Makeup Wipes, I Love You, But You're Bad for the World (And My Face)

Alaina Demopoulos
·9-min read
Adam Radosavljevic / EyeEm/Getty
Adam Radosavljevic / EyeEm/Getty

I have been using makeup wipes for more than 10 years, ever since I saw a pack recommended by the Olsen twins or Leighton Meester in a copy of Lucky or Seventeen I picked up from my dentist’s office or friend’s locker. I can’t remember the specifics, but somewhere along the way those disposable removers and I entered into a committed relationship, maybe the longest one I’ve ever have. The photos of friends or boys that I keep on my nightstand may change, but the toilettes hold a permanent spot.

I probably buy two packs a month, which cost around $8 each. They’re not as necessary as tampons or trash bags, but it’s a purchase I’d prioritize over, say, floss. If I ever needed to tighten my budget, makeup wipes would be one of the last things I’d want to give up—you’d have to pry them out of my warm, lotioned hands.

But here’s the thing: makeup wipes can be pretty awful for the environment. Chalk it up to the evils of single-use items; Real Simple reported that 20 million pounds of single-use wipes are thrown out every day. And even if the plush white toilettes feel cotton-y on my face, some are made of plastics like polyester and polypropylene.

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“Makeup wipes are often made with synthetic fibers that prevent them from being recyclable or compostable,” Beth Porter, climate campaigns director at the environmental nonprofit Green America, told me. “That can cause issues, no matter how you dispose of them.”

Flushing wipes down the toilet (I would never) particularly irritates activists as this could contribute to producing “fatbergs,” congealed pile-ups of waste plaguing city sewer systems.

“If you’re not flushing wipes, that’s great, but the other option is to toss it into a trash can,” Porter added. “That then largely goes into landfills. The problem with landfills is that they’re designed to prevent things from breaking down. Even a wipe that’s marketed as biodegradable, there’s no timeline attached to that claim. In a landfill that’s designed to keep air out, that biodegradability could go up to years and decades.”

Last month, Hoda Kotb shared one product she can't “live without” on the Today show: RMS Beauty Ultimate Makeup Remover Wipe. Former makeup artist Rose-Marie Swift founded the brand in 2009, after dealing with years of health problems caused by constant interaction with chemicals in makeup.

She declined to speak with The Daily Beast about what makes the individually wrapped toilettes compostable. Sephora lists the option as “clean,” meaning it is made without sulfates, parabens, phthalates, and other sketchy ingredients.

Simple, a skincare line owned by the cosmetics giant Unilever, sells a $6 compostable option. The pack is green and printed with trees that scream “safe!” Unilever has pledged to slash its environmental footprint in half by 2030, hence its production of a wood and plant-based toilette. The brand says it will break down after 42 days in compost.

I tend to favor those because it makes me feel Good About Myself. Confession time: I still throw these in my bathroom’s trash can, not a compost system. If the onus is on me to find a different waste management system, I’ve failed, and chances are my toilettes end up sitting in a dump.

According to Rhodes Yepsen of the Biodegradable Products Institute, several states including California, Maryland, and Washington have prohibited use of the term “biodegradable,” because “it’s misleading and it’s not qualified about where something will biodegrade and how long it will take.” The term “compostable” is permitted, as long as the product meets standards set up by the American Society for Testing and Materials.

“Attributes like biodegradability or compostability are more complex, as it depends on where the item is customarily disposed of,” Yepsen added. “If the wipe is going to the landfill, has it been tested and shown it will biodegrade in those conditions? Is it beneficial for things to biodegrade in a landfill, where they likely generate methane?”

If I really did not want to give up my wipes, Yepsen said I could “feel good” about choosing ones made from cellulose such as rayon, which comes from wood, rather than a plastic.

But after speaking with other experts, I found that if I lacked the moral compass to give up wipes for the Earth’s sake, I could do it for something much more important: my face.

“When someone comes in with a facial complaint, I ask them to bring in the products they’re currently using,” said Miami-based dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo. “Almost always, I have the people decrease the number of products they’re using. Usually, I’m sorry to say, one of the first things I have them stop is the makeup wipe.”

Suffering from a rough red face? Dr. Ciraldo says your makeup toilettes might be to blame. “Those can add irritation, whether it’s through the physical rubbing or from some of the ingredients in the wipes. Look at the ingredient decks. Most of them are not something you want to put on your skin.”

