The $552.60 billion per year global personal care industry relies on plastic. How did we end up with so much plastic? Not so long ago (early 1900’s) personal care items did not involve plastic. Soaps came in bar form; perfumes, a symbol of luxury, were packaged in elaborate glass containers; and hair products were powders or pomades packaged in tins or jars.

Then what changed? About 75 years ago an American cosmetic chemist Jules Montenier, Ph.D., packaged the first cosmetic product in a squeeze bottle composed of polyethylene, and before long users celebrated the material’s durability and its disposability. The cosmetic/personal care industry produces 120 billion units of packaging globally every year, and many are still made from forms of squeezable plastics. These forms of packaging have created a global market for cosmetic packaging that is about to breach the $30 billion mark.


History of the personal care industry

After World War I, the US emerged as the most prolific producer and consumer of personal care and beauty products, while the European market was recovering. During the war, the military had imposed strict hygiene codes to prevent disease from spreading amongst the troops, so when the soldiers returned home, they brought with them ingrained habits of washing, shaving, etc. By the mid-1920s, a whole industry of personal care popped up. The Lever company (which would later become Unilever) kicked off an ad campaign outlining the damage “body odor” could do to one’s career and social prospects.

At the same time, the market for face creams, cosmetics and other personal care products marketed to women exploded with the rise of Hollywood movies and invention of American glamour and beauty standards. Even during World War II, the US government went so far as to declare lipstick a “wartime necessity”, a critical component of cultural life and morale-building.


The transition to plastic packaging

During the plastic explosion of the mid-20th century, the personal care industry jumped on the plastic bandwagon along with many other industries. Plastic could be molded, was light, flexible, and sturdy – so items that had been packaged in heavy or delicate glass could now be transported farther and more easily with plastic.

There was a time when bathing took place in a bathtub or river, so products had to work in those conditions. Soaps and hair-cleaning products were solid and some like Ivory, were formulated so the soap floated on the surface of the water and did not sink out of reach. But then came the arrival of showers by the middle of the century, and product formulation began to change. Companies developed liquids and gels (that would run down the drain). Now customers were storing products inside their showers, so products had to withstand an onslaught of water. With all these transitions, the industry was growing – in 1919 it was a $60 million industry in the US, by 1938 it was $400 million, and by the 1970s it was in the billions. The amount and variety of products exploded, and along with the products came vast new amounts of packaging.


Plastic waste today

Today, personal care products fill entire aisles in stores, and the $42.18 billion industry in the US has grown to rival the pet, sports, and private loan markets in economic value. The industry plastic footprint has ballooned. The amount of plastic packaging on US products, not just on personal care items, has increased by over 120 times since 1960s, with almost 70% of that waste piling up in landfills.

The challenge of cutting back on, or eliminating plastic packaging entirely, is not a small one. There are companies that prioritize using plastic-free packaging and use glass as primary packaging or alternative bio-sourced plastics. For instance, companies like Lush (over 20 years ago) tackle the plastic problem by redesigning the products themselves, like their shampoos as solid bars – no water, no plastic bottle. Other companies are looking to provide refills to sturdy, long-lasting, preferably not-plastic containers.

Plastic is so embedded in the modern supply chain that limiting its ubiquity will inevitably be a painful process, especially because the beauty/personal care industry is growing by several percent each year. More products flood into consumers’ hands each year – even if the packaging is more efficient, there is still more of it. So, it will take a combined effort across companies of all sizes to make a dent in the plastic problem created. It takes a village to solve the plastic problem.

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