Recycling Your Beauty Products Is Complicated — Here Are 8 Things You Need to Know

Read this before you toss that shampoo bottle in your blue bin.

Overhead shot of a person with fingers dipped with skincare cream
Photo: Ivan Gener/Stocksy

In 2017, the global cosmetics industry was valued at 532 billion dollars. A ton of beauty products are purchased and used every single day. Eventually, those products turn into empty packaging that needs to be disposed. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the 2017 rate of recyclable materials like plastic, glass, and paper actually being recycled was only 34.7 percent. That means that the majority of foundation bottles, moisturizer jars, shampoo, and body wash bottles (as well as other pieces of household waste) are going into landfills.

As a beauty editor, I test a lot of products. So many that I rarely finish an entire bottle of shampoo or jar of moisturizer. I'd like to say that I always rinse out every one of the products I'm no longer using, then recycle the bottles accordingly. The truth is, though, I don't — and part of the reason is, that I didn't always know how, or if the products can even be recycled in the first place. Do I have to rinse out everything before I recycle it? Are there any containers that can't go in the trash? Can I mix the empty packaging from all of my products in the same recycling bin?

These are the questions I ask myself every time I'm ready to dispose of a beauty product. And, when I'm not sure about which one of my products can be recycled, I just throw it in my bin and hope for the best. It's called "wish-cycling," and as I learned while researching for this story, it's exactly what you shouldn't be doing. That's why one of my goals is to make sense of it all so that I recycle more of my beauty products and throw less in the trash.

To demystify the process, I spoke with Alita Kane, community liaison of The Recycling Partnership, a non-profit organization that provides recycling consulting to communities nationwide. I gave Kane the task of breaking down general recycling rules, and how they apply to your beauty products. Check out her advice below.

1. Recycling Plastic Can Be Complicated, So Find Out What's Accepted In Area

Most of your beauty products likely come in plastic packaging (and the rest are likely in glass, but more on that later). Given the recent war waged on plastic straws and the impact the material has on the environment, it shouldn't come as a surprise that plastic should be a priority. The only problem is that all plastic is not created equal.

"The challenge is that plastic comes in so many shapes, forms, and sizes," says Kane. "To narrow down what can go in your bin, stick to bottles, containers, jugs, and tubs." This can include products like shampoo bottles, moisturizer jars, and body wash bottles.

Kane says that recycling availability is different across the country, and is constantly changing — often at a pace that people can't keep up with the latest information. The rules aren't consistent across the board, so before recycling your products, you'll want to do some digging on your local city hall and/or sanitation department websites for information.

However, she says that one of the biggest factors affecting what your municipality will pick up is which manufacturers are getting sent these materials. When your recycling is picked up curbside, it's brought to a material recovery facility (or MRF). Then, it's sorted, packed into bales, and sent to manufacturers for reuse.

"Depending on who that MRF is, and who they have purchased their materials, locally and internationally, is going to make a difference on what your municipality can allow you to put in that recycling bin," she explains.

2. That Arrow Symbol You Learned In School? It Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

When I see a three-chasing arrow symbol (also known as the Möbius Loop) on one of my products, I always assume it means it's made of recyclable materials. It turns out that the chasing arrows, and the number that appears in the middle of the symbol, indicate the type of resin that the package is made from. Technically, that packaging is only recyclable if that resin is accepted by your area's curbside recycling program.

"These arrows are not an indicator of recyclability," confirms Kane. "There is no one out there policing whether or not a company can put that symbol on their products, so a lot of times it's misplaced. It doesn't indicate recyclability as much as it tends to indicate the contents of the product packaging and what type of resin material it's made from."

3. Shape And Size Matter

If you're like me and throw lipstick tubes and sample-sized serums into your recycling bin, Kane says you could be doing more harm than good. Product packaging that's too small usually gets lost when it's being sorted. Kane says a good rule of thumb is to leave anything smaller than an index card out of your recycling bin. These items unfortunately have to be tossed into the trash, or recycled by a third-party program (more on that later).

As for the shapes of packages, the materials need to be hard. Anything that's flexible or squeezable — tubes of toothpaste, hand cream bottles, and sheet mask pouches — can't be recycled.

4. Yes, You Need To Rinse Your Empties

A few drops of shampoo left in the bottle are perfectly fine, but if there's almost enough in the bottom for you to shampoo your hair with, you'll need to take the extra step to clean it. If liquids co-mingle with other recyclable materials like paper and cardboard, it can get everything wet and ultimately ruin its ability to be recycled.

Kane says that if the recyclable materials cross-contaminate, they can't properly be sorted and processed, and thus can't be repurposed into new materials. Removing any adhesives or glitter stuck on product packaging is also important for the same reason.

5. Pay Attention To Caps And Pumps

Plastic caps are too small on their own to be recycled, but if they're left on the bottle or jar they came with, you can put them in your bin. As for pumps, check to see if they have a metal ring in them. "Technically that would be a mixed material so you wouldn't want to have that together," says Kane. Take the pump off, put that part in the trash, and then put your empty lotion bottle in the recycling bin."

6. Glass And Paper Are Pretty Simple To Recycle

The good news: not all recyclable materials are as complicated as plastic. Paper and cardboard, and glass are among the easiest things to recycle — for now. The cardboard boxes that your products come in, along with any paper instruction booklets, are typically safe to toss into recycling bins.

If your area picks up the glass, stick to putting bottles, containers, and jars in your bin. Kane says that things like moisturizer containers can be picked up curbside as long as they're bigger than an index card and don't have any mirrors on them because that would make it a mixed material.

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7. Your Hairspray and Dry Shampoo Are Recyclable

Spray cans made from aluminum, steel, or tin can be thrown into your blue bin. "If it's an aerosol like a dry shampoo, make sure it's empty," says Kane. "If it has a plastic cap, that plastic cap should come off." Since material facilities don't have the equipment to sort mixed materials, the cap needs to be removed for the spray can to be successfully recycled.

8. Know Your Other Recycling Options

Alternatively, you can check whether the brand or store you purchased the product from has its recycling program. A few examples? Unilever, the parent company of brands like Dove and TRESemme is partnering with Loop, a shopping platform that will carry some of their brands' products in sustainable packaging that when empty, gets picked up, cleaned, and refilled. Credo Beauty has a partnership with TerraCycle, a third-party recycling program, and will take customers' empties in exchange for customer loyalty points.

The biggest takeaway? Think twice before throwing any beauty product packages into your recycling bin. And if that eye cream jar, moisturizer bottle, or eyeshadow palette can't be recycled, check to see if the brand or a third-party company can take it back. Yup, it's a little extra work, but our planet is worth it.

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