The Environmental Working Group charts the safety of various personal care products through a database called Skin Deep; it’s recommended reading for anyone who wants to enter a shame spiral regarding what they put on their face. You can see various makeup removers listed from “worst” to “best.” The highest-offender is a cleaning towelette linked to endocrine disruption, contamination concerns, and general irritation.

“We have to be very realistic,” said Nneka Leiba, the EWG’s VP of Healthy Living Science. “We don’t think it’s our position to definitely say avoid something completely, just to make a decision based on what you know. You can use one product and then change everything else to green. As long as you’re reducing the overall amount of chemicals in your body, that’s a plus.”

Leiba said some makeup wipes might contain undisclosed fragrance, an umbrella term used in ingredients list that can hide up to 4,000 components. “You don’t know what those are,” Leiba said. “Certain phthalates and ingredients linked to allergies and irritation. We’re not saying go fragrance-free, just look for products that disclose their fragrance.”

How do women who work in these advocacy organizations clean their own faces? Leiba said she uses makeup wipes when traveling (EWG-verified, of course), but stick to using a cleansing oil at home. Porter uses cotton rounds or reusable crochet circles she knitted herself to get the gunk off. “They look horrible, but they work, and if you have a week’s worth, you can throw them in the laundry to clean.”

Dr. Ciraldo, who fronts an eponymous skincare line, uses her own cleanser. But she had to switch from keeping “beautiful white towels” in her bathroom, because she started to stain them with her makeup. “Now I use a pretty, pigmented beige towel,” she said. “If we’re really going to care about the environment, which is very precious, we have to tolerate that we could have a dirty-looking towel. And honestly, I get some satisfaction out of seeing the visible stuff that I removed, it really makes me feel good knowing I’m getting off all those microscopic particles.”

I can’t recall life pre-disposable wipes, so I asked an older millennial friend how the hell she coped before the invention. “Well, we had to walk three miles uphill to a communal fountain...” she retorted, so I hit up the writer and beauty historian Rachel Weingarten.

“There’s not a ton of history on that,” she admitted. “Think of the jet set era: In the mid-century, suddenly people were flying places they’d never been before, going on road trips where it’s hard to wash your face and hands.” In 1960, a cosmetic executive named Arthur Julius introduced the first Wet-Nap, teaming up with Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants so customers could clean their hands after eating.

“A couple of decades go by, we have disposable diapers, baby wipes becoming popular,” Weingarten said. “Women started traveling more for business, so they were using baby wipes to take off their makeup. Think about what that’s intended for: to wipe a baby’s ass. It’s not OK to put on your face.”

Weingarten can’t trace the first-ever makeup wipe, but both she and Dr. Ciraldo said they first started seeing them around the early 2000s. Now, they’re everywhere. Weingarten works as a consultant for certain brands, and recently worked to help one launch.

“We were coming up with their core line, and they said we must have a wipe,” she said. “I thought ‘Really?’ They said there’s this feeling of virtue when you take off your makeup. It is, dare I say, easy money for a makeup company to offer one, because it’s part of the whole package. You buy our liquid eyeliner that never comes off, but then we give you the wipe that takes even that off.”

Supposedly, makeup wipes see us at our best. Look at Jennifer Garner, swiping off her eye shadow and any remaining feelings for Ben Affleck with her Neutrogena cleanser. The same brand enlisted Kerry Washington to show how the product can remove smudged glitter or bronzer.

Apologies to my wipes. They don’t find me looking that responsible or close-up ready, hair tied neatly back in a clean white pajama shirt, getting ready for bed. I’m sometimes drunk, my half-operating brain unsure of my own middle name but resolving to clean my face before bed as a treat to my future self the next morning. With just the flick of a wrist, my makeup wipes get me back to factory settings, put me in reset mode. No matter how I end the day, I’ll wake up ready for the next one.

Still, I can’t ignore the very good reasons I should ditch my wipes, and go back to the ancient practice of cleansing with a cotton pad or soft towel. While writing this article, I went to Sephora and picked up a bottle of micellar water, one that promises to pull off my eyeliner like a magnet. I haven’t used it yet, though—I’ve still got to get through my last pack of wipes. I wouldn’t want to be wasteful.

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