Plastics are bad for human health and the environment. This isn’t news to most of us. However, it’s easy to gloss over the details of why plastics are so devastating because they are pervasive in our daily routines. It can feel impossible to remove plastics from our purchasing habits when everything from the bread we eat to the beauty products we use come packaged in it. Plastic is on every aisle in most grocery and big box stores—even if you’re not looking at plastic bottles, it’s in the disposable hangers, synthetic fabric blends, and produce ties and bags. While it’s literally everywhere, it’s especially prevalent in all those plastic bottles on the beauty aisles.
But isn’t plastic recyclable? Why does minimizing plastic use matter so much for ourselves and the future of this planet? Conny Wittke, founder of superzero, a plastic-free bar beauty company, weighed in on why we should all be making the switch to plastic-free beauty and personal products whenever possible.
Olivia O’Bryon: First, tell us why we should be concerned about plastics and microplastics in beauty products. Aren’t plastic bottles recyclable?
Superzero Founder, Conny Wittke: The beauty industry is obsessed with plastic. It is said to create 120 billion units of plastic packaging waste every year. In the U.S. alone, almost 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic are created just for beauty and personal care products, and 552 million plastic shampoo bottles are sold each year. A lot of that packaging is not recyclable because it consists of multi-layer/multi-component plastics that don’t have a recycling stream.
Furthermore, even for the portion that is recyclable, the truth is that 90% of our plastic is NOT getting recycled. For the small portion that does get recycled, the process requires substantial water and energy and can lead to environmental injustice through offshoring plastic waste to emerging countries, which unfortunately still counts in shared recycling rates. As a result of this, most plastic finds its way to landfills and into our oceans, slowly turning into microplastics as it degrades which harms animals and contaminates our food chain. Lastly, even without taking the end of life of a product into mind, there are harmful impacts of the unnecessary use of plastic, as plastics are largely made from fossil fuels which, as we know, negatively impacts the climate.
An important question to ask is why plastic is so extensively used in the beauty industry. For one, it’s about size impression and the fight for shelf space. Consumers have been subliminally educated for decades that bigger is better which is absolutely not true–in fact, I believe that true, performance-oriented luxury is in fact minimalistic, yet ingenious. Another reason is the consumer and industry’s love of packaging. For an industry that promotes its belief that “beauty comes from within”, the beauty industry spends an awful amount of focus and resources on the external appearance of a product–expensive, excess packaging–over beauty on the inside–the ingredients. Superzero is working hard to flip this part of the script by focusing our attention and resources on the beauty and integrity of the actual ingredients and minimizing what’s used only for vanity purposes, while never sacrificing the efficacy and experience.
At the end of the day, it is important to understand that plastic in and of itself is not evil, as it was indeed a genius invention that in many cases is extremely useful and indispensable (e.g., in the medical field). However, given the environmental and health impact of its use, I believe that we should avoid it where it is not necessary, especially in hair care. When you learn that plastic bottles of liquid shampoo formulations on the market today contain 80 to 90% water you realize how wasteful and grotesque this issue can be. By removing the waste of water you also remove the waste of plastic, and through persistent rigor, know-how expertise, and tireless attention to detail you are left with a concentrated, powerful bar of shampoo with outstanding benefits and performance, and ZERO waste.
OO: In addition to planetary concerns, can you share more about why microplastics are a concern when it comes to human health?
CW: Microplastics are concerning in multiple ways. First, there is the end of life of plastic where plastic very slowly degrades and converts into smaller and smaller pieces, ultimately forming microplastics. Then, there is microplastic “shedding” where small shards of plastic, from linings, coatings, fabrics, etc., shed and enter the environment and our bodies. Lastly, there are microplastics in specific ingredients. The definitions around this vary vastly and recent emerging political bans only cover the small plastic beads that have been used in the beauty industry, like in exfoliating cleansers.
Superzero, however, follows a much stricter definition from the Plastic Soup Foundation in which microplastics include all polymers that are persistent, bioaccumulative, and/or toxic and that are not readily biodegradable in all environmental departments. This also includes liquid and gel forms and includes ingredients such as Dimethicone, Dimethicone Copolymer, and Polysilicone-15, which are extremely prevalent in hair and skin care products on the market today. The Plastic Soup Foundation has published a report that says that 9 out of 10 personal care products have such ingredients and that 7kgs of microplastics from cosmetics are flushed into the environment every minute in the EU alone.
