What follows is an imperfect list, a subjective selection of great quality beauty brands trying to do better for the good of the planet. They are not all doing everything; some are better than others and they could always be doing more. But as industry experts at a recent sustainability conference told me, again and again: we don’t have time to wait for perfect, or for people to reject all the conveniences of modern life. It is more important to do something now than nothing at all, to our later cost.
I take the view that big change comes from big business, which is why I’ve included global megabrands where there is at least the will and potential for improvement. What constitutes improvement is another bone of contention, of course. Some believe 100% organic, non-GM products are the only way to go; others rightly point out that some crops can be grown organically only thousands of air miles away. Many of us look for recycled plastic (living only about three lives), others prefer infinitely recyclable (but much heavier to freight) glass.
This lineup is more expensive than previous “best lists”, which tend to run the gamut from mass market to high luxury. Locally made, renewable and sustainably grown ingredients cost more than petrol derivatives and virgin plastic, made in bulk in China. So I apologise if some of these prices make you wince, as they did me.
vg vegan, v vegetarian, cf cruelty free: all not sold in countries where animal testing is mandatory; vg contains no animal-derived ingredients. No brackets: not tested on animals in the EU, where it’s illegal, but sold in countries where animal testing is mandatory.
1 Hydro Phil (vg)
The UK uses more plastic cotton buds than any other European country– a staggering 13.2bn a year. If only a bud will do, I use Hydro Phil’s high-quality biodegradable bamboo and cotton swabs, in a recycled box. Also available: gift-worthy bamboo toothbrushes, cases and soapboxes.
Try Cotton Swabs, £2.50 for 100: for makeup clean-ups, eyeliner softening and against-doctor’s-orders ear cleaning. Compost when done.
2 Spectrum brushes (vg)
There are lots of affordable makeup brush companies with sustainable wood or bamboo handles, and non-animal hair, but this independent brand also cut its plastic packaging by 50% in 2018 and gives 1% of its gross revenue to plastic clean-up concerns.
Try MB06 brush, £5.99: if you buy only one eye brush, make it this sort of shape. A fluffy, tapered blender can be used to lay down lid colour, define the crease (rest tip in crease and oscillate like a windscreen wiper), or smudge hard lines.
3 Love, Beauty & Planet (vg)
Toiletries behemoth Unilever has made sustainability a focus, and its targets demonstrate serious intent: reducing its environmental impact, including every aspect of the supply chain (ingredients, manufacturing, packaging, transportation), by half. New brand Love, Beauty & Planet has fun, fragrant, certified vegan body and haircare in 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic bottles. The young people in my life love them.
Try Delicious Glow Body Butter, £9.99 (250ml): a rich but unsticky cream containing plant and flower oils.
4 Dr Hauschka (cf)
A pioneer in this field, the 50-year-old brand uses biodynamic farming methods to grow its ingredients, and green electricity wherever possible. Most of its high-quality, plant-based offering (the beautiful Cleansing Milk and iconic Rose Day Cream, for example) is packaged in glass and aluminium jars and tubes; what plastic remains has begun the transition to PCR, saving 65% of raw oil in the process. Side hustles include work with the World Hunger Project.
Try Lemon Lemongrass Bath Essence, £17 (100ml): zesty, skin softening and so luxurious that the late, great Nora Ephron referenced it in a carpe diem rallying cry following the premature death of a beloved girlfriend. “Always use the good bath oil,” she said. And she was rarely wrong.
5 BYBI (vg)
Instagram hit BYBI proves that it’s possible to make a beautiful-looking, highly covetable product without shafting the environment. Founders Elsie and Domenika house their entire range in glass or bioplastic tubes derived from sugarcane (you’d never know to touch them), sent in grass paper boxes, saving up to 4,800 tonnes of C02 emissions. The products are often made from food industry byproducts (the juice pulp in the serums, for example).
Try Babe Balm Bronze, £12 (6ml): gives a dewy, sexy glow to cheekbones, eyelids, lips and limbs.
