Sustainable Travel Cosmetics:
How To Minimize Waste

Our approach to sustainable travel hygiene and cosmetics is one of consistency and honesty. We don’t believe that buying 20 bottles of imported organic shampoo makes the world a cleaner place, but drastically reducing our contribution to plastic waste can. Rethinking the way we consume is necessary to achieve noticeable results, but it doesn’t need to add to your bills. Quite the opposite! 

One observation we make consistently is that a budget approach aligns naturally with environmentally sustainable goals. Learning to rely on skills rather than specific products also increases our freedom as travelers. More importantly, adopting a few simple changes in our habits can spare an incredible amount of trash! 

Here are a few tips to help you pack a sustainable, compact, lightweight and highly functional cosmetics case for your next long-term adventure! 

These guidelines are gender-neutral and apply to any lifestyle.

Alternatives To Single-Use
Hygiene & Cosmetic Items

A great way to trigger our creativity is to question what is commonly understood as “normal” or “optimal”. A great deal of the cosmetic and so-called “hygiene” products we use daily have been designed to increase sales, branding perfectly adequate solutions as backward. There is nothing optimal about cleaning our body with paper, yet it seems to have become a staple of the “developed” world. Here’s another way to look at it!

Toilet Paper

Going to the toilet is normal and staying clean is essential. But cutting trees only to throw paper down the drain, litter natural spaces and feed landfills is not. And worse, it’s not at all that efficient.

There are simple and cleaner alternatives to toilet paper: adopting them is a ridiculously efficient way to reduce waste and arguably a traveler’s essential. Knowing how to keep a good hygiene without toilet paper is a key skill to develop before venturing in parts of the world where toilet paper is not the standard.

bumgun toilet travel hygiene zero-waste
Luxury bum gun spotted in Cairo

Paper Tissues

Consider carrying a few squares of fabric. Paper tissues are still a luxury products in many parts of the world and going for durable fabric will not only reduce your footprint as a traveler, it will also spare you a small but unnecessary expense.

There are countless models sold online, but yours don’t have to cost a penny. Need to retire an old shirt? Cut out a few pieces where the fabric is still relatively good. Fold and sew the edges to avoid fraying. This can be done by hand or with a machine… or not at all.

reusable facial tissue sustainable travel cosmetics
Airplane wet wipe given a second go at life! (After 6 months of regular use)

You’ll develop your own folding strategies to use the same tissue several times before washing. It’s good to have a couple at hand, especially in case you catch a cold or suffer from allergies.

Make a habit of cleaning them regularly, with your underwear for instance. If cleaning by hand, leave them to soak in warm water for a few minutes, then rinse the disgraceful matter and clean with laundry or hand soap. They’ll be as good as new, it’s a promise! Reusable tissues are also much kinder to the skin, causing less irritation. You’ll win on every front, it simply takes a bit of getting used to.

Cotton Swabs

If they are part of your usual travel kit, know that there are alternatives to the common single-use Q-tips. Reusable silica swabs and metal ear spoons can last a lifetime and take less space in your cosmetics case than a box of single-use swabs. It’s a brilliant solution for travelers.

 Click for more details:

Ear swabs, known as ear pickers, ear scoops, or ear spoons, go back centuries before the industrial revolution. Across Asia, they were traditionally made from bamboo or precious metal. Europeans produced reusable curettes made of bronze or silver up to the 19th century. You can easily buy one or a complete set online for a few dollars. Metal pickers last forever, but bamboo is biodegradable.

Obviously, ear pickers can cause injuries if used carelessly inside the ear canal.

Some small companies modernized that tradition and sell a reusable version of the Q-tip. Made of durable silicone, their product looks just like the ear swab we know and is biodegradable. This type of product is a solid solution for those who also use cotton swabs to clean piercings or to apply make-up.

reusable ear swab sustainable travel cosmetics
Zero-waste reusable swab sold by Earthsider

Wet Wipes

Avoid at any cost… Wet wipes block sewer systems and take forever to decompose. Knowing how many countries struggle to maintain efficient sanitary services, finding an alternative to them is a sustainable traveler’s duty.

