You probably learned in grade school that skin protects the body and regulates temperature, but for all of the practical, science-y information out there, many folks simply want their skin to look and feel good. After all, though a stubborn blemish or puffy morning eyes are completely normal, they might not help you feel your best.
With all of the serums, masks, oils, and treatments on the market, it can feel challenging to wade through ingredient lists and vague language — especially if you’re trying to be more sustainable as a consumer and in your home life. Buzzwords such as “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” and “clean” can seem enticing, you might not know exactly what the manufacturer means when they put them on a label.
Although some of these terms are meaningful, a mindful self-care routine is more than just scanning ingredient lists, and sustainability is broader than simply considering what’s inside your products.
But if you’re looking to make your routine more sustainable, there’s one thing you shouldn’t do:
Don’t adopt an all-or-nothing approach and throw everything you already have out, just to start fresh.
It’s easy to think you need to clear your medicine cabinet of every product that doesn’t fit your eco-aware lifestyle, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Making small steps and easing into finding planet-conscious products is better than ignoring the problem, or making unnecessary waste. You already bought those products, so the most sustainable thing to do is use what you have. And when it comes to replacing those items, research your current skincare routine, and swap products as you see fit.
From packaging to functionality, here are five ways to actually make your self-care routines greener.
Be leery of the word “fragrance” in the ingredient list.
“My number one recommendation is to avoid anything with the word ‘fragrance,’” advises Emilie Hoyt, the founder and CEO of LATHER. Although it’s common to think of the term “fragrance” as scent, it can cover a whole host of things, including chemicals — both synthetic and natural — that manufacturers don’t need to disclose.
“In skincare products, fragrance is added either to give a product an enjoyable aroma or to mask the natural odor of the product,” explains Dr. Michele Green, MD, a New York City-based cosmetic dermatologist. “Even a skincare product that is labeled as ‘natural’ or fragrance-free’ may still contain ingredients that naturally give it a scent. Varying essential oils are often incorporated into the formulas of skincare products that are labeled as fragrance-free, causing them to be scented.” If certain smells bother you, see if you can sample a brand before committing to a purchase, and research their stance on using organic and artificial fragrances.
Use the web or an app to thoroughly research brands.
Companies that focus on eco-conscious practices will often have their philosophy clearly defined on their websites, and more companies than ever are being truly transparent about everything from their supply chain to how consumers can mindfully recycle their products. Additionally, apps like Think Dirty and CodeCheck rate ingredients, and the web is a wealth of information. “It may sound boring, but self-education is key,” Olga Ringquist, who co-founded Oquist Cosmetics with her father, told Apartment Therapy. “Identify what you find important when it comes to sustainability.”
If your primary concern is that the company uses organic ingredients, start there. Slowly work through your skincare routine and include new products as you run out of your current stash. “We all have the option to question what is being marketed towards us, and a double-check is just a click away,” offers Ringquist.
Take the packaging into consideration.
Beyond thinking about the potentially toxic ingredients inside, a product’s packaging and shipping can be just as harmful to the environment. As a result, some companies offer refillable bottles and pouches, which may produce less waste than the traditional-sized bottles. This is just one step towards a more conscious lifestyle, so be sure to appropriately recycle any shipping materials, bottles, and plastic pumps as needed.
When a product has to be mailed, try to stock up on shelf-stable items to avoid multiple shipments over time. Another alternative is to visit a farmers’ market to find a vendor that offers body products; not only will you prevent shipping waste, but a local business may also be willing to refill your bottles.
Some companies are taking their efforts a step further. For example, all of Butter & Me’s packaging is plastic-free and is shipped in recycled materials. “There is only one thing in my mind: no plastic,” says Wong. “My packaging is either recyclable, compostable, or at least biodegradable. Most importantly, I encourage repurposing the packaging such as reusing the cotton bag to keep small personal items.”
Oquist Cosmetics houses its skincare line in terracotta vessels that you can repurpose as a vase or decorative art piece once the container is empty. “We knew from the start that we wanted to have packaging that one would want to have out on display and that one could repurpose after the product inside is finished,” says Ringquist. Mindfully making small changes in reducing waste aligns perfectly with a green routine.
Only purchase what you will use.
Sure, there are times you optimistically buy a new product only to realize it really doesn’t agree with you, but tossing skincare products before the bottles are empty could unintentionally be harming the environment. “Try to buy only what you will really use until the last drop,” advises Ringquist. “We all have that drawer in our bathroom with all those spontaneous purchases that are just lying around for years.” She suggests remedying this by researching and finding products you will enjoy until the end. You can also commit to trying testers of a product before buying the full-sized version if you’re not sure you’ll use it.
In addition to using everything to the last drop, using less of your skincare regimen will stretch the product and your pocketbook. Hoyt suggests only using what you need. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to skimp on your usage, listen to your skin and follow its cues when it tells you that you might be using too many products for its liking. “Use less,” she says. “Look for good ingredients and support honest companies.”
Have an open mind about trying a different brand.
Products may look, smell, feel, and function differently than your current regimen, but giving a conscious skincare line a try may ramp up your routine and give you better skin in the process. “Be open-minded and try out new green skincare products,” says Wong. “They might not be the same as your non-green products, but keep trying.”
Additionally, finding out how your skin responds to a different line takes time, so be willing to stick it out as long as you aren’t experiencing adverse symptoms, such as a rash. “Skin irritation such as redness, swelling, excessive dryness, itching, burning, peeling, rash, or breakout are indications that use of a skincare product should be ceased,” advises Green, who suggests performing a patch test, which involves putting a small amount of product on a hidden area, such as your inner arm, and observing any reactions after 48 hours. “If there is no discomfort or irritation noticed after waiting this amount of time, the product should be safe for use without sensitivities,” she says. As long as you don’t have an adverse reaction, what begins as an experiment may lead to a new, positive experience with the added benefit that you’re doing your best to be kind to the earth.