6 The Soap Co (vg)
This British social enterprise employs, trains and fairly pays an 85% visually impaired and blind workforce. Many of its partners – from designers and lawyers to PRs and spokespeople (of which I’m one) – work pro bono. Ingredients are ethically sourced in the UK; soap bars are packaged in biofilm or recycled paper; and where plastic exists, refills are available minus the harder-to-recycle pump.
Try Infinitely Recyclable Hand Wash, £20 (300ml): a bumper aluminium pump bottle of geranium-scented goodness, available to pre-order.
7 Bramley (vg)
£140 sounds insane for a handwash, but for that money Bramley will give you a 5l container, plus 250ml glass bottles to refill from the mother lode. The containers can be returned if your local council won’t recycle them. If budget or storage or inclination prevents that, their “plastic” bottles (from £4) are derived from renewable sugarcane.
Try Bubble Bath, £8 (100ml): if you like the kind of huge, fat foam that sticks to your chin in a Santa beard (this sits next to my own bath).
8 Weleda (cf)
More than 75% of Weleda’s plant ingredients come from biodynamic or organic farming, or controlled wild collection. Its commitment to biodiversity, and ethical treatment of workers, has been recognised by the Union for Ethical BioTrade – it is one of only two beauty brands to carry the UEBT mark and was the first to earn a Look For The Zero badge, showing none of its products contains any form of plastic.
Try Skin Food (Classic and Light), £7.95 (30ml): a rich, pleasingly gloopy moisturiser for face, hands and body (though I preferred the old aluminium brutalist packaging).
9 Neal’s Yard (v)
The first UK brand to be Look For The Zero certified, Neal’s Yard successfully campaigned alongside Greenpeace against microbead use. This year it launched a recycling scheme inviting customers to bring in tricky-to-recycle packaging and items from any brand; its own packaging is mostly glass.
Try Almond Moisturiser, £22 (50ml): recommended to me by countless readers over the years, especially those with sensitive skin. Makes a terrific makeup base, too.
10 Soaper Duper (vg)
This brand’s tactile bubble bottles are made from 50% PCR plastic (down from 100%, as the company can’t source enough recycled plastic; it is working on getting the levels back up) and its tubes 55%. It has so far recycled over 22 metric tonnes of plastic and donated £150,000 to WaterAid.
Try Nourishing Coconut Body Wash, £7.50 (400ml): my children like the juicy fruit varieties, my husband loves the creamy shea and vanilla. Fine, so long as they keep their mitts off this.
11 Axiology (vg)
This brand’s distinctive triangular boxes are made of recycled paper in a female-owned factory in Bali which transforms local waste into packaging. Inside, a recycled, recyclable aluminium tube holds a vegan, Peta-approved, palm oil-free lipstick.
Try Lipstick, £29: bold colour in luxury, pose-worthy packaging.
12 Lush (v)
About 90% of Lush’s packaging is recycled, including plastic and paper that’s 100% PCR. It reckons half its products can be taken home without any packaging, and its Naked shop in Manchester is England’s first plastic packaging-free cosmetics shop.
Try New Shampoo Bar, £8 (55g): a tingly, head-clearing, foaming bar, perfect if you like your scalp to feel squeaky clean and are a sucker for spicy (cinnamon and clove) smells.
13 REN (cf)
Last year REN made a commitment to zero waste by 2021. Moving towards elimination of unnecessary packaging and partnering with organisations such as TerraCycle and Surfrider, it is stopping sample sachets and using recycled ocean plastic in packaging.
Try Glycol Lactic Radiance Renewal Mask, £36 (50ml): a fast, noticeable makeover, smoothing and polishing tired, dull skin in 10 minutes.
This brand prides itself on never having given out plastic bags in-store and recycling since the 90s. Simply by reducing the thickness of packaging, it reckons it has already saved 28 tonnes of plastic; by 2025, it wants all its bottles to be of 100% recycled plastic and every store to offer recycling.
