Why Do So Many People Still Use Makeup Wipes?

Single-use wipes aren't great for your skin — and even worse for the environment.

Person looking in the mirror using a makeup wipe on their face - an old black and white photo
Photo: Jacobsen/Getty Images

When I'm not watching fashion shows on Netflix, I'm entranced by celebrity skincare routine videos on YouTube. I'm nosy, and I get satisfaction in knowing who wears sunscreen and who does not.

But more often than not, the videos leave me confused. I notice so many celebs seemingly have great skin despite using way too many exfoliating products in one routine. But what really makes me do a head tilt, as I say "hmm" out loud, is the sheer number of celebs — both Gen Z and millennial — who still use makeup wipes to remove their makeup.

Makeup wipes are supposed to be a quick method of getting your makeup off. However, based on my personal experience using wipes and watching celebs use them in their videos, they actually take longer to use. Often you need to pass the wipe over your face a few times to really feel like you've got all of your foundation off, and you really have to rub your eyes to remove every bit of mascara and eyeliner — especially if they're waterproof.

Makeup Wipes Can Be Harsh on Your Skin

Unsurprisingly, aggressively scrubbing your eye area with a makeup wipe isn't great for your skin.

Dr. Shereene Idriss, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City says in addition to the wipes themselves being abrasive on the skin, the ingredients they're soaked in aren't so great either.

"There are some that have harsher irritating ingredients in them than others," she tells InStyle. "I think the wipes themselves are irritating and can cause micro-tears because they're not that soft. They're not the equivalent of a cotton pad that you're dousing in makeup remover. And these micro-tears can be aging in the long term."

Most Makeup Wipes Aren't Biodegradable

Yes, makeup wipes can be handy when traveling. Yes, tossing them out is more convenient than having to wash a load of reusable facial pads and washcloths, but they're doing more than hurting your skin. Wipes, like many other single-use products, such as plastic straws and bags, negatively impact the environment, whether you realize it or not.

According to the FDA, cleansing wipes are made of materials such as polyester, polypropylene, cotton, wood pulp, or rayon fibers, many of which aren't biodegradable. While some brands have made ones using materials that do eventually break down, most wipes end up sitting in landfills for years — and never really go away.

Think of it like continuously finding little shards of glass on your floor weeks after dropping a cup.

"The study of microplastics — finding them in sea salt and sand, for example — has really made it clear that it doesn't really go away, it just becomes smaller and smaller particles that never turn into soil or organic material," says Sonya Lunder, senior toxic advisor at Sierra Club's Gender, Equity & Environment program. "They're just lingering in these really small fragments."

And flushing wipes down the toilet isn't any better — so don't do it. "They clog the system and don't break down so they're passing through the whole wastewater system intact and also put a lot more plastic into the wastewater," Lunder adds.

Environmentally Friendly Makeup Wipe Options

In recent years, some brands have come out with biodegradable wipes in an effort to be more eco-friendly, but whether or not these wipes break down as quickly as they advertise is complicated.

"If we have a straight-up cotton wipe for your face, like a cotton ball, for example, you can usually compost those if you have municipal compost or compost at your home," says Ashlee Piper, eco-lifestyle expert and author of Give A Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. "But makeup wipes are often a blend of some kind of plastic or synthetic fiber and maybe a little cotton in there if they're feeling generous. More often than not they can't be composted."

The wipes that are made from natural plant fibers and/or pulp can biodegrade, but only in the right conditions. "If somebody doesn't have compost at home or city service so they're putting a biodegradable wipe in the trash, it's not going to biodegrade," Piper explains. "Landfills are notoriously dry and you need oxygen, along with a few other things in order for the process to take place."

There's also the solution the wipes are soaked in. Depending on the ingredients used, they might not be compostable, which means they're also adding more chemicals into landfills and the wastewater system if flushed down the toilet.

It's also important to note that terms like "clean beauty," "organic," "natural," and "compostable" aren't regulated terms. That isn't to say all of the brands that claim their wipes are biodegradable are greenwashing — they are in the perfect conditions.

The Packaging Is Also a Problem

On top of the actual wipes, the soft plastic pouches they come in also contribute to the alarming amount of packaging waste generated by the beauty industry. Typically, this type of plastic can't be recyclable and is part of the 14.5 million tons of plastic containers and packaging waste generated in 2018, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The amount of plastic packaging used on U.S. products (not just on personal care items) has increased by over 120 times since 1960, with almost 70% of that waste piling up in landfills.

"The packaging that they're in outside of the wipes themselves is usually that soft, crushable plastic, and that basically can never be recycled in any municipality," says Piper. "There are a few exceptions. There might be some companies doing some fun new soft plastic that might have a higher recyclability, but city recycling really isn't set up to handle that type of plastic."

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Say Goodbye to Single-Use Wipes

It's easy to think that as one person, your personal habits don't really impact the environment as a whole. But in reality, every little bit helps — especially if every individual makes small tweaks to their routines in order for their lifestyle to be more sustainable.

On top of helping to eliminate unnecessary landfill waste, massaging a cleansing balm, oil, or even a milky cream cleanser, feels way better than rubbing a rough wipe on your face — and does a better job of getting all your makeup off. So reach for a sustainably made, compostable cotton round or even better, a reusable makeup wipe like this jane iredale Magic Mitt or the Original Pink MakeUp Eraser to save the environment and some money at the same time.

That being said, whenever you do say goodbye to single-use makeup wipes, make sure you properly dispose of them.

"You don't want to put a traditional wipe into the compost because it's made of plastic because you're polluting the compost supply," says Lunder. "The worst thing to do is to make yourself feel better by putting something in the compost or recycling that isn't actually compostable or recyclable. That puts the whole system in jeopardy."

From non-toxic makeup and skincare to sustainability practices, Clean Slate is an exploration of all things in the green beauty space.

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