Carry a cloth and a bar of soap instead. It takes less room than a pack of wet wipes, costs less in the long run, and leaves no trash behind.

All you need is a durable plastic bag or a box for the soap and a bit of water. It’s good to let the soap dry once in a while so that it stays compact. Tie the (ideally quick-drying) cloth to the outside of your bag during the day to let it dry. Otherwise, pack it with with the soap and let them both dry when you reach your destination.

If you are traveling in dry areas, clean yourself strategically to avoid wasting precious water. Hands, arm pits and intimate parts first, then feet and face if you can afford the extra water. The rest can probably wait a bit.

A pH neutral soap and a cloth will do. As tempting as they are (they sure do a great job), intimate wet ones are not a lady traveler’s must. If you don’t have a pH neutral soap, wash around the intimate area with soap and rinse your cloth before cleaning sensitive areas with water only.

soap zero-waste travel hygiene water wipe
PH neutral soap alongside 7-year-old fast-drying cloth & a bucket of water. That simple.

Razors

Instead of carrying a bouquet of single-use razors, choose a durable razor body with replaceable blades. There is a wide diversity of options for both men and women. The simpler the blade, the less waste you’ll add to your footprint. And did you know that you can sharpen a disposable razor with a pair of jeans?

Men: Also consider a straight razor. Far from the evil blade pictured in movies, the old-fashioned razor is experiencing a comeback and might very well outlive you. Plus it’s kinda cool.

Alternatively, a visit to the barber shop is a fun way to get the job done. In many parts of the world, getting a shave is an important cultural ritual and costs next to nothing. Often, but not always, disposable blades are still used. Nevertheless, it’s already better than the single-use plastic ones and encourages the local economy.

shave sudan barber shop
Another brilliant zero-waste alternative! (Sven enjoying a long-overdue shave in Sudan)

Tampons And Sanitary Pads

We will soon cover this topic in details in an article about Travel Hygiene. Keep coming back for tricks to deal with menstruation without filling the dump! 

Cutting Down On Packaging

To be fair, it’s practically impossible to pack a cosmetic case without resorting to plastic nowadays. When zero-waste is not an option, the next best approach is a next-to-zero-waste one!

There are ways to keep waste to a minimum and it doesn’t require going back to the Middle Ages, or braking the bank. We suggest two practical ways to avoid unnecessary packaging. The most obvious one is to refill a durable container with products bought in bulk. We also invite you to consider replacing certain essentials with truly ingenious alternatives. Here is how:

Shampoo

It’s possible to keep a clean scalp without contributing dozens of plastic bottles to the dump annually, regardless of your usual routines. That being said, letting more time pass between shampoos is a good place to start.

Indeed, our body produces sebum to keep our scalp and hair well moisturized. When we wash our hair with shampoo, we take away that natural moisturizing. The body increases its production and the hair becomes greasy more quickly. Washing your hair less often will allow your body to regulate more naturally and using a bristle brush will help spread the sebum all the way to the tip of the hair.

Here are a few alternatives to reduce plastic bottles (click to read more) :

Using solid shampoo avoids unnecessary packaging and is a relatively easy way to reduce your plastic waste contribution. Solid shampoo, as a bonus, is convenient to carry: it is compact, lightweight and won’t spill all over your bag. You can keep your solid shampoo in the plane cabin. Moreover, depending on the recipe and size, a bar can last several weeks up to a couple of months. It’s a practical, responsible, lightweight, and cheaper solution to buying several bottles during your trip.

Solid shampoo bars are particularly easy to find in Europe and North America, but not exclusively. Handcrafted products are typically pricier, especially in Western countries, but discounters such as the German drug store giant Rossman offers friendly prices all over Europe  (3 to 6 euro a bar) in a simple carton box. Lush is a bit pricier, but comes without packaging if you bring your own box or bag.