Try Liquid Soap Refill Duo, £29 (2 x 500ml): the shea butter hand soaps are among the very best, perfect for hardworking, dry hands.
15 Gosh (cf)
CO2-neutral Danish company Gosh takes 40% of the plastic packaging for its Dextreme foundation from waste from oceans, beaches and rivers. It reckons buying one foundation equates to removing at least 10 plastic bags from the seas. Meanwhile, it is launching a bodycare product made from dairy industry byproduct whey.
16 A Good Company (vg)
The toothbrushes thrown away each year in the US alone could stretch round the planet four times, and the composite plastics used render them unrecyclable. This is a compelling alternative, using sustainable bamboo grown without chemicals or pesticides and compostable bristles.
Try Bamboo Toothbrush, £4: cool colours, kids and adult sizes, great price and free handle-monogramming make this a fantastic stocking filler. I keep a stash for forgetful guests.
17 The Body Shop (cf)
Pioneering in this field long before many brands had composted their first apple core, in 1987 it launched Community Trade, a commitment to local suppliers and projects. It has since invested in recycled plastic and given 2,500 waste pickers in India access to better working conditions, improved education and health services, a fair price for their work and predictable income. Empty containers can be returned to stores, to be recycled or repurposed.
Try Skin Defence Multi Protection Essence SPF50, £17 (40ml): ungreasy, high-protection sunscreen that doesn’t peel, aggravate sensitive or oily skins, or wander off at midday.
18 Biolage (cf)
All its bottles are made partially of PCR plastic, the factory in Kentucky sends no waste to landfill and uses 100% renewable energy. Its Spanish facility is a “dry factory”, meaning any water consumed goes into products or is used by employees.
19 Beauty Kitchen (v)
This was the first beauty brand certified by B Corporation, which recognises social and environmental performance. With Return Refill Repeat, it washes and reuses its own and other brands’ packaging, and 2% of sales go to charity partners such as Plastic Soup Foundation and the Seahorse Trust.
Try Seahorse Plankton Plus High Definition Facial Oil, £20 (30ml): a moisturising, skin-softening oil that behaves like something much pricier.
20 Medik 8 (vg)
This cosmeceutical brand uses cold processes where possible, blending formulas at room temperature to avoid burning energy by heating ingredients. Microbead-free, it uses natural exfoliators such as jojoba beads and bamboo. It has replaced plastic inserts in cartons with recycled card; its serum bottles and pipettes are glass, 40% of it recycled.
Try Intelligent Retinol, £33 (15ml): clinically proven to improve skin texture and reduce wrinkles, Medik 8 retinols are among the best on offer.
21 Davines (cf)
Last year, the Italian brand unveiled its spectacular new HQ, Davines Village, featuring a host of sustainable initiatives: 100% of its electricity is from renewable sources, it is single-use plastic-free, has electric vehicle charging points and repurposes its restaurant’s organic waste. Last year the company also achieved carbon neutrality for packaging production.
22 Floral Street (vg)
There are lots of luxury fragrance houses with a focus on sustainability (Clean Reserve, Sana Jardin, Laboratory) but none this accessible. Floral Street’s good quality, wearable scents come in a lovely glass and pulp carton – the first fully recyclable and biodegradable packaging in perfumery, made with recycled water, renewable energy and no chlorine.
Try London Poppy, from £24 (10ml): bright, citrus, almost impossible to dislike (even for the perfume averse).
23 Aveda (cf)
The first beauty company to use 100% PCR PET, now more than 85% of its containers are of 100% PCR materials. It has raised £49m for environmental initiatives since 1999 and from 2021 all its products will be vegan (its haircare already is) and its new launches will be silicone-free. Working with the nonprofit organisation charity: water, Aveda provides access to clean water for people in India, Nepal, Madagascar and Ethiopia – from where the brand ethically sources ingredients.
Try Damage Remedy Daily Hair Repair, £25 (100ml): I use this leave-in balm in place of conditioner (which weighs down my fine hair) and the difference in appearance, condition, manageability, texture and ease of styling has been dramatic.
