Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” hand lotion, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
Hand lotion – the humble savior of dry hands. Many can’t live without it – global hand lotion sales reached $4.81 billion in 2020 and are expected to almost double by 2025. Before reaching for your next source of dry skin relief, consider the materials your hand lotion is made of and the packaging it comes in.
What to Be Wise On:
The Mayo Clinic recommends using hand lotion throughout the day to treat dry skin, especially after you’ve washed your hands. Since we know Americans are washing their hands at least 5 times per day, that’s a lot of hand lotion being used! To keep your hands feeling silky smooth, you’ll want to pay attention to the lotion’s moisturizing ingredients, but you should also be aware of their environmental impacts… not to mention that the packaging can have some of the most significant impacts on the environmental footprint of your hand lotion.
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The Factors To Consider:
For most, using hand lotion is about moisturizing, which is why emollients and occlusives are common types of ingredients with distinctive benefits found in hand lotions. Don’t fret about those seriously scientific names, we’re breaking them down for you. The most important thing to remember? Not all hand lotions have each of these ingredient types and not all of them are major points of concern, but here’s what to keep an eye on.
Emollients, such as shea butter and palm oil, add oil to help soften, smooth, and repair the skin barrier. Shea butter, an emollient that comes from nuts on shea trees, has been used for millennia in African countries as a personal care product and has only recently (in the past 60 years), through colonialism and exploitation, gained popularity outside the continent. Shea doesn’t have the same negative environmental impacts from fertilizer use and land use as alternative vegetable oils (cough, cough, palm oil) do. Even though palm oil does a great job of conditioning skin, palm oil is responsible for mass deforestation, displacing Indigenous peoples, and exploiting child labor.
Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows when it comes to shea. In West Africa, it’s known as “women’s gold” because it provides employment to millions of women across Africa. Exports from Ghana alone are valued at $66 million, so opting for shea butter lotions has the potential to support this trade if produced with these women in mind. The reality is that many women in the shea trade are exploited and abused by unfair labor practices. Look for the UN-recommended Fairtrade International, World Fair Trade Organization, Faire Trade USA, and Fair Trade Federation certifications that are working to ensure fair labor standards.
In comparison to palm oil, however, shea is expensive due to its small production scale. If this alternative to palm oil reached a scalable capacity, then it would likely come with the same negative environmental and social impacts. A bummer, we know. With current agricultural systems, shea works as an alternative on smaller, more niche scales. While we know that some palm oil producers are taking responsibility and limiting ecosystem disruption in the production process, we still think you’re better off opting for shea butter than palm oil as an emollient ingredient.
Occlusives, like petrolatum, help seal moisture into skin. One of the most known petrolatum products is Vaseline, which is made of 100% petroleum jelly. Petrolatum is cheap, abundant, and safe for human use, but it’s derived from crude oil. And while petroleum jelly is such a small byproduct of the crude oil industry, it’s still contributing to the use of fossil fuels. If you’re looking to cut ties with fossil fuels, consider other occlusives, like beeswax.
Let’s get down to bee-siness. When beekeepers discard honeycombs every couple of years, as is good practice, the discarded combs get melted into beeswax. Beeswax is renewable, but only as fast as bees can work to create more. And this is where problems can occur… To meet production needs, commercial hives have cropped up, which can directly harm wild honeybees, which are critical pollinators that , which keep plants healthy and promote biodiversity, which we all need to survive. Moral of the story? We all want to keep bees happy, but commercial bees are introducing parasites and diseases to their wild counterparts, which are significantly decreasing wild bee populations.
Aside from what hand lotion is made of, we should also consider its packaging. Hand lotions come in all shapes and sizes and, as a result, all types of materials to package them.
Whether it be a tin or a tube, aluminum is commonly used for hand lotion packaging. One of the main reasons is because aluminum is a highly recyclable material and 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. Before you go celebrate too much, know that not everyone recycles aluminum tubes properly – many recycling facilities won’t take them if the plastic cap is still attached. Luckily, L'Occitane has a recycling program through Terracycle to collect aluminum hand lotion tubes (plastic caps attached or not). But before we get much further, know that aluminum has its drawbacks from an environmental and social perspective.
Firstly, aluminum is derived from bauxite, which has been linked to human rights issues in Guinea because of mining practices that have taken ancestral farmlands from local communities without providing sufficient compensation. Plus, bauxite mining can reduce access to clean water sources and the dust produced by mining can pollute air conditions in the surrounding area. Aside from these social implications, the smelting process used to produce aluminum is extremely energy-intensive and can actually produce up to twice the amount of greenhouse gassesgases as the production of plastic.
Before you go swearing off aluminum, know that recycling can save 95% of the energy used to produce new aluminum packaging because the energy-intensive smelting process is removed from the equation. The best way to reduce aluminum-related emissions from your hand lotion purchase is to prioritize brands that use recycled aluminum in their packaging.
Polypropylene (PP) is a common material for hand lotion packaging due to its semi-rigid nature and resistance to chemical erosion. As we’re all too familiar with, plastic is a controversial material because it’s made from oils obtained through invasive extraction like fracking. Fracking and drilling can reduce air quality and disrupt natural wildlife habitats, which can lead to respiratory illnesses and biodiversity loss if not managed. While we know that plastic can reduce fewer emissions than aluminum during some parts of their respective production processes, plastic is not as recyclable as aluminum. PP is one of the more widely accepted forms of plastic for curbside pick-up, but studies show that just 3% of it actually gets recycled. That’s pretty low considering the average recycling rate for plastic is 9%. Again, Terracycle is helping to recover some of those losses through recycling programs with brands such as eos and Weleda.
A Few Key Takeaways:
Most hand lotions available today still come in some form of packaging. However, there are alternatives that have formulated package-free solutions, where the lotion comes in a bar that you can store in one reusable package to significantly cut back on environmental impacts. Also pay attention to the ingredients used - an LCA found that raw material extraction and processing off palm oil accounts for the highest amount of energy-related emissions.
Common Questions We Get
“What is the safest hand lotion?”
Safety can mean a lot of things when it comes to hand lotions. Is it our own safety? The safety of our environment? The safety of communities that live near or work for industries that produce ingredients that go into our hand lotion? From an ingredient standpoint, palm oil doesn’t show Indigenous community safety or rainforest resiliency much respect. The production of petroleum jelly produces greenhouse gasses, that are not very safe for the health of our planet. The point is, we don’t advise opting for a product just because it claims to be “safer” or more “natural” than others. Avoid these generic claims and refer to our Factors to Consider to feel confident making a more educated purchase.