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 hygiene 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 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 is low waste personal hygiene?
- Options for zero waste soap
- Options for zero waste toothbrushes
- Options for zero waste toothpaste
- Options for zero waste hair shampoo
- Options for zero waste hair conditioner
What is low waste personal hygiene?
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). When I reviewed my plastic recycling, and really thought about what I use in my home, I realised how much of it came from my bathroom.
At the same time, zero waste toiletries were all the rage. Not only were they obvious things to render low waste, but the plastic free options were frequently solid versions of normally liquid products. This made them attractive to travellers who want to avoid checking in luggage on flights. That helped popularise them in an age of frequent travel.
So personal hygiene was among the first areas where I tried going zero waste. In this article, I’ll focus on just five fairly basic hygiene products. These are items that everybody uses for personal hygiene, except hair conditioner. I added hair conditioner to this article, just because it is also a very frequently used product. While it’s technically more a personal care product rather than personal hygiene, it seems to make more sense to list it together with shampoo.
Options for zero waste soap
Even if you don’t work in WASH-related fields, the Covid19 pandemic reminded everyone of the essential value of soap. It is the most basic invention in human personal hygiene.
This swap was an easy one for me. I grew up during a time when solid bar soap was the only kind of bath soap. At that time, nobody was squeamish about sharing soap. Yet somehow, today liquid soap has become so ubiquitous that they’re more commonly found in stores compared to bar soap.
1. Bar soap
The most obvious zero waste option for soap, is to simply go back to bar soap. The cheapest bar soap options are not fully zero waste, but it’s a lot less than the plastic containers for liquid soap. This option even saves you money, compared to liquid soap. You can get soap at RM1-2 a piece, or less. One or two would last you as long as a jumbo bottle of liquid soap at 10x the price. In my opinion, if you want to save money, it makes no sense to use body wash instead of bar soap.
It’s also easy now to go completely zero waste, and buy soap with no packaging at all. In Kuala Lumpur, there’s likely a zero waste shop reasonably nearby. You can use the Zero Waste app to find one, and get ‘naked’ soap from there. These are usually also artisanal soaps, so they cost more than the basic bar soap. They might even cost more than the cheaper bottles of liquid soap. However, they’re also much nicer soap and you might find, like me, that it’s worth it.
2. Liquid soap refills
There may be reasons why you can’t go back to bar soap. Maybe you married someone who was raised to prefer liquid soap. Maybe you have a special needs child who has trouble with bar soap. Or maybe, like me, you want some available for guests who will judge you if you make them use bar soap.
Well, nowadays, there’s also the option to refill liquid soap. And I don’t mean buying the refill option in plastic pouches that some brands offer. Sure, the pouches use less plastic than a new bottle (and I used to buy them for this reason). But on the other hand, the bottles are usually more recyclable than the pouches.
I mean, going to a zero waste or refill store to refill your empty bottle. So what I do, is I have one larger bottle which I use to refill liquid soap for guests. When I run out, I get the larger bottle refilled. This way, I won’t be out of liquid soap at home before my next trip to the zero waste store. This option is a bit more expensive than the supermarket liquid soap. Hopefully, one day supermarkets themselves will have a refill station. But for that to be successful, UK experience suggests shoppers themselves need to get used to refill shopping habits first.
The varieties available are currently relatively limited, since the market is small. At The Hive Bulk Foods store, there’s usually a cheaper unscented option, and a slightly pricier scented option. As it’s primarily for guests, usually I pick the nicer option. This costs RM18 for 100ml. At Kita Refill, you can get a refill at <RM10 per kg.
Options for zero waste toothbrushes
Arguably, the next most important invention of personal hygiene is the toothbrush. But it never occurred to me that there would be a low waste option for toothbrushes. Even today, the alternatives to conventional plastic toothbrushes aren’t strictly zero waste, only eliminating or greatly reducing unrecyclable plastic. However, they’re still greater attempts than I thought possible.
1. Bamboo toothbrushes
When I saw the invention of the bamboo toothbrush, which replaces the non-circular plastic with fast-growing, compostable bamboo, I gave it a try. At that time, they weren’t available in Malaysia, and I had to import it from Germany. Needless to say, they were way more expensive than your standard plastic toothbrush, and I had to buy in bulk to make the cost more reasonable.
However, by the time I needed another batch, I was already able to find it locally at The Olive Tree and The Hive Bulk Foods. It is still more expensive than regular plastic toothbrushes. However, it was less expensive than my pioneering attempt. I could buy small quantities for a reasonable price. By now, you can even buy bamboo toothbrushes at the online mall Shopee, so it has begun to go mainstream. Depending on deals, you could get one for RM1 online, when it used to cost RM10.
Bamboo toothbrushes are basically the same as plastic ones. The well-made ones last quite some time, beyond 4 months before they fray. Cheaper ones last about as long as a regular toothbrush. I review the pros and cons in more detail in this article, along with travel considerations.
Depending on the model, I’ve found that some bamboo toothbrushes have a tendency to get mouldy at the handle. Maybe those ones aren’t treated to discourage mould.
2. Metal toothbrushes with replaceable heads
I came across this interesting option around the time bamboo toothbrushes became mainstream. As I mentioned, while more circular, bamboo toothbrushes are still disposable. But the handle doesn’t have to be disposable.
This invention is a toothbrush with a handle that is meant to be durable, fitted with a bamboo head since this is the part that needs to be replaced regularly. Since the handle is meant to be long-lasting, it could be made to be beautiful, like this example from Flossable. It’s obviously more expensive than bamboo, but not by too much, considering you’re switching from a disposable item to a beautiful ‘keeper’ item.