Another option would be to make your own! There are hundreds of different recipes and tutorials available online. Explore what’s out there and be creative with what’s available in your region. Always keep your recipes in mind when you travel; you might be able to buy some of the ingredients from local producers and dealers at an interesting price.

Make sure to leave your solid shampoo to dry before packing it. It helps to leave it on a dry towel or an airy surface.

If solid shampoo can’t be found in the country you’re living in or traveling through, keep an open mind. Some local products could surprise you.

Bay leaf oil soap (100%) is one of them. It can be found nearly everywhere in the Middle-East and Mediterranean and works very well as a shampoo. It leaves your hair well hydrated, but not greasy the way olive oil soap does. If you buy it in a regular bazaar, it will only set you back a few cents in local currency.

It’s a wonderful compact 2-in-1 option for travelers, since it act as both a soap and a shampoo.

If the soap leaves some residue in your hair, try combining it with a bristle hair brush.

Refill a durable bottle where you can buy in bulk. Bulk cosmetics shops can be found in most big Western cities, but not exclusively. If you know you’ll be passing by a city, small or big, look it up online and plan your refills.

It is worth mentioning that bulk cosmetics can be found in places where you don’t expect it. We’ve come across liquid shampoo sold in bulk in the most surprising places, from small Canadian mining towns to Sudanese bazaars. Keep your eyes open and don’t throw away that very solid empty bottle just yet.

I you can’t refill your bottle, choose the biggest one possible instead. Big corporations adapted to developing countries by making cheap small formats, like the ubiquitous single portion shampoo strips across South Asia and Africa. Needless to say that a big bottle really makes a difference here.

If you are traveling with someone, offer to share the big bottle instead of carrying two small ones.

If you have a base to gravitate from, leave the bulky bottle there and refill a smaller, durable one for your travels.

Solid shampoo travel cosmetics
One solid shampoo bar lasts weeks (if not months) and fits inside your palm

Hair Conditioner

Intense sun, tight pony tails, sand storms, salty sea water, beanies of questionable cleanliness, name it! Your hair goes through a lot. Keeping your hair well moisturized is key during your travels and outdoor adventures.

By trading your hair conditioner for a bottle of moisturizing oil you can get healthier hair for 10 USD and one single plastic bottle a year. It is a very convenient alternatives for travelers, long and short-term. 

Many different oils can do the job. Pure argan oil is famous but pricey. If you are traveling through Morocco, it is worth looking for some there. Until then, a cheaper alternative would be a bottle of mixed oils. They are usually flower and plant-based. Make sure there are no added chemicals. Coconut butter or oil is another brilliant option and can be found in most supermarkets at a decent price.

Apply all over the hair once a week and keep overnight. A full day in addition to the night is even better. Since you won’t need to use it more than once a week, a medium size bottle (around 150 ml) can last you months (up to a year depending on your hair). How many plastic bottles will you spare? Many.

A bristle brush does magic. They are kind on the hair and help spread the natural sebum produced by the scalp all the way to the tip of the hair. It can act as an alternative to hair conditioner in itself or simply help keep the sebum in check between shampoos. 

Bristles also procure a neat head massage and help clear the scalp of dry skin and impurities. They are suited for both men and women and can also be used to tame the bushiest of beards. 

There are countless options to be found online for a few USD (between 3.50 to 100 USD!). For those who wish to avoid animal products, there are vegan alternatives too. Handles are typically made of wood, so the whole thing is both durable and biodegradable.

Lightweight travel hack: Why not opt for a beard brush instead? Smaller and without a handle, they are very convenient for traveling. It works for longer hair too, as long as they are not too thick. 

