Are Sheet Masks the New Plastic Straw?

Are sheet masks and face wipes ready to go the way of plastic straws, bottles and bags?

Single-use beauty products have proven enormously popular with consumers seeking convenient — and oftentimes, cute — skin care. But some sustainability-minded members of the beauty industry sense that consumers are at a point where they are willing to welcome reusable alternatives in the name of environmental concern, and are preparing for an impending shift away from single-use beauty — and in some cases, actively pushing to drive the change. 

In April, clean beauty retailer Credo Beauty quietly rolled out its sustainable packaging guidelines to the more than 135 brands that sell in its stores. The guidelines are the latest addition to Credo’s Clean Standard, a lengthy set of protocols that aims to define the requirements for a clean beauty brand amid lack of industry-wide consensus on what “clean” really means. 

Credo’s sustainable packaging guidelines will require brands to replace virgin petrochemical plastic with 50 percent or more recycled plastic, or another nonplastic material, by 2023. Brands will also be unable to imply that packaging is compostable or recyclable if it is not, and will have to provide clear disposal instructions for consumers if packaging is indeed recyclable or compostable. The retailer is also pressing brands to look into refill systems and reusable packaging solutions. 

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The first and most prominent mandate under Credo’s sustainable packaging guidelines is the prohibition of sheet masks, wipes and other single-use products — from sampling packettes to the little plastic spatulas that often come with skin care — set to take effect by June 2021. 

It’s a bold move for a prestige beauty retailer to eliminate the sale of single-use beauty products right now. The global facial wipes market alone is projected to reach $3.2 billion by 2025, growing at an annual clip of 4.7 percent. The sheet-mask category in the U.S. reached $205 million in 2019, doubling in volume over the course of five years according to The NPD Group. While overall U.S. sales of prestige skin care have declined due to the coronavirus — third-quarter sales were down 11 percent year-over-year, according to NPD — brands have reported strong sheet-mask sales throughout the pandemic, as consumers reach for the individually packaged masks as a seemingly more hygienic option. In March, a representative from Pierre-Fabre-owned Avène told WWD that sales of its Soothing Sheet Mask were up 1,400 percent year-over-year. 

Executives at Credo see eliminating single-use beauty products as a necessary step toward mitigating the beauty industry’s impact on the environment, and believe that consumers will adapt. 

Mia Davis, Credo’s director of mission, said the retailer estimates that by eliminating the sale of single-use beauty products, including sheet masks, wipes and sampling packettes, it will ultimately save 3,000 pounds of waste every year from ending up in a landfill. 

“It felt like an absolute no-brainer to us in regard to sustainability, which we’re ultimately responsible for as a retailer,” said Davis. “This feels like a great and clear place to start and we hope it has a ripple effect.” 

A slew of brands have launched in the past year touting biodegradable sheet masks and face wipes. Neutrogena announced earlier this year that it is converting its entire sheet-mask product line to a biodegradable wipe. But in Credo’s view, biodegradable isn’t enough. 

“Yard waste and food waste are much easier to break down and don’t take as much heat, energy or time and you have a high-value compost at the end,” said Davis, who noted that the idea of biodegradability is often green-washed, and that consumers may not have a true understanding of how it works. “That’s not the case for compostable plastics, or in this case, a sheet mask.” 

Davis said the ban on single-use beauty might take some education for the consumer to understand, but she thinks the Credo customer is ready for it. 

“They will really quickly understand why we made this decision especially when we tell them how much waste we are preventing — so far we’ve had a really positive response and people are impressed.” 

Annie Jackson, chief operating officer and cofounder of Credo, described the decision to eliminate sheet masks as a moral imperative. “We know it’s bad for the environment and it’s also a huge seller — should we let it be?” said Jackson, who noted that the pandemic was a “tipping point” for the retailer. “What we’ve all gone through this year has cast a huge light on what actionable change we can make to reduce our impact on climate and communities so [we don’t] continue to create all this waste.” 

Sometimes, it takes an aggressive move to help shift consumer behavior, said Ana G. Herrera, founder of brand consultancy AG Casa. 

“It sometimes requires a very bold move in order to start shifting consumer behavior,” she said. “When brands and retailers start shifting the landscape, consumers will change.” 

Credo, along with the Boston-based clean beauty retailer Follain, has become something of a standard-bearer for the greater industry in defining the clean beauty movement. When Credo or Follain makes a move to ban an ingredient or create a company protocol, other retailers and brands often follow suit. Brands that don’t even sell in Credo often tout product formulations developed in accordance with Credo’s guidelines — the latest is Bobbi Brown’s makeup line, Jones Road. Brown told WWD she’d specifically sought out the retailer’s restricted ingredient list when she is in the product development process. 

Herrera likened Credo’s single-use beauty ban to CVS Health’s 2017 decision to stop selling tobacco. 

