How to Recycle Your Beauty Products at Home

Beauty, lifestyle and fashion journalist Fani Mari speaks to Terracycle to get some tips on how to recycle your used beauty products.

For many of us, our toiletry bags and bathroom cabinets are overflowing with various beauty products that are often regarded as daily commodities – from toothpaste and deodorant, to shampoo, soaps and make-up. And while you might be gradually making the switch to package-free shampoo bars and refillable make-up options, it’s likely that the vast majority of these products will come packaged in different varieties of plastic, film-wrapped cardboard, and other combinations of materials, generating a cornucopia of waste once the contents have been emptied.

With the beauty industry in the UK now worth a staggering £28.4 billion in 2018, we have more beauty and skincare wastage than ever before. As one of the more difficult categories to buy plastic-free, particularly in your local supermarket or high street drugstore, recycling your used beauty packaging is often a necessary solution for reducing the amount of household waste sent to landfill. 

However, with so many different materials involved in our cosmetics, skincare and toiletries, it can be difficult to know how best to dispose of that empty tube or bottle. Unfortunately, as not all plastic or packaging can be recycled due to their multiple layers and different materials that comprise them, it can make disposing of your bathroom waste a challenge. 

Stephen Clarke of waste management company TerraCycle, which specialises in collecting and repurposing hard-to-recycle waste, explained that beauty products are more difficult to recycle because of their complex materials: “If it costs more to collect, separate and recycle the material than the resulting recycled material is worth, then it won’t be recycled at a local level. This is the case for many aspects of beauty packaging.” These include the black and dark plastics of many cosmetics, multi-material products and small items. 

Thankfully, many retailers, including Neal’s Yard Remedies and Garnier, now work directly with TerraCycle to enable you to take empty products from any brand to them to recycle (see this map for locations). 

But if you can’t get to a drop-off point, here is how you can best dispose of some of the more common beauty packaging at home: 

Aerosol cans: As long as you don’t press them or pierce them, attach the lid and include in your normal recycling. 

Cellophane/membrane: This can’t be recycled at all, so has to go in your normal trash bin. Therefore, if you can, it’s best to avoid buying products that use this kind of packaging.

Glass jars, pots: Although glass is often regarded a better option than plastic, it requires more energy to be produced, transported and recycled as it doesn’t simply dissolve in the recycling process, but it can be recycled many times over. If you can’t find a way to reuse glass jars, pots and bottles at home, simply clean the excess product and include in your household recycling. Remove the caps first as these are likely to be plastic. 

Mascara wands: Clean them up and send them to Barnacle Hedgehog Rescue, 8 Lower Road, Barnacle, Coventry CV7 9LD or Pets And Wildlife Service (PAWS) Staffordshire, 4 Norfolk Grove, Great Wyrley, WS6 6JS. Mascara wands are needed to clean, groom and soothe small animals. Wash them in warm soapy water to remove residue and send them to help the tiny animals.

Lipstick, make-up palettes: These can’t be recycled at home so find a store offering take-back schemes or send directly to TerraCycle.

Plastic tubes: Often used for concealer or lip gloss, these plastic tubes are unfortunately difficult to clean completely once empty, and therefore cannot be disposed of in your usual recycling and will likely end up in a landfill. Where possible, avoid buying these products.

Plastic sachets: Small samples such as face masks, and hair colour sachets cannot be recycled at home, however there are retail drop-offs partnering with Terracycle that will accept these.

Deodorant: The roll-on kind has to be taken to TerraCycle, the aluminium aerosols can be recycled at home. Many natural deodorant options come in recyclable paper packaging or glass jars so choose a natural option moving forward (see our favourites).

Shampoo/Shower Gel: Empty and rinse, if there is no pump, replace the lid and put them in your normal recycling. If there is a pump, see below.

Pump bottles: These are ‘composite items’ meaning they include more than one material and therefore can’t be recycled as such. With pump bottles, empty and rinse and as long as the pump is removed the rest can be recycled. With a little effort, the pump can be taken apart (as I did below), and the plastic elements can also be recycled, unless they are very small which might result in them blocking the recycling machines so dispose of these with your household waste.

How to break down your pump bottles for recycling

Toothbrushes/Toothpaste: These can’t be recycled by your local council, but they can be taken to a collection point by Colgate and TerraCycle. 

Plastic tubes: As above, squeezable soft touch tubes can’t be recycled at home due to their composition. This includes face creams, hand creams and lotions in such tubes. Take these to one of the brands that has partnered with Terracycle – Garnier definitely accepts them.

Hair dryers/straighteners: Small electrical items that no longer work might be picked up with your normal kerbside collection, depending on your council. If in doubt, take them in stores such as Robert Dyas or Currys PC World for disposal.

Wipes: Wet wipes of any kind cannot be recycled (or flushed), and the newest versions of face wipes that are biodegradable can’t either. Avoid as much as possible and instead find a more reusable method for removing make-up.

There is another option offered by TerraCycle. You can buy the ‘Zero Waste’ box, get the size of box that suits you, place all of the items you want to recycle and once full, send it back to them. They will be responsible for sorting out all the different materials and you won’t have to worry. 

Although recycling what we can is very important, the recycling process uses copious amounts of energy so avoiding new plastic components in the first place as much as possible is a good place to start in reducing beauty waste. Upcycling – using the empty product for a different use – is another option. For example, empty candle pots can make great makeup brush holders, while empty mini bottles can be saved and reusing while travelling. 

Tips to keep in mind:

  • In the first instance, avoid buying new plastic items where possible – see our plastic-free beauty swaps
  • Upcycle/reuse as much as possible
  • Look for brands using PCR (post-consumer recycled) plastics in their packaging as this reduces the amount of new virgin plastics which need to be created
  • If you have to buy plastic look for highly recyclable materials, such as clear PET bottles. Plastic that’s not clear in colour is harder to recycle and so are items with more than one plastic layer (eg. soft touch bottles)
  • Pump bottles are the worst of them all – look out for refills when possible
  • Before recycling, make sure the items are empty and clean
  • Keep a small recycling bin in your bathroom, to remind you to recycle those products!
  • If you prefer glass packaged products, try to reuse them as much as possible instead of recycling after one use
  • Refill schemes are becoming more popular, and often offer discounts. Look out for the new one coming out by REN next year.
  • Refill your make-up products too – look out for great brands like Kjaer Weis and Zao.
  • Really small pieces of plastic can’t be recycled, and they will slow down the process so don’t include in your recycling bag
  • Outer packaging (paper/card), can be included in your normal recycling, just press down flat.

Discover more plastic-free beauty swaps.

Learn what to look out for when it comes to more eco cosmetics packaging.

Better understand the complex recycling system with this guide.