This article is part of a Teja on the Horizon Circular Living series, which is about my experience transitioning to a more circular, low-waste life. This article describes my experience with the available options for zero waste personal grooming solutions, what I ended up choosing, and why.

For why a zero waste & circular lifestyle is important, watch the video below.

Where relevant, I include feedback from my friends, to give a sense for alternative choices people might make, and why. Obviously, people are different and live different lives. I think zero waste solutions advice need to consider this range, rather than assuming everybody should live the same way in order to become sustainable.

On the other hand, having the ability to go against the current linear mass consumerism and experiment with changes, does require a minimum quality of life. When you’re living in poverty, you have to take the options you can afford. So, the articles in this series will likely be more relevant to middle class people and above.

Additionally, I am based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Consequently, the options financial comparisons provided in these articles will reflect value calculations that are true for Kuala Lumpur; a different result may be true for your location. I welcome comments that describe how the choices would be different at your location.

What are low waste personal grooming products?

I seriously embarked on my journey to eliminate plastic waste from my household after doing the Plastic Free July challenge (although I did it in April). But that month, my bulk purchase of personal care items arrived (ordered the previous month). They were all in plastic containers. And that’s when I began looking up zero waste options for personal grooming products.

What do I mean by personal grooming products? In this article, I will review items which are not essential to maintain basic cleanliness (this would be zero waste personal hygiene), but are generally considered basic grooming. In the future, I might write a separate article for zero waste beauty products, which I consider to be a separate category as well.

Options for zero waste deodorant

Even after identifying deodorant roll-on bottles as a source of plastic waste in my trash, it took me a very long time to try out alternatives. I had anxiety over whether the zero waste alternative would be any good. It took me a while to get over the prospect of being stinky in public. Eventually, I figured that surely so many people who have switched over couldn’t have done it if these options didn’t work at all. (My review of solid deodorant specifically for travel is in an earlier Travel Sustainably article).

1. Solid deodorant

Like most alternatives to zero waste personal hygiene products, the most common zero waste deodorant is solid deodorant. The solid form made it possible to avoid the deodorant plastic bottle. Most types are a kind of firm paste that you scrape off with a finger, and then apply on your armpits.

I was lucky in that the first low waste deodorant I tried suited me so well. I liked the texture, and the effect lasted the whole day just like conventional deodorant. The only thing is that zero waste deodorants usually aren’t also anti-perspirants, so it doesn’t do anything about reducing perspiration. However, I found that I could accept this.

In terms of packaging, solid deodorant typically comes either in metal tins that you can clean and return to the store, or cardboard containers that are compostable. Usually, I prefer the first one I tried (Serasi), just for the texture. But if it’s not available at the zero waste store, I’d usually get the third kind, which is a naked ‘macaron‘ of solid deodorant that doesn’t come in any packaging at all.

Solid deodorant is, however, more expensive than conventional deodorant. From my experience, one tin or macaron of solid deodorant lasts about the same amount of time as a typical tube of roll-on deodorant. However, they are about 4-10x more expensive. The macaron type is RM10, whereas the ones in low waste packaging are between RM26-36.

2. Mineral deodorant

The other type of zero waste deodorant that I found, is the mineral crystal type. This is a block of mineral salt, which you’re supposed to wet with water and then apply to the underarms. I have to admit that I never tried crystal deodorant, and the only reason is that I could not figure out how this makes sense. It just doesn’t feel like doing anything. However, it is zero waste, if it works, since you just buy the block without any packaging. And it is a much more minimalist option than the solid paste option. So, this idea might appeal to some people.

A block of mineral salt deodorant is RM22, which also seems more expensive than conventional deodorant. But I think it lasts longer than a typical deodorant roll-on tube. So actually, it may only be twice as expensive or possibly at parity.

3. Refillable liquid deodorant

There’s also now a refillable deodorant option at The Hive. This is, as you might imagine, a tube of roll-on deodorant like the conventional kind, except that you can refill it when you run out. I guess this would suit people who want to avoid plastic waste, but really like the liquid roll-on application.

Similar to solid deodorant, refillable deodorant is also about 10x more expensive than conventional deodorant. Overall, switching to low or zero waste deodorant is not one of the earlier swaps I recommend if your budget is tight. However, on the other hand, it is actually an easy and fairly comfortable swap if you can afford it.

