The Ultimate Guide to Plastic-Free Packing for Personal Care
As travelers, we get the chance interact with countless people. We are the shiny new thing in the communities we visit, the stranger-turned-friend to many who are learning all about us. So why not try to model how much we care about our planet, its oceans and wildlife? Maybe we can inspire a few people along the way and the change in consumption habits will ripple out.
There are a number of reasons to make the switch from purchased to DIY toiletry products, especially if you are traveling.
I can already hear the anticipatory groans about Do-It-Yourself recipes. Isn't it easier to just pick up a package at the store? What about my cute little travel toothpastes?
But come on, look at all this plastic! We can do so much better. If you don't know too much about the harm plastic creates when it is tossed in the trash, 5Gyres has been a leading research foundation in discovering the implications of our plastic waste.
DIY Toiletry Recipes
Quicker, Cheaper, Lighter, Easier to Pack
All of these recipes are dead simple to make, cheaper than packaged products, and will save you room in your luggage.
My Favorite DIY Toiletry- Deodorant
In October, I was staying for two weeks in Eugene, Oregon where I met an amazing new friend named Rachel Mitton. She has dedicated her life to serving the homeless population and tackling the root causes of homelessness in America.
We spent a lot of time in our hostel's kitchen where we got to chatting about how people experiencing homelessness can take advantage of the S.N.A.P. program, America's supplemental food program. I mentioned that there is an groundbreaking recipe book for people eating on $4/day called Good and Cheap (you can read it online here). The only problem is that people on S.N.A.P. are unable to purchase personal care items on the program. Instead, they are forced to find shelters and local programs who have limited amounts of donated personal care products.
Rachel and I wondered if it were possible to make personal care products using affordable, easy-to-find food purchases. That way everyone could have access to personal hygiene products.
We made this recipe together. I'm now halfway through with my jar and it's now March!
- 3/4 cup arrowroot powder/non-GMO cornstarch
- 1/4 cup baking soda
- 1/4 cup melted coconut oil (pop it in the microwave for 15 seconds)
Voila! Now just mix that all together and you're done. I stored mine into a small 4 oz. glass jar. Super simple, huh?
If you are someone who loves wearing a little black dress, you can use this recipe to make a transparent gel deodorant so you don't transfer any white spots onto dark materials.
I am lucky to have a few essential oil-obsessed friends who let me borrow a few drops every now and then. Right now I have some lavender oil in my small deodorant jar. The smell is amazing and I might try some different scents next time I make this. This deodorant could double as a solid perfume.
Just use your fingers to apply it after a shower or whenever you need an odorous pick-me-up. I have honestly never used a better deodorant.
Toothpaste... Or Tooth Powder?
Let's talk about the purpose of toothbrushing and toothpaste. We brush our teeth to break up the biofilm on your teeth that can lead to tooth and gum decay.
I've seen many different kinds of toothpaste recipes. The one I've used in the past and have liked is just a powder mix of baking soda and bentonite clay. Now I can surely hear the freak outs...
You want me to put dirt in my mouth?!
It's not as big of a deal as you think. Here's why:
First off, bentonite clay is volcanic ash and not straight up soil. Second, there is research to prove that bentonite clay can absorb toxins (in this study, viruses) and increase immunity while offering minerals that can strengthen and protect tooth enamel.
If you are concerned about trace amounts of lead, then Redmond Clay, a form of bentonite clay, contains 11.9 PPM, or about 0.001% (source). You can also purchase bentonite clay with even less amounts like Earth's Living Clay at >0.001% (source).
For me to purchase bentonite clay (you've probably noticed I don't normally buy stuff) I usually need to have a pretty bad breakout or rash. Otherwise the downside I see to this product is that there are not as many multiple uses as other ingredients I will mention here. I am perfectly fine with sticking to baking soda for my teeth. Both ingredients powerfully combat the mouth's acidity, fight off bad bacteria, all while offering gentle abrasion to get rid of nasty biofilm.
I have heard of others adding Xylitol, Cinnamon, Clove Powder, etc. to their toothpastes and tooth powders. You can do whatever you like! I'm just a super simple gal who prefers one-ingredient recipes.
