Think outside the beauty box



August 25, 2022

What does the future of "clean beauty" look like?

Photo of a woman's eye peering through foliage

Credit photo: Drew Dizzy Graham


Clean beauty is big business. The pressure from consumers for brands to become kinder to the planet is creating measurable shifts in terms of ingredients and packaging. But what does that look like moving forward? What are we, as consumers, hoping that brands will do to make buying beauty products less of a burden on the environment? Data collected by NielsenIQ shows that we’re embracing changes already being made but want to take things further. Let’s take a look at what we can expect brands to lean into when it comes to shaping the beauty industry for the future.


Plastic-free packaging

According to the data collected, searches for “plastic-free” beauty increased by 325% in 2021. This massive growth in interest means two things: that consumers are trying to reduce plastic waste and that brands will lean into this trend to answer the demand. Like in any industry, beauty brands listen to consumers to determine which direction to follow. In the past, paraben-free and sulfate-free beauty were a priority, and many brands rose to the occasion by introducing new formulas and reformulating old favorites to answer the needs of their customers. We’re expecting the same to happen when it comes to finding alternatives to plastic packaging. 

Now, plastic-free packaging is a little more complicated than it might sound on the surface. Some formulations don’t do well in other types of packaging and can’t simply be transferred from a tube format to a glass jar format without impacting the product’s effectiveness. To echo the thoughts of many a beauty influencer, namely Susan Yara (who is also the founder of Naturium), using jars to package products with active ingredients is almost guaranteed to reduce their efficacy. Ingredients like retinols, vitamin C, and even green tea extracts all need to be kept airtight to remain potent.

While glass might not be the solve-all that you would hope it could be, huge innovations are going on within the bioplastics and ocean plastic packaging space that solve the plastics problem and the freshness problem. One fantastic example is Oceanworks’ collaboration with WWP Beauty, who are working together to use plastics collected in the water and close to shore to make sustainable cosmetics packaging.


Reef-safe ingredients

By now, most of us know that reef-safe sunscreen is a must, particularly if you’re wearing it on the beach. But harmful chemicals in beauty products eventually make their way into the ocean whether you physically take them there yourself or not. Dirty water (officially known as gray water) ultimately ends up in the sea whenever you wash your hands, cleanse your face, or shower. And, you guessed it, most of the chemicals in your cosmetics end up there too. Organizations like biorius are hoping to help consumers and brands make smarter choices to keep the oceans clean and safe in the long run with their certification program.

To be certified as reef-safe by biorius, a product needs to be free from toxic sunscreen ingredients and parabens, phthalates, and nanomaterials, amongst others. As consumers become more aware of the implications of using cosmetics that don’t reach these standards, brands will likely adjust to meet changing expectations much like they did when sulfate-free products became increasingly sought-after.


Refillable packaging

Refillable packaging is a hot topic in the beauty industry at the moment. It’s a concept that seems incredibly sound on the surface: you get the cute packaging you want to display on your vanity, but don’t create unnecessary waste when you want to repurchase a product. It makes total sense, right? The issue is that - thus far - cosmetics are lagging behind when it comes to making the refills light enough on packaging to make the process worthwhile. Unlike other sectors where brands are able to condense their product into concentrates or even into dissolvable tablets, by the very nature of most types of cosmetics, that format just isn’t possible.

Over coming years, expect to see brands look at refills with fresh eyes, opting for pouches instead of tubes and powder-to-product formulations that cut back shipping weight.


Non-toxic ingredients

It goes without saying that we want to be sure that our skincare products are as safe as possible. And researchers have found that people’s interest in the safety of ingredients went up by over 60% in 2021. Consumers are spending increasing amounts of time researching the products they use and learning about the effects of ingredients on their bodies as well as their skin.

Brands like Credo, an online platform that sells beauty products that pass their vetting system to be certified free from ingredients on their “dirty list,” are working to make access to non-toxic beauty as easy as possible. The list of ingredients they do not approve is currently 40-strong, and the reasons behind banning said ingredients vary from safety concerns for human health to questions over the ethics of how certain animal products are farmed (e.g., royal jelly).


Biodegradable beauty products

This is another term that’s rising in popularity among consumers, who embrace the idea that beauty products - and their packaging - could biodegrade without affecting the planet’s health. The reality is a little murkier, though, at least for now. In simple terms, a product is considered biodegradable if it will eventually decompose when left out in a specific environment for a certain length of time. But that time frame can be hundreds of years… and the optimum setting is often an industrial composting plant. Not quite so appealing now, is it? 

Much like clean beauty, biodegradable is a term that isn’t particularly well regulated in the beauty industry. If you’re looking for genuinely biodegradable products - as in, they have been tested and certified - then look out for OECD 301F certification. The certification test is one of the most comprehensive out there, and brands who can get a product certified are showing genuine commitment to the cause in doing so. The test essentially means that the product in question will break down by at least 70% within 28 days. As such, packaging materials that pass the test are generally made from natural products that break down quickly, such as algae and mushroom derivatives.