Here's why you're wrong for throwing your empty beauty products in the bin

And what to do instead

how to recycle beauty products
(Image credit: Getty Images Aleksandra Abramova 1226924852)

Sometimes it's hard to fathom just how horrific the extent of the devastation that plastics have on the planet, especially our oceans. That said, documentaries like Blue Planet II have opened our eyes. According to Global Citizen, by late 2018, 88% of those who had seen it had changed their relationship with plastic completely. They went on to call the episode, 'a key moment sparking the war on plastics.'

We have certainly noticed more reusable water bottles on our commute and in the office – some people have gone a week completely plastic-free and huge beauty brands have started doing their bit to reduce their plastic waste, including creating refillable beauty products.

So, does this mean that we are nailing our recycling routines? Apparently not, as according to research carried out by Garnier, 56% of Brits don't recycle their bathroom products and around 95% of our empties still end up in landfill.

It's thought to be partly down to us having only one bin in our bathroom, instead of two separate bins like we have in our kitchens to separate recyclable goods. But the other issue is the complexity of bathroom products; a hand soap bottle and an eyeshadow palette are slightly more confusing that the plastic container your mushrooms come in.

Can beauty products be recycled as normal?

"Beauty product packaging is often composed of a variety of types of material," explains Stephen Clarke, Head of Communications at TerraCycle Europe. "For example -- mirrored glass, cardboard sleeves, paper inserts, expanded plastic foam and more have been known to be used in cosmetics packaging– sometimes all in one item." This makes recycling them incredibly difficult.

"120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry," Clarke continues. "Of these, very few plastic waste items generated in the bathroom are accepted by most public kerbside recycling programmes. Most common beauty products and packaging contribute to the world’s growing plastic waste problem and, without adequate recovery solutions, are tracked for landfills, burned, buried, or simply littered where waste management is insufficient. Many plastic waste items find their way into oceans and waterways, compounding the problem with environmental hazards."

The Sustainable Beauty Coalition has always championed cleaning up beauty's packaging act. On the topic, Jayn Sterland, Chair of the organisation, says, "I do strongly believe that this needs to be a two way street, a partnership between brand and consumer to jointly do the right thing by the planet. As consumers, we need to make sure we discard products in a way that doesn’t add to the current environmental problem."

We need to make sure that where we can, we are recycling our beauty products properly. Below is our guide to what can be recycled and what should be put in the normal bin.

Clarke says it's important to know the difference. "Beauty products and packaging that cannot be recycled through the public system will not only be diverted towards landfill or incineration anyway, they slow down the system and have the potential to contaminate bales of secondary material. We must improve the system to create a circular economy for plastics."

How to recycle your beauty products


So many beauty products, like fragrances and new make-up products, come wrapped in cellophane. Annoyingly, this cannot be recycled and should be put in your normal bin.

Plastic bottles

Plastic bottles, like shampoos, conditioners and shower gels, are accepted by most recycling programmes. However, make sure that you have emptied and cleaned them out first. You can also leave the lids on as these can be recycled, unless it's a trigger head or a pump. These will need to go in your normal bin. 

If you haven't completely finished your conditioner, don't pour it down the sink. Instead, get out as much as possible and put it in your normal bin. (The same goes with any product that you have a little left of.)


Yes, hairsprays and deodorants can be recycled in most household collection schemes. But do make sure they've been completely finished before recycling them.

Mascara, lipstick and make-up palettes

Annoyingly, these are too complicated to recycle. However, TerraCycle have partnered with lots of beauty brands such as Maybelline to create a free recycling programme for beauty packaging, and these can be taken to one of their allocated stores.

Glass jars

Hooray! As long as these have been emptied and cleaned, these are free to be popped in your recycling bin.

Don’t forget that they don't have to be thrown away, either. Neal’s Yard Remedies Brand Ambassador, Tipper Lewis, recommends repurposing your empty glass bottles and jars by refilling them with your favourite product or turning them into single stem vases or candle holders.

Cotton pads

This is an interesting one, as they have come under quite a bit criticism for being as bad for the environment as face wipes, but in actual fact these can be recycled with your food waste. So after taking your make-up off, take them straight into the kitchen. It's worth noting though that if they have nail polish on them, they've got to go in the bin.

