With more than 120 billion units of packaging produced each year by the global cosmetics industry – most of which, according to the annual awareness campaign Zero Waste Week, aren’t recyclable – waste is a big problem when it comes to the beauty industry.
Although there is still a huge way to go, beauty brands are waking up to the need to drive forward their sustainability attempts, be it by eliminating plastic packaging, reducing carbon emissions in production or looking to use more sustainable and environmentally friendly materials.
Another area people are turning their attention to is refillable make-up, although it’s not exactly a new invention. For some cosmetic brands, refillable products have long been at the core of their offerings.
Far from being a magic bullet, refillable make-up offers consumers a choice: not only to reduce the amount of packaging they’re buying in, but also to pick refills of the products they truly love.
Imelda Burke, founder and managing director of the Content Beauty and Wellbeing store in Marylebone and a natural beauty expert, has noted a rise in demand. “The interest has really increased in the past few years,” she says. “The demand for refillable lipsticks alone has more than doubled, while sales of refillable make-up have increased by 320 per cent since we first launched it.”
Packaging still plays a big part when it comes to customers buying into a brand, explains Burke. So, with that in mind, she believes that refills offer an opportunity to reduce waste going forward. The brands we tested certainly understand the importance of first impressions – the one-off palettes and cases are designed to look great, as well as work with refills.
So, in our endeavour to embrace refillable beauty for Plastic Free July, we trialled a range of make-up products, looking at style, performance, application, value and ease of refill.
Kjaer Weis flush and glow duo
Buy one-off: £40, Wild-swans.com
Buy refill: £28, Farfetch.com
Buy red-edition compacts: £8, Feelunique.com
Kjaer Weis’s sophisticated beauty products are a well-known choice among eco-conscious beauty fans and magazine editors alike, with their sleek packaging and luxe formulas. They are best known for their stylish metal compacts – designed to be kept for life – that swivel open and can house products such as blushers, foundations and eyeshadows. While their cream blush is a true hero product, we really adore the versatile flush and glow duo, which is a combination of the brand’s best-selling blushers and highlighters.
We tried the duo in “luminous flush”, which features a gorgeous golden bronze highlighter and warming pink blusher, but there are also three other colour combinations to choose from. We loved the flattering shades and how easily the creamy formula can be applied with fingertips to give a natural glow. It’s also really easy to build up the strength and combine the blusher and highlighter to glide it across cheekbones, lips and even on the eyelids.
Sweet almond seed oil and rosehip seed oil make the formula feel beautifully hydrating. We also liked that refills come in biodegradable packaging and can be popped into the silver case with ease whenever you’re ready for a top-up.
Buy now £40.00, Wild-swans.com
Chantecaille cheek shade
Buy pebble compact: £13, Chantecaille.co.uk
Buy refill: £37, Lookfantastic.com
French brand Chantecaille has a range of three chic refillable palettes, but the sleek pebble compact just edged it as our favourite. Small enough to slip into a make-up bag, it also has a handy mirror on the inner lid. Refills slot perfectly into place with a satisfying click and because of the magnetic strip on the compact, you know they’ll stay put.
We tried the refill cheek shade in “lovely”, which is a dreamy, featherlight powder with a serious hit of pigment: enough to show up on one swipe, but subtle enough to resemble an outdoorsy glow. One area for improvement, though, would be the plastic casing that the refills come in, which we’d love to see replaced with something more environmentally friendly.
Buy now £37.00, Lookfantastic.com
Mac pro palette
Buy custom palette eyeshadow x 4 compact: £4.50, Lookfantastic.com
Buy eyeshadow refill pan: £6.70, Lookfantastic.com
Ever bought an eyeshadow palette purely for one or two shades that you like, and then ended up stuck with options you’re not so fussed on? We know we’re certainly guilty of that. Thank goodness then for Mac’s pro palettes, which let you customise your purchase with eyeshadow, blusher and concealer refill pans.
Created with make-up artists in mind, it’s easy to combine products. We chose the pro palette eyeshadow and loaded it up with some of our favourite shades: a shimmery soft beige called “shroom”, an intense green called “humid”, a sparkly gold eyeshadow called “yes to sequins” and a peachy gold blush called “peach twist”. There’s something so satisfying about creating your own custom compact and you know you’re guaranteed to love each and every shade, so there are no wasted products.
Buy now £4.50, Maccosmetics.co.uk
Zao liquid eyeliner
Buy one-off: £18.95, Peacewiththewild.co.uk
Buy refill: £11.75, Peacewiththewild.co.uk
When it comes to refills, Zao has got it covered with its abundant range. The brand – a popular name in sustainability circles – has over 230 products, with many boasting refill options. They’re also vegan, cruelty free, 100 per cent natural and contain certified organic ingredients.
