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The beauty industry is rampant with waste, which is no surprise when you consider the recommendations to replace mascara and other make-up every few months. Almost all of that waste ends up in landfills, with plastic packaging the norm across the board. Thankfully, consumer demand for refillable beauty products has grown and brands are scrambling to meet that need.
According to research from The LCA Centre, buying a refillable product can save 70% in greenhouse gas emissions, 65% in energy, and 45% in water use.
Why refillable beauty products matter
Refillable cosmetics are not new, but they are catching on like never before. In the early 1990s, The Body Shop introduced refills in their stores. Sadly, the roll-out was ahead of its time and didn’t grab public attention like the zero-waste movement has in recent years. The original program was discontinued after a few years but is now back in a big way. The Body Shop, Lush, and other high street toiletry and cosmetic brands are great options for refills of some products.
Going totally zero-waste is hard to do, but every bit helps. Switching your mascara, lipstick, blush, or foundation to a refillable product that’s just as good as your old favorite, if not better, is a great start. On the sustainability hierarchy, reduce and reuse are much more preferable to recycle. This is because a lot of energy goes into creating product packaging and into recycling that packaging at end of life. Using refills means the original lipstick holder, cosmetics pan, or liner pencil only needs to be created once, significantly reducing energy output.
Of course, the onus shouldn’t just be on us as consumers to change our behavior. Corporations need to be incentivized to offer better, more sustainable products. This is the aim of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, reintroduced in Congress in March 2021. This bill puts the focus squarely back on producers to take responsibility for switching to refillable, returnable containers in order to reduce plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
On a personal level though, refillable products are often more cost effective and better quality than one-off, disposable purchases. That’s because you’re not paying time and again for the housing for the product, with all its associated manufacturing and environmental costs. And because refillable cosmetics are designed to be long-lasting, the housing is often much nicer and far more robust than the cheap disposable plastic surrounding many cosmetics.
Refillable products also offer another advantage: interchangeable refills so you can try different shades without needing a huge budget. And refills are arguably healthier too, given that many companies offer subscription programs that deliver a refill every three months and encourage you to return your old product inserts or pans for cleaning and reuse. This means the days of having five-year-old mascara lurking in your purse and harboring all manner of nasty germs could be behind you.
Give your eyes, your budget, and the planet a break and start switching your beauty staples for refillable products today.
The best refillable makeup: our top picks
Below are some of the best refillable beauty products from companies looking to support a zero-waste lifestyle. These products use predominantly organic, plant-based ingredients, are free from potentially toxic chemicals and are better for people and the planet as a whole.
Highlights: Canadian B Corporation that offers a lineup of 100% vegan, Leaping Bunny and Beauty Without Bunnies certified cruelty-free products.
Elate Cosmetics is a Canadian company and B Corporation that ships worldwide (excepting a few countries). This eco-friendly beauty brand offers reusable, refillable bamboo palettes and compacts that hold pans in place with tiny magnets. Products, including refills, are shipped using seed paper that can be planted to grow wildflowers (non-invasive).
All of the products are 100% vegan, cruelty-free, and certified by Leaping Bunny and Beauty Without Bunnies. They are also free from nano-sized particles and are verified through the Think Dirty App.
The bamboo is sourced from a fair trade manufacturer in China and is water processed and not chemically treated. The bamboo supplier has Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. About 90% of Elate Cosmetics’ ingredients are organic and their mica is fair trade and sourced from suppliers who are active members of the Responsible Mica Initiative.
Even the wood in Elate Cosmetics pencils comes from sustainably managed forests. This is Californian cedar wood certifiedPEFC (Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification). The bio cap is made from 55% non-GMO corn (the rest is fossil fuel-derived), and is compostable in industrial compost. Elate Cosmetics state that 100% of their products are compostable or recyclable, and around 75% are plastic-free, with plans to go 100% plastic-free and zero-waste as soon as possible.
All pressed products come in recycled and recyclable aluminum pans, with samples packaged in aluminum tins. These pans and tins can be cleaned and put in with other aluminum can products for recycling.
The company is also a member of the Green Business Association and are Surfrider Foundation approved. And to further demonstrate Elate Cosmetics’ eco-credentials, the company has a Perfectly Imperfect program whereby products that have minor flaws but are still usable and safe aren’t trashed but are offered at a discount.
A top pick is the Universal Crème which can be used on cheeks and lips and comes in a reusable aluminum pan in a refillable bamboo compact.
Highlights: Zero-waste, cruelty-free and vegan, carbon neutral mascara in a stainless steel refillable tube designed to be reused over 10,000 times!