“Will other retailers follow? I think it’s going to take some time for that to happen, if it happens fully,” she said. “When CVS took their stance on cigarettes, not every retailer [followed] rapidly after they made that decision. It took a long time, and many retailers still do sell tobacco. But there will be a dialogue with large brands that will start.”

Jackson is hoping that as the brands that Credo sells start to adapt the retailer’s sustainable packaging guidelines, mainstream retailers will be influenced in the process. 

“The idea is not for our brand partners to stop supplying Credo with [single-use products] because we’ve omitted them, but to stop manufacturing them altogether,” she said. 

This kind of subtle ripple effect is already beginning to take shape. Bawdy Beauty, which is sold at Credo and Ulta Beauty, is known for its butt sheet masks. For instance, the Bite It Butt Sheet Mask, $9; is formulated with plant-based collagen, aloe leaf juice, and sodium hyaluronate to moisturize and lift butt skin. 

When Bawdy’s founder and ceo Sylwia Wiesenberg found out she’d need to stop selling her brand’s star product at Credo, the first retailer to carry the line, she quickly made the decision to discontinue the sheet masks and find an alternative solution. She plans to phase out the sale of single-use sheet masks by the first quarter of 2021, and is working on a reusable sheet mask alternative. 

“I think it was a good kick in the butt for brands who say they are ‘clean,’ however what about sustainable packaging?” said Wiesenberg. “We have to start somewhere and if we don’t start small, I don’t think the larger brands will ever adapt. If they see that the consumer is thinking twice and not buying what they know will end up in a landfill, they’ll start following.” 

Wiesenberg said the consumer who is shopping at Credo is likely to welcome the single-use ban. “What message beyond beautifying your butt do you want to send? If you love your ass enough, take one more minute and spray this formula on a [reusable] sheet mask and you can rinse it off, dry it like a towel and reuse it,” she said. “I believe the consumer is ready with everything they’re fed by the media, but we [as brands] need to take radical steps.” 

Aside from the reusable sheet mask, Wiesenberg is launching butt masks in stick format, with refillable components and a water-activated powder body wash set to launch next year. 

As for Ulta, where Bawdy’s butt masks are said to be selling well, Wiesenberg said the retailer welcomed her pivot away from single-use products, and views it as a somewhat of a low-stakes experiment to gauge consumer interest. Ulta has taken some steps recently toward promoting sustainability. Its Conscious Beauty platform, launched earlier this year, is the retailer’s commitment to stocking products that are considered clean, cruelty-free, vegan and have sustainable packaging. 

“For them, they’re not taking much of a risk and they’ll see how the consumer responds,” said Wiesenberg. 

Reusable alternatives to popular products like sheet masks are beginning to crop up. It’s still early — there aren’t many brands doing them — but they do exist. Jessica Alba’s Honest Beauty recently launched its Reusable Magic Silicone Sheet Mask; $14.99. The silicone mask is meant to be paired with the customer’s own skin-care serum. 

Another such product is Dieux Skin eye patches. Dieux Skin, cofounded by skin-care influencer Charlotte Palermino, cosmetic chemist Joyce de Lemos and creative director Marta Freedman, was launched direct-to-consumer in February. 

The Forever Skin Eye Patches, $25; are a set of nonporous silicone eye patches that, unlike traditional sheet masks, don’t come pre-soaked with a skin-care formula. The patches are meant to be used with another eye treatment that the consumer already has at home. They can be reused for an infinite amount of times — ”until the label starts running off, but you can still use it after that if you want,” said Palermino — and are meant to be cleaned with an alcohol spray and stored in the tin container they’re sold in. 

Palermino, who gained a following on TikTok by espousing skin-care advice backed up by clinical claims and scientific studies, said the concept for reusable masks came from a desire to consume less. 

“A lot of brands want you to continually repurchase — they don’t really create things that are necessarily great for the environment. With a sheet mask, the only thing about it that makes it work is that it’s an occlusive layer,” said Palermino. “It was really kind of getting to this idea that we can re-think rituals to be more sustainable.” 

Palermino often stresses buying quality over quantity when she’s advising followers on purchasing skin-care products. That ethos is infused in Dieux Skin — the brand’s subsequent products will be formulated in ways that make them less wasteful. 

“You don’t have to do beauty the way everyone else is doing it — you don’t have to launch a product just because everyone else launched it,” said Palermino. “Let’s think about why we’re doing that.” 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

1. Sheet masks, face wipes and other single-use beauty products are in the spotlight as brands attempt to develop more sustainable alternatives.

2. Credo Beauty has banned single-use beauty products effective June 2021. One expert likened the decision to the discontinuation of tobacco sales at CVS Health.

3. While biodegradable options are proliferating, some see re-useable products as ultimately better for the environment.

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