Cosmetics & Personal Care

Biodegradable Sheet Masks Are Sustainable According to Elle

Excellent for selfies and an instant hit of hydration, sheet mask launches have dominated the skincare scene in the last few years. One of K-beauty’s most successful exports, the global sheet mask market was estimated to be valued at about $282.8 million in 2018. However, as more of us assess the environmental footprint of our beauty routine, sheet masks are being called into question.

Much like the face wipe backlash that came before, this single-use item is being dubbed the new plastic straw.

To get to the bottom of it, we quizzed some sustainable experts…

What’s wrong with sheet masks

Well, the crux of the issue is that something single-use like a sheet mask is inherently unsustainable.

‘Sheet masks promote a culture of buying something with the intention of only using it once before throwing it away,’ Fiona Cartmel, Sustainability Consultant at Eco-Age, told us.

‘From a responsibility and sustainability perspective, sheet masks are horribly wasteful. I’d approach them in the same way I approach anything else, if the impact on the environment is much greater than the impact on my life, in this case a fleeting mask moment and short term plumper complexion, it’s just not worth it,’ Zahra Broadfield, founder of sustainable beauty e-tailer, Sust Beauty, added.

Beyond the single use issue, when you break it down, the sheet masks themselves aren’t planet-friendly either. Firstly, the packaging tends to be problematic.

‘Typically sheet masks are housed in a tearable plastic packet, which is not widely recycled with household waste.

Even if the mask itself isn’t made from plastic, it may contain a thin film which helps keep its structure and is peeled off before use,’ Elsie Rutterford and Dominika Minarovic, founders of sustainable beauty brand BYBI, explained.

Then there’s the actual mask itself.

The mask material varies, and some are worse than others, but the biggest offender is cotton – a controversial material across the fashion and beauty industry.

‘Cotton is a huge industrial polluter. The treatment of the mask itself will never be disclosed on the packaging, but the cotton is usually bleached, and the production of cotton is incredibly heavy on pesticides and water,’ Brianne West, biochemist, CEO & Founder of Ethique, the world’s 1st zero-waste beauty brand.

Many sheet masks also contain plastic polymers which break down into dreaded microplastics – yep, there the ones causing the issues in our oceans highlighted by Blue Planet.

‘Optimistic studies suggest plastic polymers decompose in roughly 1000 years and it’s estimated that every year each of us consumes 40,000 microplastics. We don’t know what these are or will do to us over the long term,’ West highlighted.

This is shocking in itself but beyond this, the production of plastic produces a lot of planet-damaging greenhouse gases through the extraction and manufacture too.

What about so-called sustainable sheet masks?

Naturally, brands looking to up their eco credentials are now offering sustainable sheet mask alternatives. However, the sustainable experts we spoke to are sceptical about their benefits.

‘Most sheet masks are not fully compostable, recyclable or biodegradable – there’s a huge problem with greenwashing in this category,’ West comments.

To get round the greenwashing, it’s important to understand the difference between biodegradable and compostable. Biodegradable as a term is slightly misleading as technically everything will biodegrade eventually.

‘Everything on earth; steel, planes, plastic bottles will biodegrade at some point,’ West said.

And, just because a sheet mask touts is biodegradability, this might only be in relation to the mask, not the packaging it’s housed in.

Compostable is a much more robust description but still not a foolproof option.

‘Compostable indicates it breaks down within a certain timeframe and becomes material for future life. Compostability certifications vary, but all have strict timeframes that an item must have completely broken down by,’ West explained.

Plus, composting only works under very specific conditions.

‘This might mean that they only compost in industrial composting facilities, where the perfect conditions have been created to allow for decomposing, but it will not breakdown easily in landfill conditions. Whereas in other cases, it means that it will decompose if you bury it in your garden,’ Cartmel noted.

‘Single use materials, even when genuinely compostable are not really sustainable. Because there is huge resource; water, pesticides, land, carbon; that goes into producing something, that is used for a very short time,’ she added.

Is there a planet-friendly alternative?

If you really want to get the sheet mask experience, Cartmel suggests a reusable DIY option. ‘Create your own by soaking an organic cotton muslin cloth in moistening serum. This way, you can reuse the organic cloth and avoid throwing away unnecessary packaging.’

Or, for zero eco guilt, you’re better off sticking to a traditional style mask in a recyclable or refillable pot or tube. As Broadfield highlights, there are benefits beyond the favour you’ll be paying to the planet.

‘They are much easier to apply, cause no rippling which means parts of your face get missed and no tipping your face up so your mask doesn’t drip in to your drink. You can even layer different products or multi mask by targeting different areas of your face and use them consistently over a period of time for real tangible results.’



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Is There Such A Thing As A Sustainable Sheet Mask?




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