Hands up if being more eco-friendly is on your new year's resolution list? We hear you – thanks to the growing conversation around sustainability, we’re all trying our best to up our game.
And yet when it comes to beauty, refillable beauty is being positioned as the silver bullet to beauty’s packaging problem. And it’s quite the quandary. It’s estimated that the beauty industry produces 120bn units of packaging every year, the vast majority of which is made of plastic.
Given as much as 91% of plastic doesn’t get recycled* (possibly the most depressing stat that you’ll read today?) chances are that packaging is still on the planet somewhere.
Considered in the context of every mascara wand, foundation pump and lip balm tube you’ve ever purchased, even your own packaging footprint can feel utterly overwhelming.
In fact, it’s the reason consumers are voting with their wallets. In recent years, solid sustainability credentials have become a non-negotiable for beauty brands; today, most beauty consumers would pay 35% to 40% more for a sustainable version of their regular beauty or personal care product, according to a report published last April by the insights company LEK.
Enter: refillable beauty. Here's what you need to know, plus WH edit of the finest.
What is refillable beauty?
While the concept has been around for a while, it’s seen massive growth in the past two years, particularly in the beauty sector. Sales of refillable prestige beauty products increased almost 50% betweenJanuary and July 2022 alone, according to a report by the NPD Group, while Google searches for ‘refillable beauty’ rose by 59% in the past year. And beauty retailers have responded in kind.
Take Selfridges, whose Project Earth sustainability strategy, launched in 2020, leans heavily on refillable beauty;Selfridges stocks more than 900refillable beauty products from48 brands and sold over 8,500 refills in 2021 alone.
Such progress towards a packaging-free future is promising for an industry in which packaging represents a staggering 70% of its waste. But is this seemingly circular model of consumption really a solution for beauty’s big dirty secret?
Are refills more sustainable?
Yes. On the surface, refills seem to make good on their premise and promise.‘The potential environmental benefits of refill schemes are massively exciting,’ says Jessi Baker, founder of Provenance, a leader in sustainability marketing technology for consumer goods brands. ‘When it’s done properly, refillable packaging doesn’t just reduce waste, it limits a product’s impact on the climate by reducing the overall amount of materials used and the energy needed to manufacture new packaging.’
In order to make an impact, she explains, brands need to actively promote their refill solution and, crucially, make their system as easy to use as possible. Some brands have got the memo, and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that The Body Shop – a brand with sustainability at its core before you even learned the word – is among them.
The brand is undergoing a global refill rollout, with 695 refill stations being built in more than 40 countries. By April 2026, The Body Shop aims to have refill stations in the majority of its stores across the world.
Are refillable products better for the planet?
Refill stations are only part of the story. Given the role that online orders will play in the refill revolution, packaging needs to work harder, too. ‘Pump formats are not only really difficult to recycle, but also difficult to refill – meaning brands are having to come up with savvy solutions,’ says Clare Varga, head of beauty at the trend forecasting company WGSN.
One brand listening is Medik8, the skincare brand beloved by derms.‘We’ve seen large demand for more refillable options and our target is to offer 100% reusable, refillableor recyclable packaging by 2026,’ explains Alexandra Florea, head of sustainability for the brand.
This is no mean feat for a skincare brand dealing in active ingredients, many of which are highly susceptible to environmental factors, such as heat, light and air. As such, they require innovative packaging solutions that have to work even harder in the context of the refillable conversation.
‘A refill option with a recyclable aluminium cap was the sensible choice for us,’ adds Florea, who points to the brand’s refillable Press & Glow toner, which contains exfoliating PHAs (polyhydroxy acids). ‘We’re seeing that 40% of our customers are currently purchasing our refill Press & Glow option over our original Press & Glow Pump, and we envisage this number growing as customers repurchase and refill their product and become more sustainablity-conscious.’
Is refillable beauty expensive?
If you suspect reducing your carbon footprint comes at a cost, you’d be right. Right now, the majority of brands with a refill offering are at the higher end of the price scale.