See section above about solid shampoo

Solid conditioner tend to become a bit more mushy than solid shampoo. Choose a sealed box over a plastic bag for transport.

cosmetics travel solid shampoo natural organ oil
Marie's hair products: solid shampoo (enough for 2 months) & a bottle of mixed natural oils (6 months+) / Total of 13.25 USD

Shower Gel & Soap

Soap is probably the only true travel cosmetics essential. Soap is not always available in public toilets around the world. Having your own will help you stay healthy. Soap is also preferred over alcohol-based disinfectants to clean superficial wounds and cuts.

Solid soap can usually be found in bulk. If not, it can be found in simple carton boxes. Looking for natural, hand made soaps at local markets is a great way to avoid packaging and to discover new fragrances. If you plan on camping and cleaning yourself in a lake or in a river, going for a biodegradable soap is ideal. In any case, leave the shower gel bottle behind, it’s heavy, bulky and pricier.

Deodorant

A crystal deodorant stone can last years! A palm-sized stone is enough for at least two years of daily use.  Its multi-functional virtues makes it an interesting choice for active people.

Yes, it’s a stone. It’s been on the market since the 80s and has recently known a boost in popularity. It’s nothing more than a block of mineral salt, usually potassium alum. It still contains aluminium, albeit under a different form than anti-perspirants. Instead of keeping you from sweating, it acts mainly as a deodorant by inhibiting bacterial growth. It takes a few days (up to a week) of daily use to reach maximum efficiency.

For those who suffer from smelly feet, you can use your crystal deodorant on your feet too. 

Upsides: compact, extremely durable, lightweight and cheaper than regular deodorant (in the long run). You can find your stone for a couple of dollars in North America, Europe and some Asian countries such as Thailand. They are also easy to buy online.

Downsides: it doesn’t work as well for all bodies. Crystal stones break if you drop them. And if you want to avoid aluminium under all forms you’ll have to look elsewhere.

natural deodorant crystal
Small crystal deodorant after 1 1/2 year of daily use & a natural deodorant (lasts about 2 months)

Hand Moisturizer

A bee wax balm doubles as a lip balm and helps treat burns and cuts. It does great with feet as well. It’s a truly ingenious all-in-one solution for travelers and outdoors enthusiasts.

This general formula has become very popular with outdoors people. Climbers might be particularly familiar with ClimbOn and its competitors, but there is an infinity of similar products that could easily replace your tube of hand cream. You could even experiment with making your own and offer your surplus as gifts.

Not only is it a great all-around hydration solution, a bar typically lasts much longer than a regular cream tube (6 months to over a year for a 1 oz / 28 g bar in our experience).

honey bulk market bazar
Why not use the wax to make your own balm?! | Local honey sold in bulk in a bazar near Antalya, Turkey

Natural alternatives
To Industrial Goods & Cosmetics

The goal is: if you loose your item somewhere while camping, it will simply decay. Same if it ends up in a landfill or worse, the ocean. It won’t create any long-term waste.

Often locally harvested or produced, natural products can be cheaper than their industrial counterparts in a lot of countries. It’s also an opportunity to try new exotic things!

The list of synthetic items you could replace by natural equivalent is long. Here are a few items that can be useful or found when traveling:

Sand Paper And Nail File

Some pocket knifes and multi-tools come with a quality nail file. Or the metal file might do an equally good job. And then there are pumice stones. A durable solution to files and sand paper, one stone can last you a life time and if you happen to loose it, it’s no big deal.  

Pumice is a highly vesicular volcanic glass, which means it’s pitted with many cavities. This creates a rough texture ideal to shave off dead skin and calluses. Each stone has unique patterns. Bigger holes do well for the feet and thick calluses. Smaller hole are preferable for the final touch and the hands (climbers and bikers, you surely know). What’s great with natural stone, as opposed to industrial ones, is the randomness of the cavities, offering a variety of uses.

Pumice stones are affordable and easy to find in pharmacies and cosmetics stores. You might also get lucky and find some yourself on the beach. Keep an eye out the next time you are in a volcanic area!