The environmental impact of microplastic accumulation is massive, and they can be found pretty much everywhere. There are also significant health concerns with plastics and microplastics around which science is fast emerging. Many chemicals, not only BPA, used in plastic have been shown to have hormone-disrupting effects causing a massive health hazard. Microplastic accumulates in the environment, is ingested by animals, and makes it into our bodies through diet, personal care products, and inhalation from the air we breathe. Microplastics have been found in human lung tissue and recently even in the placentas of unborn babies. These are all reasons to avoid plastic where we can–and in the beauty industry, it can absolutely be avoided.
OO: Now tell us about superzero—how did you get started and what’s your company mission?
CW: Superzero’s reason for being is to combine super performance with zero harm—it’s in the name! We aim to ease beauty’s massive environmental footprint through the development of high-density, high-performance, high-touch, plastic-free, and microplastic-free solid products. Now, soap and shampoo bars (=NOT soaps) have been around for a while, but they were not formulated for the needs of intelligent and demanding beauty consumers. Thus, superzero has designed a line of shampoo, conditioner, treatment, hand, and body balm bars to cover all of the needs of today’s modern beauty consumers. Beauty is important and therefore it is wrong to ask consumers to compromise between results and sustainability. To care about the way your hair and body feel is not solely about looking great for others, rather it is about feeling healthy and at ease, and makes a huge difference in confidence and how you feel in your own skin. Therefore, at superzero we believe you should NOT be asked to compromise the performance of your products to make better choices for the planet.
At superzero we aim to resolve this conflict by creating amazing products, with clinically proven active ingredients, while adopting completely sustainable solutions. We took our time engineering our bars from the ground up and very carefully tailored the cosmetic chemistry of the bars to fit different hair needs. We’ve also perfected the sensory touch experience, finding the right amount and type of lather which are so important for a “me” moment in the shower. Additionally, superzero is always innovating to find new ways to encourage the solid experience and meet the demands of consumers. On October 20th we launched our new Clarifying Shampoo Bar, which offers customers a deep cleansing treatment bar that starts at the roots (literally) by removing build-up residue from hard water, chlorine, environmental factors, and product on the scalp. Regular removal of such build-up helps to re-balance the scalp biome and promotes more rapid hair growth and an overall boost in hair health.
OO: Can you elaborate more on what superzero is doing to eliminate both plastics and microplastics? What impact have you made so far?
CW: There are many sustainability benefits of superzero solids in which we are eliminating plastic and microplastic:
- First, eliminating water from our formulations means that we do not have to use plastic to package it. One superzero shampoo bar replaces 3 x 8.4 oz sized plastic bottles so when more people switch, our impact increases exponentially.
- Another sustainability benefit is that the elimination of water and plastic reduces the weight and volume footprint of our bars by up to 90% compared to liquids. That means fewer carbon emissions and energy use of products during transportation. In fact, our full-size anhydrous solids have an 80 to 90% lower carbon footprint than comparable liquids just through the way they are made. Furthermore, we offset the balance of the carbon footprint of our shampoo bars, which are certified climate neutral by Climate Partners, by supporting global wind farm projects as well as the Plastic Bank in Haiti that reduces ocean plastic while providing a source of income for the local population.
- Another important sustainability (and health) benefit of our bars is that we are rigorously eliminating microplastics. Our bars are certified microplastic free, meaning we ban any and all microplastics from our formulations.
- By being anhydrous, we are also eliminating water from our formulations and reducing the use of it significantly throughout the supply chain. Water is life and clean, accessible water is in short supply. Most people already have the privilege of running water in their bathrooms, so we don’t ship around water in plastic bottles. Instead, our anhydrous formulas use plant-based ingredients to enhance beauty without wasting precious resources. Because the less we use, the more we have.
- Last but not least, as members of 1% for the Planet, we support organizations that help reduce the amount of plastic and microplastics and help provide clean water resources around the world.
OO: Beyond what superzero is doing for the planet by reducing plastic use, what other benefits do bar beauty products offer both the earth and consumers?
CW: This is a wonderful question, because no planet-friendly product will ever gain traction if it doesn’t deliver benefits that go far above and beyond that. Therefore, superzero is first and foremost focused on the performance of the product, the experience for the consumer, and the benefits to the hair and body. By paying attention to these aspects we are taking care of our loyal customers and thus implementing positive change. Our goal is not just to create a solid alternative but it is to beat the bottle in results and experience.
The solid factor means that actives are concentrated, impactful, and not “watered-down”. We are delivering a sensory, high-touch, positive experience in the shower. Our bars are formulated with clinically proven actives such as peptides, botanical keratin, hemisqualane, plant-based squalane, and many more that deliver excellent results. We also customize our bars very carefully to different hair needs and wants. Superzero’s products are not a “one-size-fits-all” solution, but rather a carefully tailored experience. Last but not least, solids are very, very travel-friendly and won’t give you any TSA hassle, liquid spillings, and excess weight while on the go.