Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” face wash, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
Washing one’s face is a key part of many people’s daily routines. In fact, a recent survey shows that 75 million Americans are using face wash at least once a day. Let’s review the environmental impacts face wash can have and what to look out for when making our next purchase.
What To Be Wise On
What started as a hygienic practice millennia ago, face washing evolved into a religious ceremony and nowadays is best associated with beauty routines. We use face wash because water alone cannot sufficiently remove all of the environmental impurities that damage our skin. Ironically, the use of face wash can become one of the contributors to these negative environmental impacts if we’re not careful. Look out for and avoid chemicals that can adversely impact the health of land and marine life, such as some of the ones outlined below.
We came up with this list of more sustainable face washes based on what they’re made of.
Factors To Consider
Face wash typically comprises a handful of ingredients: water, surfactants (emulsifiers), moisturizers, binders, fillers, preservatives and fragrances. Before your next face wash purchase, wise up on some of the more harmful ingredients that you’ll want to avoid.
Sulfates, like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS), are emulsifying cleaning agents used to break down and wash away the dirt and grime that water can’t get rid of on its own. They also happen to be highly toxic threats to aquatic life, from algae to frogs to fish. Although there is some debate on sulfates, the World Health Organization unequivocally states that SLS “...is toxic to aquatic organisms. It is strongly advised not to let the chemical enter into the environment.” Take our advice, and the WHO’s, and try to avoid face washes that contain these harmful ingredients.
The most elusive ingredient of all might be fragrances. That’s because fragrances are protected from disclosure. While “fragrance” might appear to be one ingredient on the label, that word could potentially comprise hundreds of chemical compounds just for one scent! What’s our beef with smelling like roses? It’s not the scent that worries us, but what comes along with it. In particular, phthalates, which enable fragrances to become soluble. They are known endocrine disruptors in both humans and aquatic life and can even lower the production of testosterone. Studies have found that prenatal exposure to phthalates can decrease mental and motor development in children. Yikes. Always double-check the label to make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re putting on your body.
Microbeads are visible particles of plastic that are smaller than 5mm made from synthetic polymers (aka plastics). Face washes will use them as abrasive scrubbers to replace natural exfoliators such as pumice, oatmeal, and walnut husks. Aside from the fact that if your face wash contains microbeads, you’re essentially scrubbing plastic all over your face, they can have negative consequences once they go down the drain. Wastewater treatment facilities aren’t very good at capturing them, which means they often make their way into our waterways and break down into microplastics. Yuck! Microplastics are incredibly small particles of plastic that can enter our bloodstream, causing endocrine disruption and cell damage, or our waterways, polluting the ocean and disrupting marine life digestion. Make sure your face wash doesn’t contain any “poly” ingredients, such as polyethylene, to avoid microbeads and reduce the spread of microplastics.
Each time we use face wash, we’re also using water from our sinks or showers, and it can add up fast. While there is no standard recommended time to wash your face, the CDC recommends 20-30 seconds for hands, and some estheticians say 60 seconds is the key to a glowing face. That means you could use up to 2.2 gallons of water just by washing your face once a day.
One of the main reasons we’re using so much water is because we leave the faucet on while washing. Turning off the faucet can reduce the environmental footprint of water use because wastewater treatment plants are responsible for 9% and 4% of methane and nitrous oxide emissions globally, respectively. And because water treatment and movement require energy, which is the greatest source of global emissions, taking the extra step to cut back on water use can have significant environmental payoffs.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on face wash.
Fair Trade Certified
Fair Trade Certified™ is the global brand of the nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA. The Fair Trade certification works on the ground with suppliers to ensure that people making FTC products work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and earn additional money to empower their communities. This certification has intersectional impacts, including an emphasis on safe working conditions, environmental protection, sustainable livelihoods, and Community Development Funds. For more details on this certification, check out our Fair Trade Certified glossary definition.
Leaping Bunny is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted on any of the ingredients in a product. It’s the most stringent animal rights standard, so prioritize this one if you want to alleviate your animal welfare concerns.
PETA Cruelty Free Certified
PETA’s Cruelty-Free offers a searchable database of companies and denotes whether they conduct, commission, or test their products on animals. It’s a great tool to use when vetting face washes and other personal care products.
A Few Key Takeaways
Just as some face washes can negatively impact our skin, some can have devastating consequences on our environment. When making your next face wash purchase, consider its ingredients and look out for helpful certifications to reduce harm to animals and humans alike. Regardless of which face wash you use, remember to limit your water use.
Common Questions We Get
“What kind of face wash is the most sustainable?”
While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” face wash because using it will always produce water waste and other environmental impacts, we came up with this list of more sustainable face washes based on what they’re made of.