Sustainable Packaging for Skincare Brands

September 12,2022 Category: Sustainability

Consumers of skincare products share something in common: they care. They care about how they look and feel, they care about the products they’re using and – now more than ever – they care about the impact those products have on both their bodies and the environment. To address those environmental concerns, beauty and skincare brands have a lot of work to do. According to a report from Statista, the cosmetics industry accounts for up to 120 billion units of plastic packaging per year - 70% of which ends up in landfills.

To meet this challenge, packaging for skincare products must overcome challenges that many other industries don’t encounter. With so many options available in the market, brands need a way to set themselves apart from the competition while still meeting consumer expectations for quality, ease of use and sustainability. The desires of shoppers and the ever-evolving innovations in makeup, cosmetics and skincare have made it difficult for some brands to keep up with the latest trends.

The Skincare Packaging Market

The skincare market has grown every year for decades. Between 2021 and 2022, beauty and personal care market revenue grew by over 7%, nearing $19.5 billion dollars. Social media and online advertising have provided platforms for brands (and their consumers) to share news or new products with their followers and get instant feedback through comments and reactions often focused on unboxing and testimonial videos and posts. Influencer marketing through TikTok, for example, has turned some small businesses into million-dollar companies.

Cosmetic items and skincare products in particular often try to update their designs and packaging to meet constantly changing consumer desires. Many shoppers are interested in how they can do their part to protect the environment and conserve resources, but many skincare brands haven’t caught up to these appeals or have substituted greenwashing in place of real progress.

Greenwashing refers to what is essentially a marketing strategy to make products appear more sustainable than they truly are. This is often seen in the form of labeling and imagery: using leaves or “eco-friendly” on the label without meaningful change those claims. This misleads consumers into thinking what they’re buying really is harmless (or at least less harmful) for the environment. Real sustainable packaging reduces waste, emissions or harmful materials and considers the entire lifecycle of a product - from design through distribution and, eventually, disposal.

Opportunities for Sustainable Packaging

Some of the best ways to incorporate sustainability into packaging are through the basics steps, often referred to as The 3 R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle. While it may seem straightforward in theory, there’s a bit more to it in practice. Due to the nature of skincare products, packaging must maintain certain protection qualities to prevent leakage, extend shelf life and maintain the product’s integrity and consistency.

Instead of using materials like polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PEGT) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), brands should consider high-density polyethylene (HDPE). HDPE is almost universally accepted at municipal recycling facilities, is highly reusable and is lightweight, which can reduce emissions during transportation. Glass is another highly recyclable option for skincare brands but has some disadvantages, in that it’s more susceptible to breaking and is typically much heavier than plastics. Stainless steel, aluminum and tin are other viable options, recycled at a rate of 70-90%. The drawback of stainless steel (and glass in most cases) is that the packaging isn’t pliable, so the product can get stuck in hard-to-reach parts of the packaging. Paper and bamboo package are increasingly popular options because of their flexibility, recyclability and renewability.

While sustainability matters to consumers, it shouldn’t come at the expense of visual appeal and ease of use. Some consumers will opt for the less sustainable option simply because it’s easy and convenient, even when the packaging includes magnets or other materials that don’t break down easily. This calls for careful design that balances sustainability with aesthetic and ease-of-use priorities. Avoiding greenwashing and introducing truly sustainable packaging elements makes all the difference. Regardless of the material used, reducing or eliminating components that serve a strictly aesthetic purpose, such as springs or excess layers of packaging, prevents overpackaging and helps brands lower costs, waste and emissions.

The goals in sustainable design for skincare products are to find opportunities to replace or reduce harmful materials through rightsizing; keep production as minimal, clean and waste-free as possible; and leverage materials that can go into the recycling stream instead of landfills. Improving packaging with these principles in mind can deliver substantial progress toward sustainability goals.

Elements of Sustainable Skincare Packaging

Skincare products come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Every product will present different challenges. Take for example travel size products and e-commerce packaging. What may work for one product may not work for the next and each brand will have different priorities in terms of cost and sustainability.

With transportation costs at an all-time high, rightsizing packages and optimizing palletization provide brands with opportunities to reduce both emissions and shipping costs significantly. Flexible packaging options such as paper and bamboo have come a long way in terms of design and protection qualities, and advancements in materials and technology will make them even more useful in the future. End of life management is essential to sustainable skincare design, so developing easy-to-recycle packaging helps with circularity and provides opportunities to boast about sustainable properties that help consumers feel good about choosing a particular product.