My only concern with it is that it’s not a standard thing (yet). You’d always need to buy the replacement head from the same brand so that the thread will match. But what if you can’t get it?
Options for zero waste toothpaste
Though toothbrushes are an essential personal hygiene tool, you hardly use them without toothpaste. If I didn’t think there would be zero waste options for toothbrushes, zero waste toothpaste was even more outside my imagination. But then, Lindsay McCormick thought of toothpaste tablets. So I began looking out for it in Malaysia, confident that Asian entrepreneurship would eventually bring it to market. (It did, but it took a while.)
1. Solid toothpaste / tooth tablets
The first toothpaste tablets that I found in Malaysia was at Lush. However, they’re not exactly zero waste. They come in plastic bottles, which you can return for recycling, but not for refills. This is a shame, because I found that the texture of Lush’s tablets are the most similar to toothpaste, after you chew them. A second, slightly cheaper option, soon became available at The Hive Bulk Foods at 60 sen per gram. I personally don’t prefer it, but I can tolerate it in exchange for being zero waste.
I review the pros and cons of tooth tablets in more detail in this article, along with travel considerations. Compared to regular toothpaste, both the current tooth tablet options are much more expensive. Lush sells theirs at RM55 per 50g, and Chew N’ Brush at The Hive is RM29 for 85g. This is about 10x the price of regular toothpaste. So if your budget is tight, this should probably be a swap you make much later in your zero waste journey. However, toothpaste tablets have begun to appear on Shopee, so hopefully we get more and affordable options soon.
A side note for people who don’t like toothpaste to begin with, like my friend Mun. She didn’t like both tablet options. She doesn’t like the taste of toothpaste, so having to chew the tablets made her taste it more, and so it’s worse. This never occurred to me, but if you’re like her, you might want to know.
2. Tooth powder
I tried tooth powder for a little while, before I found tooth tablets in Malaysia. It comes in a glass jar, which you can return to The Hive for re-use.
Personally, I found it too abrasive and didn’t like it. Maybe I did it wrong, or used too much. It also doesn’t foam, which is something I got used to with toothpaste. As it was also pricey, at RM19 for a 33g jar, I switched back to regular toothpaste until toothpaste tablets arrived.
That said, the fact that it didn’t taste much like toothpaste might make it more palatable to my friend Mun. She’d probably use very small amounts, and might not experience the abrasion discomfort I did.
Options for zero waste hair shampoo
I think the next basic thing that everybody does for personal hygiene, is to wash our hair. I’ve never known anything but liquid shampoo, though I have heard of dry shampoo. So when I heard of solid shampoo bars, I was intrigued. After all, why couldn’t hair be soaped just like the body? It seems like it would be a simple matter to lather up hair soap and have it do the same job as regular shampoo.
1. Shampoo bar
Shampoo bars are fairly affordable these days, although I’m sure there are probably quality differences, just as with liquid shampoo. At The Hive Bulk Food store, they cost around RM20 for a bar, though on Shopee you can find them priced less than RM5, depending on deals. So, depending on the quality you buy, and the quality of regular shampoo you’re buying now, this swap might cost you more, or might save you money.
At home, I found shampoo bars from The Hive relatively easy to use. It does take a bit of getting used to, and it takes more time than liquid shampoo, which lathers much more quickly. This wasn’t too big of a deal at home, but more troublesome when you’re backpacking in hostels. A main annoyance in both cases is when the bar is quite well used, as it can become harder to get a good lather then. More on the pros and cons of solid shampoo in more detail in this article, along with travel considerations.
2. Liquid shampoo refills
I personally have switched away from shampoo bars, and now refill my liquid shampoo. One reason is that shampoo bars are a pain to use in cramped showers when I’m travelling. Another reason is that it doesn’t rinse off as well as liquid shampoo. And I’m pretty impatient. So, over time it caused me to have more dandruff.
Maybe there are other shampoo bars that might not give me as much dandruff issues. But seeing as I had to go back to liquid shampoo for travel anyway, I decided to switch back at home as well. Fortunately, The Olive Tree has some nice shampoo which can be refilled at some of their outlets, or at The Hive Bulk Food store for RM18 per 100ml. This is in line with similar mid-range shampoos, i.e. more expensive than regular supermarket shampoo, but cheaper than the likes of Kerastase.
Options for zero waste hair conditioner
For a significant portion of my growing up years, I mostly went without hair conditioner (unless you count 2-in-1 formulations). I wouldn’t say that hair conditioner is part of personal hygiene. Rather, it’s really a part of personal care and grooming. That said, it comes hand in hand with hair shampoo. Separating it into a different article on zero waste personal care seems needlessly pedantic. So I’ll cover it in this one.
1. Conditioner bar
At the time when I was trying a conditioner bar, there were very few options for this. I gave the solid conditioner from The Olive Tree a go.
Unlike the shampoo bar, using a conditioner bar is substantially different from regular conditioner. You had to sort of warm it in your hand, and massage it into your hair. Even in hot Malaysia, I found this doesn’t work out quite so well. And in the end, I wasn’t even sure whether it was worth it, or if my hair was better off without any conditioner at all.
The Olive Tree does not have this product in stock anymore. However, if you want to give it a go yourself, you can find conditioner bars at zero waste stores, and nowadays even on Shopee. They generally cost above RM20 per bar, though you might be able to find discount sales.
2. Liquid conditioner refills
For the above reasons, I have switched back to liquid (paste?) conditioner. It was not a difficult decision because I can also refill The Olive Tree conditioner at The Hive, so I’m still zero waste. The refills are RM18 per 100ml, which is in line with mid-range conditioners.
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