The 7 most common types of plastic found in the beauty industry
Maximising on the current awareness of the plastic issue thanks to Plastic Free July, and inspired by Lou Dartford’s recent article for Conscious Beauty Union on How To Avoid Hidden Plastics in Your Beauty Products, I thought I would do some research into the most common types of plastics used by beauty professionals like myself (and the beauty industry as a whole) – beyond just the packaging or ingredients.
There is no denying that the beauty industry is heavily reliant on plastic – not only what’s on the inside of our products and what they are contained in, but also the tools and equipment and many other items that allow beauty professionals to do their work.
The onset of COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem, with an increase in single-use gloves and masks being disposed of – more often than not it seems, on the ground. Not to mention that the dramatic decline in oil prices means that it’s cheaper to produce new plastic than it is to recycle now.
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Image by Engin Akyurt via Unsplash
The Pros & Cons
While plastic is, of course, a huge environmental problem, the truth is, plastic has its advantages. It’s been a literal game-changer across so many industries. In some instances, even having a smaller carbon and environmental footprint than its glass and metal counterparts. The biggest problems with plastic are to our health (as many plastics leach bisphenol A (BPA) and other carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and toxic compounds), product and packaging design, and consume and dispose of the stuff.
I get quizzed all the time on why some of the products I use are still in plastic containers. The fact of the matter is that plastic is still the most practical solution for packaging a lot of the time (but not all). As a professional hair and makeup artist I simply wouldn’t be able to physically carry my kits if everything were in glass, chrome or steel.
From a weighting perspective, cardboard sounds like a solution, but again, that comes with its own set of challenges – both aesthetic and practical. Not to mention that it requires up to 40x more water to produce – which, considering water scarcity is a very real consequence of the climate crisis.
That aside, truly conscious brands that do opt into using plastic would have considered their options by doing a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of their products and any plastic packaging they do need to use would be – at best – bioplastics made from low-carbon feedstocks, biodegradable plastics, PBA-free and made either made from recycled plastic or the packaging is fully and easily recyclable after use. Other things would also be considered, such as the dispensing mechanism, the separability of the packaging and limiting of multiple materials.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying plastic is ideal by any stretch of the imagination, what I am saying is there are many factors at play – and replacing one material for another without consideration of its impact only causes more problems down the line.
Where and Why Plastics Are Used
There are approximately 45 different kinds of plastics, with multiple variations and endless uses, but here’s a list of the kinds we interact with most regularly in the beauty industry.
1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET)
A lightweight, versatile plastic that’s usually, clear makes it one of the most widely produced plastics in the world. PET is mostly associated with water and soda bottles, but PET is omnipresent in the beauty industry – usually in the form of clear, rigid product bottles. It’s also the polymer used to make polyester fabric – which you can find in many reusable makeup clothes, gowns and protective clothing to name but a few. It’s a big cause of microplastic in the environment. It’s 100% recyclable, provided it’s separated from other materials.
2. High-density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Another multipurpose plastic used in a myriad of products in the home and across industries because of its low cost, hard wearing, versatile properties. In our kits, we will find HDPE in the form of bottles for products like acetone and alcohols because of its high resistance to many of the chemicals. It’s also used to make the lids for bottles and is easily and widely recyclable.
3. Polyvinylchloride (PVC)
This type of polymer takes on both a very rigid and very flexible form. It can be used in everything from the pipes of the factories manufacturer our beauty products to our product container lids and plastic wrap. But perhaps the most commonly associated use we have for it is artist/makeup/standby bags, mats and brush rolls and disposable vinyl gloves. PVC or vinyl is lightweight, reusable, easy to clean, highly resistant to oils and chemicals and it’s waterproof, making it very practical for our needs. It’s a firm favourite of vegan and cruelty-free artists, as it’s what is most commonly used as a leather alternative. On the flipside, PVC is hard to recycle – because of its many additives, including cadmium and lead and can ‘contaminate’ other recycling streams. It’s also non-biodegradable and releases dioxin – a well-known carcinogen.
4. Low-density Polyethylene (LDPE)
We see this stuff everywhere. It’s what plastic bags are made from, but LDPE can also be found in squeeze bottles, kids toys, gas and water pipes, and even laboratory equipment (ie: where our beauty products are formulated). The most prolific association to the beauty industry is as a protective film to paper/card products and the bags our goods come in. It is also used as an alternative to PVC plastic wrap/cling film – which is used in some hair salons to wrap colour while it develops. However, polyethylene versions don’t offer “clinging” ability unless additional additives are included. Depending on the form of the LDPE, it can be recycled, but check your local authority as it’s not widely accepted, especially with regards to cling film. The other big issue with LDPE is its propensity to release phthalates and other toxic compounds into the environment when it’s disposed of.
5. Polypropylene (PP)
This thermoplastic resin which acts as an “addition polymer,” is used to make a multitude of plastic products for home and commercial use, with some reports estimating that we use as much 45.1million tonnes of the stuff. It’s used for injection moulding to make things like car parts (which reduces CO2e emissions because it makes the car lighter, requiring less energy to run), hairdryers and hair tools, carpets and our reusable BPA-free water bottles and food containers that we have become accustomed to carrying around with us in recent years. While less common in the day to day use of beauty packaging (likely because of its sensitivity to UV rays) we are heavily reliant on PP in other areas to get to work and do our jobs, not to mention as a protective measure as PP is used in many disposable face masks – which cannot be recycled. In some good-ish news, it’s been reported that the bio polypropylene global market is set to grow by 1,517.94 th tonnes by 2024.
6. Polystyrene (PS)
A foam-like plastic which is most often associated with takeaway food containers and cups (which we have all been subjected to location shoots) which is Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) and packaging chips to “protect” our beauty products and equipment. It’s used widely on still and film shoots by the photographer or lighting depart in the form of poly boards, as well as insulation in trailers and buildings (ie: the spaces in which we provide our services). Polystyrene can also be found in more rigid forms such as disposable razors, plastic cutlery and CD cases – and becomes very brittle. Although technically speaking, polystyrene can be recycled, the cost and complexity of recycling it mean that it seldom is.
This plastic material is actually inspired by nature (known as biomimicry) – it was originally designed as a synthetic silk-like thread (known for its strength) in 1938 to produce parachutes for the military but was quickly adapted to be used commercially in everything from fishing wire to nylon tights, and toothbrush and hairbrush bristles – all of which are still used today. Less conspicuous places that we make use of nylon are in the material for our beloved Burton and Zuca cases, the straps of our set bags and even in the seatbelts that keep us safe as we travel to work. Nylon falls in “other” plastics #7 in the Mobius Loop/Resin Identification Number, meaning that it’s not recyclable – but it is very durable and has a long life if you take care of these items.
Developing a conscious beauty practice is not about being “perfect,” it’s about being aware.
It’s about continual learning, improving and making informed decisions about the products and practices I choose to engage in -and with.
Unfortunately, plastic is a part of our lives and work and it’s here to stay. So, if we can stop vilifying plastic for a moment, and instead take a long hard look at ourselves and our insatiable desire for newness and nowness we might find longer term solutions. If we start adapting our mindsets and habits – shifting away from a single-use mentality all together and instead, start investing in a circular systems and lobbying for more stringent laws around plastic manufacturing that reduce our reliance on virgin plastics.
After all, everything has an impact. How will you choose to make yours?