24 Tropic (vg)
People who love this Australian skincare and makeup brand really, really love it. And with refill pouches, zero landfill output, biodegradable bubblewrap, plastic-free tape and certified carbon neutral company status (it is doubling its carbon offset this year, effectively becoming carbon negative), it’s hard to argue.
Try Fruit Peel resurfacing serum, £42 (30ml): fruity smelling, glow-giving and makes good of tired skin.
25 Bleach London (vg)
Cool girls’ favourite Bleach’s bottles will be 100% PCR by the end of this year; its cardboard and paper already are. Single-use plastics have been removed from bleach and colouring kits (the mixing bowl is a sustainable coconut shell), and product refilling stations set up in salons. The aim is to be carbon neutral by 2020. Impressive for what was, nine years ago, a single sink in an east London nail bar.
Try Shampoos and conditioners, £7.50 (250ml): for anyone wanting to tone or de-yellow bleached hair.
26 Bulldog (vg)
In 2017, the hugely successful British male grooming brand introduced into its tubes plastic derived from ethically souced sugarcane. Manufacture of some products uses “single-vessel quenching”, which limits the amount of water heated, and last year it introduced a bamboo-handle razor (in recycled packaging) and a 5l recycled cardboard pack of shower gel.
Try Sensitive Shave Cream, £3.50 (100ml): I wish all brands selling at these prices gave this much of a damn. Beautifully does what it says on the tube, whatever area you’re shaving.
27 Ethique (vg)
All its products are compostable, free of plastic, palm oil and non-sustainable paper stock. Face, hair and body products come in solid bar form, saving about 1l of water each versus bottled products. Ethique’s carbon-neutral practices are projected to save 10m plastic bottles from manufacture and landfill by 2020.
Try Trial Pack for skin and hair, £11: switching to solid products requires a leap of faith, but these try-me boxes of shampoo, conditioner, cleanser and moisturiser (lasting up to 15 uses) take out the risk.
28 Herbivore (vg)
It may be one of Instagram’s most photographed brands – you’ll have seen its cool, minimalist packaging on a shelfie or nine – but it’s comforting to know that millennials are lusting after recyclable glass, not landfill-bound plastic. The products are made without petrol industry derivatives and byproducts.
29 ZAO (cf)
This brand’s bronzers, brow powders, eyeshadows, eye primers, shine-up powders and blushers are all plastic free; some items, such as the mascara, use minimal plastic refills housed in biodegradable bamboo handles.
Try Mineral Cooked Powder, £23.50: a talc- and nanoparticle-free range of bronzers, for all skin tones, that buff nicely into cheeks, temples and clavicles for a sunny glow with zero patchiness or dullness.
30 Wet Brush (vg)
According to research at Ohio State University, the average lifespan of a hairbrush is under a year, and most head straight to landfill. Many will have been made by Wet Brush, which is taking action to reduce the waste.
Try Go Green Detangler, £14.99: slides through wet hair – from baby fine to coarse and unruly – like a hot knife through butter. Biodegrades within five years of disposal – but if it gets dirty, clean it, don’t throw it out.
31 Kjær Weis (cf)
For makeup artist Kirsten Kjær Weis, recyclable or recycled packaging seemed to be delaying its retirement in landfill. She wanted a refillable model, housing her certified organic makeup in luxury polished metal palettes and containers. Refills are packed in minimalist recycled cardboard. So simple, so covetable. Try Cream Blush, £41 (3.5g): there’s a lot to love in this silicone- and mineral oil-free range, but this buttery blush, giving a whisper of healthy flush, is my ride-or-die favourite.
32 Tata Harper (v)
Harper considers sustainability in every aspect of her natural product line, from raw materials (renewable, GMO-free and many grown on the Vermont farm where she lives), to production (most are handmade in small batches on the premises, all using environmentally friendly processes), to bottles (any plastic is made from corn-derived resin). All paper and card is recycled and printed with soy ink. This is farm-to-face beauty and comes with a big price tag.