As for mouthwash, it was created to help you spit out loosened plaque and other bits of debris hiding in the cracks and crevices of your mouth. You also want to kill off any bad bacteria that is creating bad breath.
I will gargle and swish highly diluted hydrogen peroxide. It is a disinfectant, antiseptic, oxidizer, and bleach (whitener). However, it's not essential that I always travel with this since it is easy to come by for its first aid uses. You can also gargle baking soda or even diluted vodka.
Toothbrushing Party Time!
In the last co-living space I lived in a group of housemates would gather every night to listen to a funny video or song while brushing their teeth together. Highly recommend it!
One fact we can't get around is that for the sake of our mouths we still need to dispose our toothbrushes. I honestly don't need a bamboo, baby-soft boar hair bristled oral hygiene device, but what we all need is an option that is biodegradable. I would rather toss my toothbrush into a compost bin rather than having it wash up on someone else's doorstep thousands of miles away.
The truth about most biodegradable toothbrushes is that many have plastic or animal-based bristles. Brush with Bamboo is one of the only truly biodegradable toothbrush option out there. And if you're flossing your teeth afterwards, EcoDent is one of the better choices as well. In the case of plastic-free oral hygiene we definitely need more options.
Other Toiletries Worth Buying, Skipping, or Making Yourself
I use Dr. Bronner's Soaps as my shampoo and multi-use magical potion. These are concentrated, biodegradable Pure-Castile soaps that double as an amazing laundry detergent or dishwashing soap when you're on the road.
I tend to not stay anywhere long enough to use the huge 32-oz bottles, so I will usually opt for a 16-oz bottle and split it up into silicon squeezy travel-size bottle to get through security. If I am planning on being in wet climates (like last year's Ephemerisle), I will opt for their 5 oz. soap bar. You can grind it if needed for detergent and it is almost identical to the liquid soap.
The cost is something I factor in since these bars and soaps last me the whole year. Remember, concentrated! You should be diluting these soaps with water.
Shaving Razor and Shaving Cream
Shaving cream is the thing I usually skip! For the dudes reading this that might sound straight up terrifying when you have a razor to your throat (or I can only imagine), but I've changed my hair removal habits because guys have it better with their shaving options. Women get skimpy pink razors while men get the ones that actually seem to work. Guys can shave like their grandpas to avoid bumps and nicks. So ladies, let's use this to our advantage. Screw the razor marketing.
Every year, Americans toss out 2 billion disposable razors. That's a pretty big pile of metal and plastic entering the waste stream. Most of them can't be recycled, because they're dangerous to disassemble and no individual municipality produces enough of them to make collection cost efficient.
So the scary but most eco-friendly suggestion... safety razors. Most of us are pretty used to cartridge or disposable razors with lots of plastic, but with the right upkeep safety razor blades can last a really long time. Not to mention the stainless steel is recyclable.
For beginners, double-edged safety razors are pretty amazing devices that allow for the closest shave of your life. Not to mention the blade replacements are all very cheap around $10 for 100 blades. You can read all about how to use one here. The Merkur is the best one for beginners and one of the more affordable options. It will give you the best control with a shorter, heavier handle for precision as you practice.
Remember: You are not allowed to fly with safety razor blades and the razors should be properly stored in your carry-on. Remove blades before flying. You can buy blades locally when you arrive or mail them to your destination.
If you want to be all fancy with a foamy lather, you can combine your Dr. Bronner's with baking soda over the stovetop. Check out the recipe here. Otherwise, just use your the Dr. Bronners Soap (the best one for shaving is Almond Oil). Some people even dry shave with a safety razor. Do what feels right.
I know this is technically not a toiletry, but it does keep you smelling nice!
For detergent, you can just add a bit of baking soda to your Dr. Bronner's Soap and you're good to go. If you want to make it the real deal laundry detergent, you can chemically change your baking soda into washing soda using your own oven and add borax as a detergent booster. But as you've heard previously, I'm a little too low-maintenance to do that so I while I'm on the road I will just use soap + baking soda.
Right now I have a shorter haircut and it's pretty thick, so I usually skip conditioner. If I need some extra moisture, I will just put some coconut oil in for 5-10 minutes then rinse it out after. I used to do this when I had long hair and it worked fine. I have heard of others using glycerin oil, aloe vera juice, honey, shea butter, and more. I try to keep it simple with what I know works. Every scalp and hair type will respond differently.
Facial products are the ones I still buy since my skin is skin is so finnicky. From my experience, most DIY oil cleaners tend to break me out, coconut and olive oil being the worst culprits. So I tend to stick to what I know works until I can find a better DIY alternative. What I definitely avoid in my face wash are microbeads contributing to microplastic marine pollution, but now most face washes have discontinued the practice anyway. There are plenty of other non-polluting options for face wash.
What I have used in the past on Girl's Nights is a super simple face mask made of one crazy simple ingredient... oatmeal. Oatmeal with warm water is insanely moisturizing, nourishing, and gently exfoliating to dry or sensitive skin. I have not researched why it works so well, but I noticed it does get rid of redness while tightening my pores. It doubles as a face wash, scrub, and the leftover warm water is a great moisturizer. Oatmeal is also the perfect customizable breakfast to pack on hiking trips.
Hair Brush and Comb
GranNaturals Travel Brush is a great option for almost anyone, but if you have really thick hair then you need some heavy duty support. I would opt for the Earth's Daughter brush that comes with a free travel sized brush. This isn't completely plastic free but I have yet to find a hair brush that is.
You can also get a small wooden comb for less than $3. Combs are a lot easier to find without plastic– you can opt for steel or wood.
For pads and cups, I opt for the most reusable, long-lasting options available. This saves so much money over the course of the year (or years!). Here are two incredible options:
Reusable menstrual pads are amazing if you have a tough time with menstrual cups. Within two months they pay for themselves and they are soft.
To wash a reusable pad, just put some Dr. Bronners Soap on it, shower with it, then let hang it to dry somewhere for 1-2 days. You can also just throw it in your laundry and dry it like you would with clothing. Make sure you wash cold.
Another option is to get a menstrual cup. If you have not given childbirth, you may want to opt for a Small Sensitive Cup for a better fit. These are also made out of softer silicone to avoid irritation.
For tampons, there are biodegradable and compostable options! Veeda has an awesome cotton tampon in 16-counts which should last a menstrual cycle. When I did use tampons, I always opted for the Supers to limit the amount I needed to use and throw away.
I have heard from some eco-conscious ladies there has been a rise in using sea sponges as alternatives to tampons. Based on what I have researched, there is very little regulation to make sure they are fully cleaned and safe. I would take that pretty seriously because these little sponges are going inside your body. In an FDA trial test they found the sponges contained sand, grit, bacteria, and “various other materials." I would not mess around.
Where Do I Store All These Personal Care Products?
You have a few amazing options for storing your new toiletries!
- Reuse old personal care products after they run out. You can't do this for toothpaste, but empty deodorant sticks work like a charm.
- Use small empty containers or condiment/spice tins found around the house. I started using emptied tea tins to store my coconut oil and now I can bring it everywhere.
- Buy reusable squeezy tubes. There are three on the right that are TSA-approved and spill-proof. This is great for storing your soap or other liquid you need to bring.
- Pick up a recycled plastic toothbrush holder at the Container Store for a buck.
- Thrift 4 oz. glass jars that are small and reusable. I use a jar similar to this for my deodorant and use similar jars to store powders, oils, and more. Glass jars are more leak-proof compared to tin containers.
- Get a cloth canvas toiletry bag from Etsy (super cute!) or a military surplus store online or in your local area.
- Do you love storing your plastic bottles into little plastic Ziploc bags? Switch to reusable cloth zipper bags instead. There is a whole host of craftspeople selling their reusable cloth sandwich and snack bags on Etsy.com. Search for “sandwich bag” or “snack bag” and you’ll find thousands of listings. You could spend all day perusing your choices. Just beware of those coated with plastic or advertised as PUL or oil cloth (aka vinyl.).
You can learn more about how you can buy plastic-free products by visiting My Plastic-Free Life. If there is one thing I've learned from putting this list together, it is that plastic is a sneaky SoB! It comes in all shapes and form with carcinogenic and hormonal consequences mostly impacting girls and women. While not all plastic is made equally harmful, we must be mindful of what we put into our bodies, the ground, and the ocean.
Nomads, would you like to see more DIY travel recipes to save space and money? Let us know in the comments below!