Like so many single-use products, disposable face wipes entered the market as convenient, time-saving heroes and are leaving it – slowly – as environmental villains. A colossal 11 billion wipes are used every year in the UK alone, including skincare, baby wipes and household cleaning wipes, the vast majority of which contain and are wrapped in non-biodegradable plastic.
The scale of the problem
Not disposing of them properly is half of the problem. Most wipes aren’t suitable for flushing, but it doesn’t stop people trying; in 2017, Water UK found that wipes made up 93% of the material causing the sewer blockages, a problem that costs the country £100 million per year. As well as creating fatbergs – those gruesome, greasy mounds that clog up our water systems – wipes can end up lining riverbeds, polluting the ocean and choking its inhabitants with microplastic. And even if they’re binned correctly, a single wipe takes 100 years to decompose in landfill.
Switching to reusable wipes
While the government says it’s striving to eliminate plastic waste and big brands like Simple, Nivea and The Body Shop have launched biodegradable wipes, the most obvious alternative has been there all along: the humble flannel. Switching back to a reusable face cloth isn’t just kinder to the planet – it could also do your face a few favours. Beauty experts have long championed the benefits of cleansing with a flannel or muslin cloth, which will gently exfoliate your skin as it removes dirt and make-up.
They’re also less likely to leave your wallet bare. A basic pack of two muslin cloths from Boots will set you back £4, while you can pick up 10 cotton washcloths at Ikea for £3.50. Compared even to the cheapest Boots face wipes (£1 for 25), and assuming you’re only using one wipe a day, they’ll still be saving you money within three months. And, if you’re not squeamish about a few makeup stains, there’s no reason they won’t last for years.
Say goodbye to single-use cotton too
Once you’ve binned the wipes for good, single-use cotton is next on the agenda. You might be thinking ‘but it’s a natural fibre?’ and you’d be right – but with huge volumes of water and pesticides used to grow it, bleach used to treat it and plastic used to package it, the lifespan of a cotton pad is far from circular. Organic versions certified by the Soil Association are a start, but unsurprisingly tend to cost more.
Reusable cotton pads
Enter: reusable cotton pads, which can be used to remove makeup the normal way and then simply washed with soap and water or popped in the washing machine. Prices start at around the £8 mark and often include a laundry bag to keep pads safe in the wash. Longevity varies, but the Danish brand LastObject claims one pot of its seven LastRound pads (£11) will last for at least 1750 uses (that’s about 4.8 years of daily use). A pack of 200 single-use cotton pads from Boots (£2.69) rings in at £0.013 per pad, while LastRound works out at a tiny £0.006 per use.
So in this case of disposables versus reusables, it’s fair to say reusables have the competition wiped.
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