapped in plastic packaging that’s never to be seen, and certainly not used, again.
According to research from recycling company TerraCycle, the global beauty and personal-care industry produces approximately 120 billion units of packaging every year, only a small percentage of which are accepted by traditional recycling programs. This is not a consumer issue, to be sure: In 2018, in the U.S. alone, roughly 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic were created just for beauty and personal-care products, according to Euromonitor International.
That the beauty and personal-care industries have a packaging problem — nay, crisis — is not news. Neither are the wistful pledges that corporations often make to do and be better down the road. (The L’Oréal Group, for one, committed to sourcing up to 50% of its packaging from recycled material by 2025.) What is new, however, are the steps those same corporations are taking to get us there.
In these sustainable times, more and more are adopting something of an imperfect refill model in which brands, such as Procter & Gamble’s Pantene and Unilever’s Dove, are putting out two different SKUs (or stock-keeping units) of the same product: one that’s permanent, in glossy, perhaps bulkier packaging, and another, less wasteful alternative that houses the refill alone. Ultimately, though, both SKUs still produce waste, just on different scales.
But, what if they didn’t? What if that packaging just disappeared altogether, dissolving — with just a little bit of water — down the drain?
A new generation of personal-care brands is pursuing just that question. In an attempt to diminish both their environmental impact and packaging waste, writes trend-forecasting agency WGSN in a new report, personal-care labels are pioneering water-soluble packs that safely disintegrate when in contact with hot water. While different companies may feature their own proprietary dissolvable ingredients, one of the most reliable is polyvinyl alcohol, an odorless, biodegradable and water-soluble polymer created without the heavy toxic metals that are found in the majority of plastics today.
It’s an enticing proposition, especially for an industry that, as most beauty industry professionals will be quick to tell you, is quite literally buried beneath an unfathomable amount of cardboard and plastic. The reality, though, is that its use case is still quite narrow, and some experts have questioned if, and when, mass-market brands could incorporate dissolvable packaging in any truly accessible sense. So, what comes next?
To answer this question, we first need to understand where, exactly, we stand with packaging innovation across the board. If it feels like this type of technology is far more advanced than the rest of the beauty industry, that’s because, well, it is.
“There’s a nice perfect storm of activities that allow for sustainable packaging to be developed at a slightly more aggressive clip than other segments of product, broadly,” says Michelle Gabriel, professor of Sustainable Fashion Strategy at Glasgow Caledonian New York College (GCNYC).
“For one, it’s a very tangible way to manifest sustainability in general,” she says. “We’ve seen more innovation in packaging than in other spaces that are much more complex and require more time-consuming processes to deal with.”
Whereas environmentally significant changes are markedly difficult to implement in supply chains, packaging provides brands with a marketable win. This is made even more accessible, too, by headway made in other fields — like paper-pulp to-go containers in food and beverage, or plantable papers in home design — that a larger sector like beauty can take advantage of.
In developing Plus, a “zero-waste” body-care brand that the creatives behind Starface launched in 2021, co-founder Julie Schott tapped a vendor that had already made dissolvable packaging for other categories in more niche markets.
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Plus is a body wash brand that looks to address the concern that traditional body wash is mostly made with water. This is a problem on a cross-industry level: Every year in the U.S. alone, 42 billion bottles are used to ship products that contain more than 70% water, contributing significantly to the carbon footprint associated with said products. Plus provides an alternative: single-serve, dehydrated paper sheets that dissolve to form a lather of eucalyptus leaf oil, shea butter and aloe leaf. With its “zero-waste” packaging, Plus also seeks to combat a bigger problem — fuel emissions — that comes with shipping heavy products around the country and back again.
“Liquid body wash is often made with up to 90% water,” says Schott. “Starting there, for us, just made sense, because of course facial skin care is often housed in the way it is for a reason to preserve actives, whereas body wash is a lot more resilient and flexible.”
For Schott, a former beauty and fitness editor who entered the entrepreneurial world with the launch of Starface in 2019, this packaging crisis was personal. “When I worked in editorial, I would complain about it a lot, and take issue with specific brand choices, which was not a productive way to tackle the issue,” she remembers.
Starface, a skin-care brand that makes pimple patches housed in refillable, reusable cases, presented Schott and her co-founder, Brian Bordainick, an opportunity to start from scratch. Then came Plus, which Schott describes as their opportunity to dive into not just packaging waste, but the ways in which we consume our personal-care products entirely.
There’s more progress on this front in Europe, where sustainability innovation is more than just a commercial bonus for consumers. Way back when in 1994, the European Union adopted an ambitious circularity program called the European Packaging Waste Directive, that outlines a number of recycling targets for used packaging for all Member States. By Dec. 21, 2025, at least 65% by weight of all packaging waste must be recycled, with 50% of all plastic being recycled. By 2030, those targets will increase by 5%.
With this range of structural and regulatory support, startups are cropping up to fill this gap in innovation, particularly as Member States begin closing in on their recycling targets. One such company, London-based reproductive-care brand Daye, offers organic tampons (complete with sugar cane applicators) that come wrapped in a dissolvable film made from wood pulp. Though Daye operates in the U.K., which left the EU in 2020, it ships its products across Europe, to Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany, France and Portugal.
But packaging innovation doesn’t simply have to exist on the retail side of the transaction. Take On Repeat, another London-based organization that’s developed a dissolvable film that can contain serum and oil products. On Repeat offers two services, one being a fulfillment and packaging service that’s exclusive to the U.K. and another plug-and-play option that’s global. In the case of the latter, On Repeat offers its dry packaging to brands to purchase, which they can then integrate into their current supply chain.
For many new-to-market businesses with neither the experience nor the resources to innovate upon packaging in-house, the On Repeat framework offers a viable alternative. But what happens when attempting to scale? This is as relevant both for the brands themselves as for the organizations partnering with them.
“We’re still coming up against consumption dynamics,” says Gabriel. “We can make the packaging as beautiful and as sustainable as we want, but everything has problems at certain levels of scale. What happens when 4 million people buy packaging that dissolves? That product may not necessarily behave as testing might indicate when it’s in a very isolated circumstance.”
As far as packaging is concerned, Gabriel, for one, prefers those which align to our current processes, like paper. Not only is it a highly recyclable material in our systems, she explains, but even we in the U.S. have “pretty decent” infrastructure to support its full lifecycle.
“I’m of the school of thought that sexy and flashy things, like saying a package can dissolve, sound great,” says Gabriel. “But ultimately, we do have systemic limitations to how we process them, or what the implications are for them.”
But what if we could change the systems? If a rising tide truly does lift all boats, could a smaller-impact operation sway a mega-corporation (and often, mega-polluter) to invest in technology on a mass scale? Plus — which is one of the brands as part of Target’s waste-conscious Target Zero initiative — is banking on it.
“Anytime a huge conglomerate looks at the way they’re packaging things and listens to customers to make a change is great,” says Schott. “It has to be on this level — mass retailers and the biggest personal-care brands in America. I hope small brands like Plus will inspire those choices. Plus’s mission can’t work unless the bigger brands adopt this same mission.”
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