Take Stella, a brand-new luxury skincare line from Stella McCartney, which has placed refillable packaging at the heart of development. The stats are impressive: the first refill lowers the product’s environmental impact by a third; the second refill lowers the impact by half. If you choose to scrap the initial packaging and use the refill on its own, the impact on climate change is two-thirds lower. But with prices spanning £38 to £110, reducing your carbon footprint via Stella’s refillable range is only available to a privileged few.
There are the brands that seemingly ‘support’ the refill revolution but miss the mark completely. SKKN By Kim, the Kardashian’s latest luxury skincare venture, recently made headlines for all the wrong reasons when the brand launched a reusable packaging system that didn’t appear to reduce the overall amount of packaging. The move earned the brand criticism for putting the onus to scrutinise refillable pledges back on consumers.
‘Zero-waste is the ultimate goal,’ adds Varga. This means that every part of the packaging is either reusable or degradable, meaning no actual waste is generated. Take dissolvable formats offered by the bodycare brand Plus and Forgo. These no-waste brands give the consumer a true feeling of trust and control.
Is refillable beauty worth it?
Yes, on paper. And yet, the success of the revolution relies on consumers changing their behaviour – a variable that critics consider a massive gamble for an industry in which packages represents such a huge problem.
‘As consumers become more conscious of the importance of sustainability, we have seen a corresponding rise in sales of refillable prestige beauty products,’ notes Emma Fishwick, account manager at NPD UK Beauty. ‘These latest figures demonstrate that as far as beauty consumers are concerned, buying refillable products is indeed becoming more mainstream. But there’s a long way to go.’
Part of the problem, Fishwick adds, is that refills lend themselves to certain products; shampoos, body washes, your favourite fragrance. But a huge part of being a beauty consumer is trying and discovering new products. Arguably, refillable options remove some of the joy from beauty consumption.
That’s before you consider the current climate. Remember that LEK report published last April in which a third of consumers said they’d pay more for a sustainable version of their regular beauty product? That was before we felt the full force of one of the biggest financial squeezes in living memory.
And while slimming down your values along with your fun budget is no one’s goal, some question if UK consumers can afford to make the switch to refillables at a time when most are making cutbacks to every outlay.
Of course, the onus shouldn’t be on you, the consumer, to solve beauty’s sustainability problem. But while we await legislation that turns corporate ‘green’ credentials from nice-to-have to non-negotiable, there are steps you can take. Shrinking the volume of single-use waste, refillables could eliminate as much as 70% of carbon emissions, according to a study by the LCA Centre.
But this is only meaningful if these products are actually repurchased and refilled. As such, both brands and consumers have a pivotal role to play; the more refillable options there are, the more customers get used to the model and the more demand there will be for these products. And with demand, comes innovation. So while refillables may be an imperfect solution, at least they’re a step in the right direction.
The best refillable beauty products for 2023
1.Plus Body Sheet from £12
Each body wash sheet is wrapped in a dissolvable sachet made of wood pulp and vanishes down your drain instantly.
2. Forgo sachet
This Sweden-based bodycare brand that’s pioneered powder-to-liquid formula handwashes. Powder sachets arrive in compostable paper that’s designed to be planted afterwards; simply add water to the formula and voila: your hand wash is ready.
3. Wild Natural Deodorant, refills from £6
With plastic-free, compostable refills delivered to your door, this deodorant helps cut down the waste of your everyday deo.
4. Gillette Venus Deluxe Smooth Sensitive Razor Blade, £18.50 for pack of six
Why replace your Venus razor when your blades get blunt? These are the perfect match.
5. Ouai Fine Hair Shampoo Refill Pouch, £48 for 946ml
Created by celebrity Stylist Jen Atkin, Ouai’s shampoo refill pouches contain about 60% less plastic than rigid plastic bottles. The formulas are ace too.
6. Fiils The Body Wash Kit, £22
This hair and bodycare brand founded by make-up artist Anna Priadka, offers shampoos, conditioners, body washes and handwash refills in aluminium bottles that are designed to be used for life; switching to Fiils, say the brand, can reduce each customer’s carbon footprint by 30% annually and the refill pouches use 80% less plastic.
