Sustainable Packaging Trends and Challenges for Skincare Brands

This is a series of 5 blog posts covering the following topics:


    With #shelfies and detailed skincare and beauty routines prominent on social media, forums and YouTube videos, pretty packaging is synonymous with luxury and self-care—and it’s not unusual for consumers to buy products based solely on packaging. (source)

    In spite of its many advantages, plastic packaging has developed a bad reputation when it comes to its environmental impact. Strong media attention and consumer demand has resulted in some positive, although scattered efforts from government, brands and manufacturers to address this problem.

    These include Kenya joining a growing list of nations that have banned plastic bags and the gradual phasing out of plastic microbeads in cosmetics taking effect this year in the US, Canada, the UK, and four other countries. (source)

    Beauty brands are also responding to pressure from consumers. Many skincare brands have made the switch to glass bottles and jars as alternatives to the traditional plastic bottle. Aveda is choosing to reduce their consumption of single use plastic by using post-consumer recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate), while other brands like Lush are going further still by ditching the plastic altogether with naked-shops and packaging-free alternatives.

    However, as much as these measures help at some level, they all come with great challenges, not always evident (and often undisclosed) to the final consumer.

    Sustainability Challenges for Skincare Brands

    Trading product efficacy and safety for better packaging - how to achieve the right balance?

    Despite many skincare brands claiming their use of sustainable packaging alternatives in order to grab more market share and gain trust from consumers, the reality is that these alternatives either degrade product efficacy and safety, exacerbate the plastic waste problem or shift the burden to other areas. Some of the greatest packaging challenges faced by brands and manufacturers include:

    1. Glass jars - How to preserve the efficacy and safety of formulas.

    Packaging directly affects a finished product stability because of interactions which can occur between the product, the package, and the external environment. Such interactions may include barrier properties of the container and its effectiveness in protecting the contents from the adverse effects of atmospheric oxygen and light.

    In some instances, cosmetics themselves could start to prematurely breakdown the packaging and lead to a shorter shelf life. Antioxidants and anti-aging superstars like Vitamin C and Retinol start to break down in the presence of air almost immediately, becoming less and less effective with each use. These ingredients are further compromised if they’re also exposed to light - for example, when stored in a clear glass jar. Jars also contribute to the formula’s contamination - as it’s not possible to keep your fingers completely clean before scoping out the formula.

    Therefore to package cosmoceutical formulas effectively and safely, airless pump containers are required. However, a challenge with this type of packaging is recycling the pump - usually a combination of plastic with metal springs.

    2. Recyclable packaging - How to reduce the net environmental impact of this alternative.

    In some instances, designing more sustainable alternatives can result in a less-than-desirable net impact on the environment. For example, recyclable packaging has to fulfill a long list of requirements to be recycled after each use (e.g., separability, cleanliness, labelling and coloration). Manufacturers trying to fulfill those requirements may have to use more material and energy when they produce the packaging than they have done up until now.

    Additionally, just because a packaging product is designed for recycling today, does not automatically mean that it will be recycled. And even if it is recycled, the environmental footprint may not be improved. Most recycling technologies currently in use, require a lot of energy and the quality of the recovered material is lower than virgin material. (source)

    3. Reusable packaging - How to change the consumer mindset.

    Other alternatives like reusable packaging are subject to a change in consumer mindset - tearing open and throwing away or recycling - to improve their environmental impact. According to Thinkstep, a leading global sustainability software company, there have been various small-scale attempts in the past, although they have proven unsuccessful.

    As with recycling, the risk for reuse is higher if the heavier, bulkier materials designed for reuse have a worse environmental impact than their reuse compensates for. For example, a recent screening study highlighted that a current version of a reusable PET bag carries a much higher impact than its single-use alternative. So much so that you would need to use the reusable bag at least 50 times to make it more sustainable.

    Designing for reuse may also necessitate more robust packaging materials that need to withstand washing and sterilization. It also needs to have well-built infrastructure to collect, wash, sterilize, refill and return the packaging to consumers, which may result in an increased resource consumption. (source)

    4. Bioplastics and biodegradable - How to solve burden-shifting and supply issues.

    Biodegradable plastics have been around since the late 1980s, however they haven’t lived up to their promise. The industry is still debating what “biodegradable” actually means. Some plastics made of fossil fuels will biodegrade, while some plant-based “bioplastics” won’t.

    You can’t throw them in your backyard compost either. To break down, they require the 130-degree heat of an industrial composter. Many industrial composters accept only plastics that meet certain standards, ensuring they will leave no fragments behind that can harm the environment or human health. And if you throw some biodegradables in with recyclables, you might ruin the latter, creating a mix that can no longer be relied on to make durable new plastic.