Options for zero waste moisturiser

If your skin tends to get dry, moisturiser is probably among your key personal grooming products. Here I’m not talking about facial moisturiser, which is its whole different thing. But body moisturiser, which is more generic. I’m not particularly diligent about moisturising, but I did make the zero waste switch for when I do remember. This switch also took a while because for some reason, I keep getting free lotion.

Anyway, for something so basic, it can be a lot cheaper to go zero waste for moisturising. If your budget is tight, and you use some kind of body lotion or body butter, make this among your earlier zero waste swaps.

1. Body oils

I have tried moisturising oils once or twice previously. While I found them ok, I didn’t find them so much better that I’d switch from lotions and creams since both options involve plastic packaging. It wasn’t until I was in Tahiti, where tiare-scented oil is the most common body moisturiser, that it occurred to me moisturising oil didn’t have to come in plastic packaging. It literally is just oil.

Zero waste moisturising oil is as simple as getting a refill of the oil of your choice at your preferred zero waste store. Lighter oils absorb more readily, but otherwise which oil you choose is a matter of personal preference. Personally, I’ve found olive oil, grapeseed, and avocado perfectly suitable, with virgin coconut oil also ok if a bit on the heavy side.

I also like that it simplifies what I buy. Some of these oils can also be cooking oils. Plus, I no longer think about having different moisturisers for body and hand and feet, so it’s a lot less clutter. Sometimes I mix in a few drops of perfumed oils, though this is best with an oil that doesn’t have a strong scent of its own.

It’s hard to tell whether this is a cheaper option than the cheapest lotions, because lotion prices vary a lot. But it’s definitely cheaper than “good” lotions and luxury brand lotions. For reference, a litre of grapeseed oil is RM45.

In terms of quality, I think just plain oil is actually better than cheap lotion. Surprisingly, it’s also better than some luxury brand ones. I mean, I have received luxury brand lotion in airline business class and as gifts (I won’t say which brands), yet as a moisturiser they weren’t good.

Photo by Chelsea shapouri on Unsplash

2. Body butter

However, I know that not everyone can accept the texture of oil as a moisturiser. If you’re currently using body butters, you’re in luck. It is now possible to buy plain body butters such as cocoa or shea butter without packaging. As with moisturising oils, you can mix in essential oils or fragrance into the body butter to DIY your own moisturiser blend.

Body butters are RM15 per 100g at The Hive Eco Store, and it’s possible to find better deals at online shopping platforms such as Shopee. This is comparable to conventional lotions (e.g. Yves Rocher) and much cheaper than conventional body butters (about 4-5x the price).

3. Lotion bar

The third zero waste option for body moisturiser is solid lotion, or a lotion bar. The idea is you’d scrape a bit of it with your finger and your body heat melts it enough to spread over your skin. I haven’t gone for this option, though an obvious plus point is that it can go in your airline carry on.

Lotion bars are also possibly the cheapest body moisturiser option. It’s just RM20 at Serasi, and you can get them as low as RM5 on Shopee.

Options for zero waste perfume

Perfume is arguably not essential grooming (though Arabs may vehemently disagree with me on this). Nor is it something we tend to buy frequently, so the amount of waste it generates isn’t as high, relatively speaking. Also, they tend to come in glass bottles, which doesn’t introduce as much of a problem to ecosystems. So, it didn’t occur to me to look for zero waste perfume, until I saw solid perfume.

1. Solid perfume / cologne

The main idea of the solid perfume that I saw, is basically the same as solid deodorant. The perfume still comes in a non-plastic packaging, but it is meant to be returned for re-use, or recycled. The first option I found in Malaysia was from Lush, which comes in tiny 6g jars for RM50. I was sceptical about the value for money. But you know what, you need so little of it to get a good fragrance that even the tiny 6g jar easily lasts several months.

Nowadays, you can get solid perfume on Shopee as well. Some options are less than RM2 for 10g, though I’m not sure about the quality. However, solid cologne generally seems to cost at least 10x more. But even then, it’s still comparable to conventional cologne, if not cheaper.