Clean your stone regularly to avoid the cavities filling up with dead skin. Soak in warm water with a touch of bleach. Rinse well before using again on your skin.

sand paper pumice stone natural cosmetics travel
A piece of sand paper after a few weeks of use next to a natural pumice stone found on a Turkish beach

Plastic Toothbrush 

It’s not exactly an ideal solution, especially if it has been shipped halfway around the globe, but a bamboo toothbrush is fully biodegradable.

Bath Sponge (Tule Pom-Pom And Co.)

Love those fluffy guys? How about changing for a natural luffa? Cleaning luffas are made of a dried vegetable. They are great to exfoliate the skin with soap. They dry quickly.

You can often buy a complete luffa in markets across the Middle-East for a few dollars, but luffas can be found nearly anywhere nowadays. Cut it in smaller pieces to use over the year or share with others. 

Make sure to keep you luffa clean to avoid bacterial growth. Submerge in 9 parts of water and one part of bleach. Soak for 10 minutes and leave to air dry.

Moisturizing Face Exfoliant

It’s ridiculously easy to make your own face care products without wasting your time or money. A natural face exfoliant can clean, scrub and hydrate your skin all at once.

Most recipes require 2 to 3 ingredients, all which you can find at your local food store/market. These recipes can be prepared in a remote camping site as much as in a hostel’s communal bathroom. No blender or special equipment needed.

Not having to carry fancy products means a smaller, lighter cosmetic case at a cheaper price. You can prepare your exfoliant fresh when you need it and you won’t leave any plastic trash behind.

Exfoliate after washing your skin. Rinse with water. Recipes with oil will have a moisturizing effect, so no need for moisturizing cream after. It works for the rest of the body as well. You’ll simply need to prepare a bit more.

sugar natural exfoliant
A simple tweak to the basic water & sugar recipe: coconut flower sugar
natural homemade cosmetics travel coffee exfoliant
Morning coffee put to good use

Here are a few variants of the basic sugar-based exfoliant. Mix with your fingers and feel free to experiment!

Purely simple!

  • 1 tsp cane sugar (or granulated sugar)
  • 2 – 3 drops of water
  • 1 – 2 drops essential oil of your choice or any moisturizing oil (optional)
  • 1 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tbsp (organic) honey (optional)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tbsp (organic) honey (optional)

Put your morning’s coffee grind to good use!

  • 1 1/2 tsp coffee grind
  • 1/3 tsp olive oil, Shea butter, coconut oil (or any other natural moisturizer)
  • 1 tsp honey

Buying Local

ash bazar bishkek market
Entry of the Osh Bazar in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Another simple way to minimize our environmental footprint when buying cosmetics is to buy locally as much as possible. 

Local, non-organic alternatives might not come with the same hype, but at least they’ll have traveled less and that’s something to consider.  Instead of searching for your favorite American or European organic products in fancier shops, look for something manufactured locally.

By thinking “local”, you might also come across natural alternatives to what you wouldn’t normally usually use. Ask around and keep an open mind. 

Final Word:
All Good Things Align

Rethinking travel cosmetics does not mean that you should treat your body with less care than you would in other circumstances. It’s the opposite! We can achieve ecological goals AND make our own life easier with affordable and highly functional travel solutions.

With a bar of solid shampoo, a bottle of moisturizing oil and a bee wax moisturizing bar, you have many of the basics covered in the palm of your hands. It’s lightweight, cheaper and significantly less wasteful. Combine this with sustainable alternatives to single-use items and you can travel for months without having to buy new cosmetics or leaving trash behind. With new skills and a lighter bag, there will be no stopping you!

Being brutally honest with ourselves is key to developing consistent habits, but it’s a rough path at times. By operating radical changes in your life, even one as simple as giving up paper tissues, you will inevitably raise a few eyebrows. If that’s any comfort, positive change usually comes at that price.

We’re here to support and inspire you in your efforts and we hope this toolbox was helpful. Feel free to contribute more ideas by sending us feedback!