Hair tools

If your tools still work, check with your local charity shop if they'll take them.

For hair straighteners specifically, Cloud Nine recently launched their own iron recycling service. They'll recycle or reuse your old hair tools, free of charge, and regardless of the brand or when/where they were purchased. Simply download a pre-paid recycling label, pop your straighteners in a box and take to the Post Office.

Nail varnish, fragrances and make-up brushes

Sadly these products can't be recycled, so should just be placed in the normal waste bin.

Toothbrushes and toothpaste

Don't put these in your recycling, there are special drop-off locations that have been set up by TerraCycle and Colgate.

Can you recycle half-empty beauty products?

"It’s tricky to recycle half-empty beauty products," explains Lewis, "so it’s always best to finish using products before moving on to something new."

If, like many of us, you find that a certain product isn't working for you, Lewis recommends sharing it with friends or family, or even hosting a 'beauty exchange' at home with friends to swap products. "This is a brilliant way of reducing waste and discovering new products, too."

What else can you do?

There are lots of other ways that you can help reduce your beauty waste, and we've put some of the expert's top tips below.

  • Lewis recommends keeping a 'beauty empties' bag in your bathroom, as an easy way to collect your empties and dispose of correctly when the bag becomes full.
  • Lewis also says to switch your sheet masks for a mask in a jar. Sheet masks are single use, and even if the sheet is biodegradable, it will still take time to decompose and is unlikely to add nutrients to the compost it’s added to.
  • Get your hands on a TerraCycle Zero Waste Box. The company will send an empty box to your house, you fill it with your beauty empties listed on the website, and then send it back to them to recycle it all.
  • Download the Sustainable Beauty Coalition's Planet Positive Beauty Guide. The guide gives you evidence-based tips on how to make more sustainable choices. Whether you need to brush up on which certifications you should keep an eye out for or want to learn more about the brands that are dedicated to improving society, this beauty dictionary will get you there in no time.
  • Buy products that are packaged in highly recycled materials, like PET bottles.
  • Buy from brands that offer a refillable service or reusable packaging.
  • Opt for certified organic beauty products where you can, as they are free from harmful pesticides and chemicals and have been made in a sustainable, ethical way.

Brands doing their bit

Ren Skincare

Ren is 100% zero waste. The team stopped the use of single-use sachets across their entire product line back in 2018, which saved 4.4 million of these pesky plastics from entering landfill. It has always worked in tandem with global recycling guidelines to stop 16 tonnes from harming the planet.

Neal's Yard Remedies

Neal's Yard Remedies has always been at the forefront of cutting back on plastics. Since the 1980s, the brand has never used plastic micro-beads in their products and played a key part in the successful banning of them in the UK. The team has also launched in-store recycling and refilling, and you can even take hard-to-recycle items such as pumps, pipettes, mixed material caps and sachets to the stores and use the TerraCycle drop off point to make sure your items are recycled correctly.

The Body Shop

The Body Shop has a refill programme and have made 12 of their most-loved products refillable with 718 refill stations in 40 countries. They also have an in-store recycling scheme in selected stores that can recycle mascaras, pumps, plastic pouches and tubes.


L'Occitane have TerraCycle collection points in their stores and have sponsored beach cleans all over the UK, from Brighton to Edinburgh.

Katie Thomas

Katie Thomas is the Senior Beauty Editor at Marie Claire UK. With over 10 years of experience on women's luxury lifestyle titles, she covers everything from the best beauty looks from the red carpet and stand out trends from the catwalk, to colonic irrigation and to the best mascaras on the market. She started her career on fashion desks across the industry - from The Telegraph to Brides - but found her calling in the Tatler beauty department. From there she moved to Instyle, before joining the Marie Claire digital team in 2018. She’s made it her own personal mission to find the best concealer in the world to cover her tenacious dark circles. She’s obsessed with skincare that makes her skin bouncy and glowy, low-maintenance hair that doesn’t require brushing and a cracking good manicure. Oh and she wears more jewellery than the Queen.

With contributions from