Izzy is the world’s first zero waste, certified CarbonNeutral® mascara and it comes in a medical-grade, American-made stainless steel tube designed to be cleaned and refilled over 10,000 times. The company has the goal of helping you to never need to throw away another mascara for the rest of your life.
Izzy offers a subscription model where you receive a new mascara (refilled, of course) every three months with a prepaid mailer to return your empty Izzy. The tubes are cleaned and sanitized for reuse, the plastic wipers and brushes in the applicators are reground and recycled at the Izzy facility, and even their mailers are reusable, making their shipping process zero-waste too.
This all costs just $35 for the initial purchase of the refillable mascara, then $19 every three months. And you can cancel or pause your subscription whenever you like or choose a one-off purchase of $39) to try it out and then add on a subscription or refills after.
Izzy estimates that the 100% reusable and recyclable stainless steel tube, applicator, and wiper mean that, compared to the industry standard, this mascara uses 94% less plastic and has a 78% smaller carbon footprint after 25 refills. Izzy Zero Waste Mascara is a certified CarbonNeutral® product in accordance with The CarbonNeutral Protocol, largely achieved through this reuse program and the fact that Izzy keeps all their manufacturing within a 400-mile radius in the Northeastern US.
As for the mascara, this is cruelty-free and vegan, gluten-free, and high-performance for lengthening, curling and volumizing. The proprietary High-Fidelity Wave Brush features a dip in the middle for mess-free application and lifts lashes upward and outward without caking or clumping. The formula includes plant-based polymers (hydroxyethylcellulose), jasmine wax, and rice wax to soften and condition lashes while adding volume and color.
I only have two concerns with this product: the inclusion of polysorbate-60, which means there’s a risk of contamination with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, and the presence of benzyl alcohol. The latter is the most worrisome as benzyl alcohol has been deemed a moderate human health priority, flagged by the Canadian Environmental Protection Agency. It is also dangerous for the environment and is classified as expected to be toxic or harmful on the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List. It is a known human toxicant or allergen according to the EU Cosmetics Directive and is associated with immunotoxicity or allergies.
All that said, this is certainly one of the best mascaras out there, if not the best refillable mascara. And with Izzy eschewing any extraneous plastic, cardboard, or other types of packaging, and providing a reliable, refillable, zero-waste product, it’s my top pick on this list.
Note: If you don’t send your Izzy back to be cleaned and refilled, you will be charged a $25 restocking fee, plus an additional fee of $5 for each reusable shipper that you fail to return. This applies to all customers, whether making a one-time purchase or opting into a Zero Waste Membership. This is intended to deter customers from losing their mascaras and shippers, and to make for a workable, closed-loop, sustainable business model.
Highlights: Certified organic make-up made with 100% natural ingredients provided in sustainable and refillable packaging.
Zao makes some fabulous cosmetics with stylish, durable, and sustainable packaging created using bamboo for a low carbon footprint. Refills are available for almost their entire range, with magnetized palettes, and the company has implemented an ‘eco box’ in all stores in France, where customers can drop off empty refill pans and plastic containers to be recycled by the company. This isn’t yet available in the USA.
Everything sold by Zao is cruelty-free and PETA certified vegan (no cochineal, carmine, or beeswax here!), gluten-free, and ECOCERT or organic certified. The company sources as many ingredients as possible from organic suppliers and the formulas are free from troublesome toxic chemicals. They don’t use petrochemical derivatives or synthetic preservatives, though their brushes are synthetic (and vegan). Zao only uses natural vanilla extract to perfume products.
Zao makes its products in Italy, France, and the Czech Republic. They use reusable cotton pouches for some products but are looking to replace these with bamboo. And Zao sources its bamboo in China, with local craftspeople making the bamboo packaging on-site to minimize carbon footprints and support the local economy. The techniques and tools used to make the boxes was developed by Zao as the company was determined to only package natural beauty products in natural packaging and because bamboo is an excellent carbon capture ‘technology’. That said, some of the refill packaging is made with plastic, albeit BPA-free recyclable plastic. All eye shadows, compact powders, and other compact products are provided in packaging that is plastic-free.
Zao products are free from phenoxyethanol, mineral oil, paraffin, polysorbate, EDTA, BHT, BHA, synthetic preservatives, parabens and petroleum derivates, as well as being talc-free. The company’s products have been given a top rating from the Think Dirty App for having zero ingredients with a documented potential negative health impact. The brand has also been recognized by the Slow Cosmetics Association for its commitment to eco-friendliness, which takes into account product composition, packaging, and advertising.
My top pick is the Zao Moisturizing Satin Lipstick (view on Zao). At $23.50 for a refill and $31.5 for the initial purchase of a full bamboo case, this refillable natural and organic lipstick is a very eco-friendly choice – and available in three colors!