The eyeliner formula, which is suitable for sensitive eyes and skin, is enriched with aloe vera and boasts organic bamboo water and shea butter. It’s packaged in a varnished bamboo tube that also comes with its own small drawstring bamboo pouch. The fine brush allows for precision when drawing a cat-eye flick and we found it lasted pretty well, with no smudging into the eye crease. When it comes to switching out a used tube for a refill, you simply have to unscrew the outer bamboo case and pop it out. As well as the traditional black and brown shade options, there are three more colourful choices: electric blue, plum and khaki (our favourite).
Buy now £18.95, Peace with the wild
La Bouche Rouge mascara le serum noir
Buy leather sleeve: £49.32, Laboucherougeparis.com
Buy mascara: £36.99, Laboucherougeparis.com
Launched in 2017, this French luxury beauty brand is best known for its refillable lipsticks, but it also does a great mascara option too. Calling it the world’s first-ever glass mascara, the formula is made of 99 per cent natural-origin ingredients and contains no petrochemical derivatives. Made with jojoba oil and carnauba wax, the mascara which also works as a serum. It felt gentle, nourishing and gave visible volumising results.
Although technically it is a refill if you buy a sleeve for it (available in vegan or non–vegan leather), we would opt for using the glass refill tube as it is. It’s also not a waterproof formula, so keep that in mind. La Bouche Rouge states that waterproof mascara is formulated with plasticising agents so therefore it has chosen not to go down that route, due to its commitment to the planet.
Buy now £50.00, Laboucherougeparis.com
Clarins everlasting cushion foundation
Buy one–off: £27.20, Boots.com
Buy refill: £21.25, Boots.com
You’re either a fan of a cushion foundation or you’re not, but this option from Clarins is refill-friendly and a great option if you do like a super-light foundation or a tinted moisturiser. We loved how fresh and glowy the foundation felt on application and were very impressed at how the transfer-free claims held up – but can appreciate that for some, the coverage is just too sheer.
We also loved its fresh scent and that it contained SPF50, plus the compact was a dream to use, with a large mirror inside the lid and a sponge that has its own compartment. The only shame is that given how sheer the foundation is, you do need to use quite a bit of product on application, so we found that it didn’t last as long as some of the other products we tested.
Buy now £27.50, Boots.com
Alima Pure cream concealer
Buy one off: £26.30, Alimapure.com
Buy refill: £18.08, Alimapure.com
US mineral make-up brand Alima Pure was started by Kate O’Brien in her attic around 17 years ago and sustainability is a key part of the brand’s ethos – 1 per cent of their annual gross revenue is donated to grassroots environmental organisations. They have a great range of cream blushers, powder foundations and cream concealers. We tried the cream concealer, which blends easily and provides great coverage for blemishes, but did find it a tad drying under the eyes.
Refills are easily slotted into a sleek black case and stay put, thanks to a magnetic strip. It’s also worth checking out the brand's long-lasting eyeshadows and pretty cream blushes.
Buy now £26.25, Alimapure.com
Suqqu lip defining pencil
Buy pencil: £14, Selfridges.com
Buy holder: £12, Selfridges.com
Upgrade your lip liner with this chic lip-defining pencil and holder (which need to be purchased separately). Suqqu’s lip pencil comes in five shades and happily they all have a luxurious, creamy texture that is super easy to apply. We loved the longlasting finish and think the beautifully designed holder makes it a fab new addition to our make-up case, along with our range of refillable lipsticks.
Buy now £14.00, Selfridges.com
Hiro Cosmetics pressed powder highlighter
Buy palette: £10.65, Amazingy.com
Buy refill: £19.70, Amazingy.com
Hiro, a vegan-friendly and 100 per cent natural brand, was founded in 2011 in collaboration with make-up artists that wanted to use fewer toxic products. As such, all Hiro’s products are cruelty-free, hypoallergenic and contain no alcohol, talc, oil, additives, fillers or dyes.
There are some good-quality products in their range, but we particularly liked the pressed powder highlighter in “glow with the flow”. Giving a subtle golden shimmer, you can dust it over cheekbones, and it works beautifully on top of bronzer. There’s also a choice of different size palettes, featuring a magnetic snap closure and a mirror. Plus, they’re relatively hard-wearing despite being made of cardboard.
Buy now £11.15, Amazingy.com
Benecos it-pieces palette
Buy empty palette: £5.65, Ethicalsuperstore.com
Buy refills: From £4.65, Benecos.uk
Get this: there are 29,723 possibilities when it comes to Bencos’s mix-and-match it-pieces palette. We think it’s a great option, especially for any teenagers that are keen on sustainability. The certified organic and cruelty-free brand has a lower price point than the others we tried, meaning it’s a more accessible choice and offers an opportunity to experiment with refillables. Again, we think the ability to customise your own palette is not only practical but fun.
Buy now £5.65, Ethicalsuperstore.com
The verdict: Refillable make-up
Kjaer Weis was our top pick for the brand’s glow-giving and versatile flush and glow duo. We also love the wide variety of products from this luxurious and eco-conscious brand. Buying the items with the one-off silver metal case may be a bit pricey, but it’s a brand we can see ourselves coming back to again and again.
For more eco-friendly make-up reviews, read our guide to the best refillable lipsticks that can help reduce your beauty waste