7. Clarins Everlasting Cushion Liquid Foundation, £31, & refill, £23
Cushion foundations have soared in popularity in recent years thanks to the rise of K-beauty, and they’re easily refilled, so the plastic casing doesn’t end up in landfill. This cushion liquid foundation from Clarions is ideal for parched post-winter skin, with ten-hour humidity and a refreshing, water-based formula.
8. Lyonsleaf Unscented Marshmallow Soften & Rejuvenate Facial Oil, £17.99, and refill, £17.49
Using home-grown ingredients on a Somerset farm, all-natural brand Lyonsleaf is championing plastic-free products across their range. Purchase the reusable lotion pump first time round, then when you run out of this deeply nourishing and rich (but totally not greasy) oil, simply snap up plastic-free refills for £17.49.
9. Kjaer Weis Cream Blush, £41, & Cream Blush Refill, £24
It’s safe to say that Kjaer Weis are the true pioneers of sustainable beauty. In fact, they offer refills across their entire range – even on their mascara. But we can’t resist their buttery cream blushes in a range of diverse shades. Sweep the silky-smooth cream over cheeks using your fingers, and when you’re done, pop out from the silver compact and replace with your refill. Our eco warrior medal (which doesn’t exist and is purely for sentiment) officially goes to the guys at Kjaer Weis.
10. Make Up For Ever Shimmery Highlighter, £18, & Refillable Make-Up System, £1
Make Up For Ever offer refillable palettes in sizes S - XL for either £1 or £2, depending on the size of the product you want to put in the casing. We love their high-shimmer highlighters swept across cheekbones for a natural-looking glow.
11. By Kilian Good Girl Gone Bad Perfume, £215, & Refill Spray, £115
Think luxury fragrance can’t be environmentally-friendly? Think again, because all By Kilian fragrance bottles are designed to be refilled. This heady floral perfume is sultry but not saccharine, with citrus scents, tuberose, jasmine and fresh orange blossom.
The perfume comes with a sleek cigarette case, engraved with a gold snake, for easy transportation, and the no-spill refill dispenser has slimmed-down packaging for reduced environmental waste when you need to replace your favourite perfume.
12. Soap Co Black Poppy & Wild Fig Hand Wash, £12 & Refill, £11
The plastic pump mechanisms commonly used in hand washes are notoriously difficult to recycle, meaning they often end up as landfill waste. East London-based, ethical, cruelty-free social enterprise Soap Co recognised this, and so created refills for their luxuriously-scented hand washes.
13. Jo Malone Fragrance Combining Palette, £24, & Solid Scents, £14
Solid perfume is making a serious comeback, and this innovative palette from Jo Malone is travel-friendly, as well as helping to reduce waste by housing two fragrances in one palette. The rich scent, which is made using pure beeswax, is swirled onto wrists, neck, décolletage and even the ends of hair. When it’s time to replace your perfume, simply use the nifty pin to pop the scents out of the palette.
14. Rituals Organic Rice Milk & Cherry Blossom Body Cream, £19.50, & Refill Pack, £17
According to eco-conscious brand Rituals, you can save 70% in Co2 emissions, 65% in energy and use 45% less water by using their new refill concept. This rich cream, delicately scented with sweet cherry blossom, nourishes and firms the skin, and rice milk helps to keep everything supple. Simply tip the refill into your empty pot.
15. Jane Iredale Bronzer, £32 & Refillable Cover, £12
Made from recyclable plastic, Jane Iredale’s refill compact can house any product from their range of bronzers, mineral foundations or finishing powders. Our favourite? The best-selling bronzer palette in ‘Peaches & Cream’, which can be swept across cheeks, eyes or even lips for a post-holiday glow. Even Meghan Markle is said to be a fan of the shade.
16. Tropic Tahitian Vanilla & Coconut Luxury Bath Foam, £18, & Refill Pouch, £27
While the price of this refill may seem steep, it’s actually enough to refill your bath foam bottle twice.
It’s resealable, so simply store out of direct sunlight until it’s time top up after many evenings of luxurious bubble baths (Netflix-playing laptop on the toilet seat: optional). If you want to ensure the pouches are recycled correctly, collect five empties and return to Tropic HQ for a free refill. The brand is aiming to convert almost all products to refillable packaging by the end of 2020.
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