Are Sheet Masks the New Plastic Straws?
Vogue by Jessica L. Yarbrough
“Sheet masks are trash,” Lauren Singer announces. We’re chatting about the sustainability of the single-use skin-care products, and I start to laugh at her play on words—but Singer speeds right past the joke. “They’re unnecessary, they’re superfluous,” she rattles off. “They come wrapped in plastic.” To the environmental activist and founder of Package Free Shop, sheet masks are, quite literally, pre-packaged piles of glorified garbage.
Harsh, maybe—but as the news cycles through stories on climate change and carbon emissions and what to do about the planet’s compounding pollution problem, I can’t help but understand where she’s coming from. Entire cities have banned plastic straws and plastic bags. Extinction Rebellion protested at London Fashion Week while Greta Thunberg petitioned for political involvement at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. Fashion houses are pledging carbon-neutrality. And beauty? While clean beauty is a growing category, and many brands are implementing sustainable practices, single-use items are a special cause for concern.
“Beauty products made to use once and throw out, like makeup wipes and sheet masks, create a lot of unnecessary refuse,” Susan Stevens, the founder and CEO of Made With Respect, tells Vogue. “In the case of sheet masks, there’s a pouch, the mask, and sometimes the mask is wrapped in a plastic sheet.” Usually, none of the components are recyclable and all of them end up in the trash post sheet-masking session, making it one of the more wasteful things one can do in 20 minutes or less.
“The pouches that hold sheet masks are often a combination of aluminum and plastic, which cannot be recycled,” Stevens explains. Singer adds that the stiff, inner plastic sheets likely can’t be processed in recycling plants either (as is the case with a surprising amount of plastics). At best, these materials end up in a landfill; at worst, they end up in the ocean.
“We know plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose, breaking down over time into harmful microplastics—pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long that are manufactured using different toxic and carcinogenic chemicals,” Stevens says. “Research has proven that microplastics are abundant in water, air, and the food we eat.” Besides the potential health hazards of consuming microplastics, the particles release methane as they break down. “Methane emissions contribute to global warming, and global warming affects our climate, creating more severe and unpredictable weather patterns that impact entire ecosystems,” says Stevens.
Then, of course, there’s the mask itself. Most are made with a blend of synthetic materials (nylon, plastic microfibers, polyester), which—as Beauty Heroes founder Jeannie Jarnot so bluntly and beautifully puts it—“equates to laying saturated molten plastic over your face.” As appealing as that sounds, there’s a downside: These “cannot be composted and must go in the [garbage] bin,” says Stevens.
Recent “hydrogel” versions are either made of synthetic polymers—essentially, plastic—or eco-friendly biocellulose, but biodegradable sheet masks aren’t always better. Some come soaked in serums thick with silicones, a class of ingredients that leaves a thin, plastic-y film on the skin’s surface to create the illusion of a “glow.” This film is bioaccumulative, and prevents the “biodegradable” biocellulose or bamboo base from fully breaking down. Instead, silicone-coated sheet masks join their synthetic counterparts in “leaking toxins into the soil” for years, per Stevens. The same goes for under-eye masks, makeup wipes, and daily toning and exfoliating pads.
When you zoom out to consider the effort and emissions that go into producing the product in the first place (one organic cotton mask could require thousands of gallons of water) and the shipping materials associated with online orders, that’s a massive mountain of waste for a momentary thrill. Yet, the single-use sector continues to thrive. “The usage of wet wipes is increasing by 15% each year and the face mask market is expected to grow to over $50 billion by 2025,” Stevens says. “Ongoing production of non-recyclable, non-compostable, and non-biodegradable products will have a considerable impact on the environment.” (On a superficial note: Pollution particles will also have a considerable impact on your skin, hence the popularity of antioxidant beauty products. So technically, cutting down on waste isn’t only better for the earth—it’s better for your face.)
Is this to say that skin-care is single-handedly polluting the planet? Not at all. Rather, tracing a sheet mask’s face-to-waste-bin journey should highlight just how easy it is to reduce your environmental footprint.
Choose Compostable Sheet Masks
“At Beauty Heroes, we started a zero-waste beauty section on our website because we know that our customer is a conscious consumer and genuinely wants to do better for the planet, they just need the tools,” Jarnot says. One of those tools is the Orgaid Organic Sheet Mask, which is 100% biodegradable and compostable, made with organic ingredients, and packaged in recyclable cardboard. “When you’re done with the mask, you can place it right in your compost bin,” she says, where it leaves no evidence of its existence behind (besides your dewy, hydrated skin).
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse
“It’s great if it’s in cardboard, and recyclable packing is awesome,” Singer agrees, “but it’s still an unnecessary single-use product.” Recycle, after all, enters into the equation after reduce and reuse for a reason. The zero-waste pioneer actually prefers another “R” word altogether: Refuse. “It’s not even having the product in the first place,” she explains. “I like to ask myself: Does this make me feel beautiful? Does this make me feel happy? Is the trash that this is going to create worth the moments of joy that I’ll feel from it? Usually, the answer is no.” Singer opts to DIY her own face masks instead, using natural ingredients like French green clay and honey.
Balance Your Beauty Habits
If you absolutely cannot bear the thought of a self-care Sunday or cross-country flight sans sheet mask, there’s no need to shame-spiral. “I always like to say, if sheet masks are that one thing in life that make you super happy, more than anything else, then don’t try to get rid of your sheet mask—look for other ways to reduce your waste first,” Singer says. Her Package Free Shop (which just closed a $4.5 million seed round led by Primary Venture Partners) is a great place to start.
Eliminate Bioaccumulative Ingredients
Cross-check your products with the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. It rates ingredients in terms of ecotoxicology and personal health, making it pretty easy to eliminate bioaccumulative substances—like silicones, triclosan, and triclocarban—from your routine.
Outsource Your Recycling
Most products’ caps, pumps, droppers, and plastic bottles—especially those of the squeeze-y variety—aren’t recyclable on a local level. However, TerraCycle, Credo, and Ayond have programs in place to collect and properly recycle these items for you.
Swap Your Single-Use Products
Ahead, discover 10 sustainable (and super-luxe) skin-care products to replace your single-use sheet masks, makeup wipes, and more. As Singer says, “You don’t ever want to have reducing your waste feel like giving something up—it’s always a positive thing.”