There is a revolution happening in skin care, and it’s occurring inside tiny, squishy spheres. Beauty “capsules” — oils, serums and powders housed in self-contained, monodose pods — are popping up everywhere in the beauty market, it seems, from high-tech treatment systems to cleansers. They might not look like much, but inside those rubbery orbs are unique formulas and textures, not to mention of host of eco-friendly possibilities.
They’re not a completely new idea, per se — witness Elizabeth Arden‘s iconic Ceramide Capsules, born in the ancient times of 1990 A.D. Since then, however, we’ve mostly realized the folly of dumping small plastic beads into waterways and capsules have been largely viewed as a relic of the past.
But that view has shifted of late. “Encapsulated beauty products could be more or less sustainable than comparable products that are not encapsulated,” explains Mia Davis, Director of Mission for Credo Beauty, “providing they are made of naturally-derived, biodegradable casings.” And as consumers become increasingly diligent about supporting brands with sustainable practices, that’s exactly where beauty companies are headed.
Take, for example, the aforementioned Elizabeth Arden. These past few years, the brand doubled down on its capsule-based heritage, launching the Advanced Ceramide Capsules in 2017 and a retinol version in 2018. In September of this year, it launched a new Vitamin C Ceramide Capsules Radiance Renewal Serum. The main selling point for these single-serving capsules is that they take an already potent ingredient, and remove the need for things like fillers or stabilizers that would minimize their strength. As New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engleman explains, “[Elizabeth Arden Vitamin C Ceramide Capsules] are formulated in an oil base, so it is much better absorbed [by skin], and up to 178 times more potent than vitamin C in an aqueous base. Because the formula is encapsulated, it is not degraded by light and air.”
Interestingly enough, the brand claims that its capsules have been biodegradable since day one — a practice it is continuing to improve upon as green tech advances. “The Vitamin C Ceramide Capsules Radiance Renewal Serum are vegetable- and mineral-based,” explains Kelly Quinn, Arden’s Senior Marketing Manager. “They also meet industry standard guidelines for biodegradability — drop it in water and watch it dissolve.”
Pubic-grooming brand Fur went the extra biodegradable mile by introducing a casing for its new Bath Drops, which debuted in October, that is also certified vegan. It’s made from red seaweed, a material the brand claims is an environmentally friendly version of the gelatin used to encase bath beads from days of yore. Drop it in the tub and it dissolves, releasing its blend of conditioning oils and the brand’s signature clary sage oil to moisturize skin and soothe post-shaving irritation.
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Another benefit of biodegradability as it pertains to these types of products is that it forces formulators to come up with ways to make products anhydrous (a.k.a. water-free), mostly removing the need for preservatives; no water means no threat of mold. And, being monodose (as in, one application per capsule) means no worries about degradation or bacteria growth from exposure to air, and therefore less product waste in general.
Luxury skin-care brand Eve Lom is no stranger to anhydrous products — its cult-classic Cleanser is water-free — so the recent introduction of Cleansing Oil Capsules takes that bestselling balm and translates it into a liquid encapsulated form. The casing is made from a vegetable-based material that’s fully biodegradable, says Eve Lom Master Esthetician Erica Maccallum, and features the brand’s signature blend of essential oils from chamomile, eucalyptus, hops and clove. Each tiny bead has enough product to completely remove dirt, oil and makeup from the skin.
That single-dose ideology is also a less obvious green move: Brands tout it as convenient for travel and making application dummy-proof (my words, not theirs) because each capsule is one use. And that’s all true. But what’s less often discussed is the fact that this method can prevent the impulse for overdoing it on a product, cutting down on waste and enabling consumers to be more conservative in their use.
However, as Davis warns, everything isn’t sunshine and rainbows in capsule world. “In theory, capsules could reduce waste, but it is also likely to lead to more packaging, not less,” she asserts. “In all likelihood, the beads will go into a jar or bottle, and most of those will go into a box.”
One alternative that does, indeed, cut down on packaging and reduce waste is present in Unilever‘s Signal oral-care line. As part of TerraCycle’s Loop initiative (TL;DR version: The modern-day milkman scenario where you order products, use them, then have the service pick up the used containers to be cleaned, sterilized and put back in the supply cycle to be used all over again. It’s a pretty cool concept worth reading up on.), the company created a unique chewable toothpaste tab. Simply pop one of the Signal 8 Integral Tooth Tabs in your mouth, then start brushing — no water needed. The container itself is made up of a glass jar with a plastic cap with ceramic printing, which gives it added durability to stand up to repeated sterilization and washing by Loop facilities. Sadly, it’s currently only available through Loop’s Paris program, but here’s hoping Unilever eventually adapts it for the U.S. market.
As Davis says, in theory capsules have a lot of potential, but it’s up to brands to go that extra mile if they really want to make this category a sustainable alternative for the future. With the ability to increase potency, prevent product degradation, decrease reliance on plastics, and reduce product waste, capsules are a great first step toward a different kind of environmental responsibility. “A bio-based casing that could biodegrade in the environment over time is the right start,” says Davis. “A clean formula with reduced reliance on preservatives, which can be done because the product is protected from natural breakdown and contamination, is great. And, ingredients like vitamin C could be kept more active and potent. But, brands using this format [need to] prioritize one exterior package, not two, since breakage and leakage is not nearly as much of a concern with this type of product. There is huge potential if this is done right.”
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