    In 2015 the United Nations Environment Programme wrote off biodegradables as an unrealistic solution that will neither reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the oceans nor prevent potential chemical or physical harm to marine life. It concluded that the label “biodegradable” may actually encourage littering. (source)

    Bioplastics, often mixed up with biodegradables, because they’re identical in many of their physical and technical properties, are likely to reduce the carbon footprint but not without shifting the burden to other areas like increasing acidification, the water footprint or other environmental impacts. While introducing bioplastics may only alleviate the plastic problem, it won’t solve it. An ingested bioplastic bag may still choke whales and other marine life.

    Beyond burden-shifting, there’s also a supply issue. How can we grow enough raw materials required to replace fossil-fuel packaging products with bioplastics? The only way is to increase the agricultural production of sugar cane or other feedstock. But agricultural production is already pressed to its limits, straining land areas that compete with food production. Deforestation to prepare the way for more agricultural land is certainly not a sustainable solution. (source)

    5. Paper packaging - How to alleviate the huge environmental impact of producing such high volumes of paper.

    Paper is even more frequently suggested as a substitute for plastic packaging than bioplastics. However, current available data suggests that paper packaging generally requires several times more mass to fulfill the same function as its plastic counterpart. As a result, the overall environmental impact tends to be higher for paper, except in its carbon footprint. So again, this is a case of burden shifting: reducing carbon footprint, but increasing impacts such as acidification and eutrophication.

    Additionally, replacing plastic with paper could likely give us a serious supply problem. If we were to replace all plastics with paper, we must either cut down more forests or find areas for reforestation. The latter would be a double benefit, of course, but do we actually have the space? Current data suggests that we still have a net loss of forests worldwide and that we are more likely to lose possible reforestation areas to other pressing needs, such as to the expansion of cities and towns, to agriculture and to industry.

    Furthermore, paper and cardboard recycling facilities are already running at top capacity and would need to expand their operations to take in more recyclable waste. And at the moment, recycled paper does not seem to significantly decrease the total environmental impact of paper, at least not based on data we have available today. (source)

    Phasing out plastics entirely and developing effective and sustainable packaging alternatives is a massive issue that requires systematic, holistic thinking and united action from consumers, brands and regulators, to ensure that we don’t shift the burden to other areas like taking a toll on non-renewable resources, increasing waste and worsening greenhouse emissions.

    So what’s the answer? Developing new sustainable materials doesn’t necessarily address the underlying problem: our throwaway culture. We need to adopt a radically different model of production and consumption. This can be achieved by moving from a linear to a circular economy, where reduction, reuse and recycling of elements prevails, and by adopting a ‘zero-waste’ mindset.

    Find out how you can help as a beauty consumer without giving up the clean, effective products that you already love and trust.



    Choose Ao Skincare

    Better for you skin. Better for the planet.

    Here at Ao, we take sustainability seriously. Protecting your skin health and the environment has been at the core of our values since day one. Read on to find out some of the key things we are doing to protect our planet. We’d love to hear what you’re doing! Tell us in the comments or reach out to us on Instagram or Facebook.

    • At Ao, we source the majority of our pristine ingredients locally, from the remote New Zealand wilderness, and partner with EWG and Credo Beauty to assure you that our ingredients meet the strictest standards for your health.
    • We follow gold standard practices through every step of our supply chain. Our formulas are manufactured using an innovative and environmentally-friendly method known as cold processing, which not only preserves the integrity and potency of our delicate active ingredients but also significantly reduces resource consumption during manufacturing - in particular energy and time. Most traditional methods rely on heating and cooling processes that account for over 90% of the total energy costs for the production of an emulsion.
    • Our outer packaging is made out of FSC Certified recycled cardboard. We use an innovative glueless design in which boxes are held shut employing either tension or a locking mechanism. Additionally, we use no gloss or laminas during printing, to ensure that the cardboard remains 100% recyclable.
    • Our shipping processes are plastic-free. We use recycled paper shipping envelopes or bags, and no bubble wrap, polystyrene or plastic wrapping around shipping pallets.
    • Our airless pump tubes and containers can sent back to us (free of charge) to be recycled through TerraCycle Beauty Products Zero Waste Boxes™.
    • We periodically revisit our product packaging to improve our environmental impact and reduce unnecessary waste and resource consumption. Currently, we are working on a Full Airless Recycling Program (currently no other brands we know offer this), and a Reusable Program (refills). Stay tuned for more, either by signing up to our newsletter, or following us on Instagram or Facebook.
    • Our ultimate goal is to develop a fully biodegradable airless container solution.


      Sources: Guidelines on Stability of Cosmetic Products, published by the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA) in 2004



      "Skincare science needs to be on the very edge of social change and evolution in order to succeed."

      Dr. Mark Gray