Try Purifying Cleanser, £66 (125ml): I’d have sworn this wasn’t my bag, but two years on my love remains strong. A herbal, almost medicinal-smelling no-foam face wash for oily, spotty and problem skins, but it’s gentle and non-drying on everyone.
33 La Bouche Rouge (vg)
A lot of money for a little luxury, sure, but there’s no denying this is a great idea. Pick a handstitched, refillable leather case (genuine or vegan) and a lipstick finish (satin, matte or balm), choose any colour from the existing lineup or from a vast Pantone library, give it a name and the whole thing arrives in a stunning recycled cardboard presentation box, complete with vegan lipstick refill, in the post. A big investment, but a lifelong purchase and heirloom.
Try Lipstick Case, £90 (refills £32): the gift for the beauty nerd who has everything. Watch for collaborations with top makeup artists.
34 Le Labo (vg)
This hip perfumery brand has always offered refills on its fragrances. Return empty bottles to counters to be cleaned and refilled, for 20% less than the original. Gift boxes and bags are made from recycled cardboard.
Try Labdanum 18, £127 (50ml – buy samples for £4): Santal 33 may be its most popular fragrance, but this is my favourite. Musky, with cinnamon, wood and vanilla; baby powdery but refreshing; warm but not claggy, a little masculine but not macho. Smells pretty great on everyone, in fact.
35 La Mer
As one would expect from a brand using biofermented sea kelp, La Mer’s charitable focus is on the sea. Its Blue Heart Oceans Fund has donated more than £4m to conservation projects. Its bestselling Crème de La Mer – the original It cream – is packaged in glass.
Try Hydrating Illuminator, £60 (40ml): a gorgeous cream for plumping up skin and leaving an almost pearlescent glow. Perfect as a pre-foundation primer or worn alone.
Big brands doing better
36 Giorgio Armani
In 2010, the brand developed its Acqua for Life initiative, which supports Unicef’s efforts to ensure children have safe, clean water and has invested nearly £7m in projects worldwide, bringing water to more than 195,000 people.
Britain’s bestselling skincare line, with 9m products sold a year, will by the end of this year become the first major mainstream skincare brand to switch all its bottles to 100% PCR.
Try Water Boost Micellar Cleansing Water, £6.99 (400ml): in my view, Simple makes the best micellar water on the market. It removes even heavy eye makeup quickly and efficiently, without leaving skin irritated or parched. It’s also the bestselling and among the cheapest.
The brand is involved in the Plastic Odyssey challenge, which will see a boat, powered by plastic waste collected on its voyage, visit three continents to highlight plastic waste in the oceans, while educating communities about the potential to recycle plastics into fuel. Clarins’ new Paris HQ is certified by two environmental agencies; on its roof, three hives house 160,000 bees.
Try Blue Orchid Treatment Oil, £34 (30ml): one of my favourite products, this is a treat for dehydrated skin, and packaged in glass.
39 L’Oréal Professionnel
I’ve been waiting 10 years for L’Oréal to produce a 100% natural, permanent colourant containing no PPD, PTD, ammonia or peroxide. The three herbal ingredients in vegan Botanēa are responsibly and fairly sourced from India; the jar packaging is 50% PCR, then refilled from paper sachets, reducing waste by 74%.
Try Botanēa hair colour, prices vary according to salon: glossy, healthy, cruelty-free colour, in any natural shade from pale blond to dark brown. PPD allergics can almost rejoice: it blends, rather than covers, greys. Skin test remains essential.
Its Return to Origins recycling scheme invites customers to take empty packaging from any brand to UK counters, to be washed, shredded and transformed into plastic pellets, which can be used in anything from new packaging to street signs. The scheme has processed more than 1.2 tonnes of empties since 2010.
Try GinZing Energy-Boosting Tinted Moisturiser SPF40, £32 (50ml): a brilliant day cream for adding colour, covering blemishes, protecting against UV and restoring perkiness.
• If you would like a comment on this piece to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email email@example.com, including your name and address (not for publication).
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010