Highlights: Refillable makeup line with a sophisticated aesthetic.
If you’re looking for a sophisticated refillable compact and foundation, Jane Iredale PurePressed Base Mineral Foundation and the company’s Rose Gold Refillable Compact with mirror has you covered. The compact costs just $18 and the refills are $44. The compact is also recyclable at end of life, though some customers report having had their compacts for more than nine years, so this one is a long-lasting eco-friendly winner!
PurePressed® Base Mineral Foundation Refill SPF 20 is a pressed powder with a sheer, semi-matte finish. The powder offers reef-safe sun protection (SPF 20) if applied 15 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied after swimming or sweating. It combines the benefits of a powder, sunscreen, concealer, and foundation all in one and includes antioxidants to support skin health.
This pressed powder is non-irritating, easy to apply, buildable, and the only synthetic ingredient appears to be boron nitride, a synthetic boron-based inorganic compound used in cosmetics and personal care products to absorb oil and increase staying power, with no known associated health concerns.
Highlights: American-made, very affordable, refillable cosmetics, but not vegan.
Ecco Bella is an American cosmetics company that offers eye shadows, powders, and eye liner in a refillable range. Their magnetic compacts make it easy to mix and match colors, with a duo and single compact available, as well as a single compact with well, all in a paperback style and for $10.95 or less. These hold eye shadow and powder pans using tiny magnets, so it is easy to replace them with fresh colors as needed.
The Ecco Bella powders are made in the USA with organic ingredients and are available in 7 colors for $15.95 each. Some colors contain carmine, so aren’t vegan.
We’re fans in particular of:
Highlights: One of the few refillable eyebrow pencils available and a great quality product from a trusted cosmetics company. There is no clear returns/reuse program for the refills though, and I only recommend the eyebrow pencil as the refillable lipsticks and other products contain some troublesome chemicals.
Looking for a zero-waste eyebrow pencil? Charlotte Tilbury Brow Cheat is a great option. This superfine eyebrow pencil has an angled tip, comes in eight shades, and is refillable, and all for $25. Then the $15 refills simply screw into the eyebrow tool and away you go!
This refillable eyebrow pencil is waterproof, vegan, cruelty-free, and long-wearing (up to 16 hours). The ingredients include carnauba wax for stretch and elasticity as well as a smooth application, and natural pigments for depth and color without ashy undertones. This pencil is free from parabens, formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing agents, phthalates, mineral oil, retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, coal tar, hydroquinone, sulfates SLS & SLES, triclocarban, and triclosan.
Highlights: Wide-ranging cosmetics range in beautifully designed refillable packaging from a beloved Dutch company, mostly made with organic and natural ingredients.
Kjaer Weis is a beloved Danish company offering an entire line of dozens of refillable compacts, meaning even the biggest beauty product enthusiasts can build a substantial collection and feel better about their environmental footprint. Everything starts with a For Life compact, which can be restocked with a refillable pan delivered in compostable paper envelopes. There are also refillable lipsticks and mascaras.
All Kjaer Weis products are made in Italy using certified natural or certified organic ingredients (as determined by Italy’s Controllo e Certificazione Prodotti Biologici certifying body). Some lipsticks contain a tiny amount of artificial pigment, which is labelled in the product descriptions.
This makeup brand was founded by a makeup artist who worked for Vogue, Marie Claire, and Ella magazines, among others, and who wanted to do things differently to provide organic and eco-friendly options for the models, actors, and others with whom she worked.
One downside to this brand is the presence of beeswax in many Kjaer Weis products, and the presence of carmine in red shades, meaning most products aren’t vegan. Second, the compacts and containers aren’t themselves recyclable, even though they are refillable and made with metal. As such, it’s definitely best to use these as many times as possible and then gift them to another likely user rather than sending them to landfill.
Finally, some of the products have a few less than great ingredients. The lipsticks, for example, contain benzyl alcohol, which (as above) has been flagged as potentially harmful to human health and the environment. Kjaer Weis offers lipsticks for around $30 for a refill and $45 for the initial product with refillable case.
In April 2020, the company launched “The Red Edition”, a second plastic-free compact made of recyclable and compostable paper that feels and looks like lacquered leather. And in May 2021, Kjaer Weis is set to introduce fully recyclable shipping boxes and materials, with all small refillable orders now delivered in envelopes to reduce carbon emissions.
If you’re not the biggest fan of the refillable products mentioned, but you’re still looking to switch to an eco-friendlier makeup alternative, we’ve got you covered with the following posts! The brands within are all taking steps to be better than the standard the industry’s set in the way they treat their employees, initiatives taken as companies, and the ingredients they’re using in their products: