Cosmetics: spending, waste and the ‘lipstick effect’

I’ve always loved cosmetics. Growing up with an older sister, having small budgets so rarely getting new clothes, and always being self-conscious about my weight means that I focused on the tiny things which made me feel better rather than ever really getting into clothes. When I started working at 16 and had enough money coming in to build up a wardrobe, I carried on with cosmetics – make up, perfume, bath stuff, the whole lot.

In my second job, a friend – who often lent me her clothes – pointed out that if I stopped my weekly beauty shop, I could buy a decent outfit every month. Whilst that stayed with me, it converted more into looking at cheaper brands rather than anything meaningful. I must have spend thousands on beauty products over the years, many of which have never worked (or not performed miracles – who knew?!) or were barely used. And this was before Instagram and beauty vloggers – think how much worse it could have been.

Does your bathroom cupboard look like this? You might be a beauty hoarder

When I buy a £5 nail varnish (or, more often, a £2 bubble bath) I barely even think about it. It’s not an essential but it’s not a lot. And it’s a world away from paying for a manicure, or spa day. But a study in 2017 showed that the average British woman will spend £70,000 in her lifetime on her appearance. The study feels a little broad, since it includes gym membership but another study conducted by the industry showed that the value of beauty consumption in the UK in 2018 was £27.2 bn (or £409 per person). Either way – it’s a lot.

And there’s evidence, known as the Lipstick Effect, that small spending on luxury beauty actually rises during a recession. Partly because there isn’t enough money for funding major things like a fancy new coat – but also because when things are bad, we still like to feel special, or the idea of ‘affordable luxury’. There is some argument that the Lipstick Effect won’t survive this recession, not least because the impact of working at home means that people care a bit less about how they look. But it will surely be something else – the tightness of my trousers suggests I have turned to little delicious treats, which in hindsight might have been a mistake…

Aside from the money, cosmetics raise a lot of issues for me in terms of waste and plastics. Farrah Penn’s article in 2019 on trying zero waste beauty sets out some scary statistics:

There are five trillion tons of plastics in the ocean. How can I reduce my spending and reduce turtle misery at the same time?

I’m going to start with a review of my cosmetics stash, and see what I have on hand, how to use it up and learn from what I don’t use and don’t need to replace. Then I’ve started keeping track of how much we use, how much it costs – to me and the planet. More on my findings in the next article.