But the big question is, is switching to solid perfume vs liquid a net benefit zero waste swap? Unlike deodorant and sunscreen options, I couldn’t find a return & reuse option for the packaging, not even at “progressive” Lush. Aside from qualifying for cabin luggage, the best thing I can say for solid perfume from a zero waste perspective is that at least the packaging is more recyclable. They are typically entirely metal, or separate glass jar and metal lid, vs conventional mixed-material perfume bottles that are basically not recyclable. Which, considering that it can be a lot kinder on your budget than regular perfume, might be a good enough reason to switch.

Photo by Lance Reis on Unsplash

2. Perfume refills

But what if perfume for you is about indulgence, and you’re not interested in cheap options with ingredients vaguely described as ‘fragrance’? Perhaps you would only buy nature-derived perfumes from artisanal perfumers like Malaya Perfumery and nōbəl sociəty. In the category of fine natural fragrances, does a zero waste option exist?

The good news is that it is, in fact, possible to have perfume refills. The bad news is that I’ve only found one option, and it’s only in the immediate KLCC area of Kuala Lumpur. Le Labo has an in-store refill program for their eau de parfum, but you need to buy at least the 50ml bottle. There’s only one Le Labo store at the moment, and it’s in Suria KLCC. Although, I recently spotted a new location opening soon in Pavilion Bukit Bintang.

As for the price, let’s just say that this is definitely not the earlier zero waste swaps you should make if you have any thoughts about your budget whatsoever. But hey, maybe I’ll splurge on it. Or drop numerous hints on what would be a suitable birthday gift!

Options for zero waste sunscreen

Zero waste sunscreens generally come in glass or metal containers, which you then clean and return to the zero waste store for re-use. The texture is more solid, like zero waste deodorant. I’ve also tried one that comes in a compostable packaging with a lipstick-like application.

Personally, so far I think the ones in actual containers tend to have better texture and absorption. However, they’re not better than industrially blended sunscreen, especially for the face. I’ve switched to zero waste sunscreen for body application, which is tolerable because I don’t need much. My step one in sun protection is to reduce skin exposure in the first place, e.g. swimming in a rash guard and leggings. But I still use conventional cosmetic sunscreen for my face.

One caveat with zero waste sunscreen is that they’re normally artisanal. So there’s typically no SPF rating verification. I have natural melanin in my favour, so I have found them acceptable. Most days, I don’t even use it (and get vitamin D). I just use it when I will be under the sun for prolonged periods, to reduce likelihood of burning. However, if you are at greater risk for skin cancer, you might prefer the peace of mind of conventional sunscreen.

Price range for zero waste sunscreen is a bit more expensive than reef safe conventional sunscreen. However, they’re comparable to – or possibly cheaper than – facial sunscreens. Serasi sells a 20g jar for RM30. Another consideration is that zero waste sunscreen isn’t sold in large volumes. So if you need to bring a family sized amount on a trip, it’s not as practical.

Zero waste sunscreens also usually use zinc oxide as the UV blocker. So they would also qualify as reef safe.

Mineraw reef safe sunscreen

Options for zero waste shaving razor

Finally, there is the shaving razor, a pretty mainstream grooming item for both women and men. Before I got serious about going zero waste, my best accomplishment was buying the Gilette Venus razor which came with a replaceable head. But when my stash of replacement heads ran out, I was faced with a choice. Should I buy another batch of replacement heads, or try out the old school metal razor with actual razor blades?

I had never in my life used the traditional razor. Honestly, it looked a bit scary, and I worried I would nick myself. Besides, the butterfly safety razor was RM50 at The Hive – what if I didn’t like it? But I took the leap anyway, and just like the deodorant, I wish I wasn’t such a crybaby sooner. It was no different from the plastic 5-bladed deluxe smooth lubricating [marketing] [marketing] razor I was using previously. And a single packet of razor blades was just RM4 and it might just possibly last me a decade.

I can’t speak for men, on whether the shaving razor switch would feel the same. But as a woman, this is such a no-brainer. Even considering the best deals on replacement heads for the conventional safety razor, you’ll basically make the investment back almost immediately. Even if you go for the cheap crappy disposable razors, which is incredibly wasteful, you’d still be spending less after about 15 of those things and still wouldn’t be halfway through your stash of razor blades.

Photo by Nacho Fernández on Unsplash

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