One thing many people have learned from spending so much time at home over the last 16 months is that creating separate spaces for different functions in turn helps you function better. You need spots in our home to sleep, to prep and eat food, and — for more people than ever — to work. But you also crave places to relax and feel your best.
Of course, not everyone has space for one of those Instagram-ready meditation rooms. (After all, if you live in a studio or small home, you might not even have room for a full-sized couch!) Luckily, your self-care space does not have to be “the perfect big space,” according to psychologist Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. “How you feel about the space psychologically is going to be important, so as long as it’s a space that you can develop a positive association with and be physically comfortable in, I think that’s a really good start.”
Interior designer Maureen Stevens says that a self-care corner should simply be an area where you can block out the world. “Whether you have a spare room dedicated just for relaxation or just a small corner in your living or bedroom space,” having an area just for you can “keep your mental and emotional self in check,” she says.
Ready to create your personalized self-care corner? First off, pick where you’re going to build it out.
Dr. Bonior says that, ideally, you should choose a spot that’s a comfortable temperature and away from loud appliances and heavy traffic. Similarly, steer clear of setting up in your office or your child’s playroom, both places that can tempt you to organize something or remind you of your growing to-do list. Working from home has eliminated our boundaries, explains Dr. Bonior, so form some for this space. “There is no real way to get the type of mental and emotional clarity and space that we’re after if you’re constantly being reminded by signals of work,” she says.
Environmental psychologist Lee Chambers recommends picking a place that faces the outdoors or, if weather permits, appointing a spot outside. “For those who have a balcony or window box,” he says, “creating a little space of serenity either outside or by the door or window allows the grounding power of nature to add to the effects of feeling connected to something bigger.”
Next, determine what you will — and won’t — use the space for.
Decide how you plan to practice self-care in your newly designated corner. (Reading? Practicing yoga? Journaling? Spending just five minutes by yourself, pretty please?) “Once you know what self-care you will be using the space for, you will be able to assess the space you have, identify what you need, and create it in your own way,” Chambers says.
For example, if you specifically want to use the spot for meditation, Ray Jolicoeur, a Brooklyn-based meditation guide and the founder of meditation goods company Renoo, recommends adding floor cushions to give the visual representation necessary to encourage meditation in that space. He adds that items that bring you peace and comfort — for example, a photo of a grandparent or a favorite book — can also find a home here.
However, you don’t have to peg this space as a single-function area. Dr. Bonior suggests simply filling it with what brings you joy or peace, whether that’s puzzles for practicing mindfulness, a yoga mat, or a cozy couch for lounging.
She also recommends considering sensory items, like massage rollers or a weighted blanket, while Chambers suggests using houseplants and natural materials to infuse the space with nature, and candles and diffusers to involve your sense of smell. If there isn’t a door, Dr. Bonior says that a room separator, such as a folding screen or a curtain that can be pulled out, may be beneficial.
All of this said, you don’t have to add much to this area, and you definitely want to avoid the feeling of clutter. “Clutter can affect one’s mood so much!” says Stevens. “If your outside world is in disarray, it bounces and reflects back to you and adds to stress and anxiety.”
One way to influence the feel of the area without taking up much floor space is through color and light. “Any hue that’s muted can be calming, as long as it’s cohesive with the other elements in the room,” says Stevens, adding that blues and greens like French blue, sage, and mint are “reminiscent of land and sky — nature, which is the most powerful space when it comes to stress relief.” For equally serene lighting, opt for several sources, rather than one bright light. “Ones that create a meditative mood are those with warm whites, low wattage, and perhaps with a shade so it’s not a direct light,” Stevens says. If you must use overhead lighting, think about adding a dimmer.
Above all, though, you do you in this area.
Remember that this is your personal space and, says Jolicoeur, it “should inspire you to connect with your true self.”
Name: Amilia James and her dog, Charlie
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Size: 960 square feet
Type of home: Single-family home
Years lived in: Two, owned
Amilia James’ Knoxville, Tennessee, house (aka the Rose Door Home) has always given her positive vibes, including when she first visited it a little over two years ago. “I remember seeing my house listing in the morning while I was at work,” she recalls. “I texted my realtor, and a few hours later we were at the house. I spent about five minutes in the home before deciding to put in an offer — I just had a good feeling about it! That evening, my offer was accepted.”
Over the past 16 months, James — who is a licensed clinical social worker and professional photographer — has spent way more time in her home than she probably anticipated during that first viewing. In addition to working from the dining room, she’s used the time to dive into an assortment of colorful and functional DIY projects, from building an emerald green window seat to painting a “mini mural.”
As a therapist, James explains,”I spend most of my days sitting with other people who are struggling. It’s a real honor to get to do the work that I do, and there are times when it can feel really hard. It’s important for me to have a space that feels cozy and comforting. It’s also been so helpful to have a creative outlet through doing home projects. There are few things more satisfying than a great before and after picture and to feel the pride that I made it happen myself!”
Apartment Therapy Survey:
My Style: I’ve been inspired by 1940s home design, which is a little mid-century, a little traditional, and a little art deco. I love mixing traditional design, like wall molding, with mid-century furniture and bold wallpaper. The longer I’ve lived here, the more comfortable I’ve become taking design risks, like adding pink tile in the kitchen, painting scallops around my doorways, and building an emerald green window seat. My home is over 80 years old and definitely has its imperfections. Embracing my home’s quirks has allowed me to let go of some of my perfectionism. Things change and warp and age, and it’s absolutely OK.
Favorite Element: The first thing I noticed when I saw my home the first time was how many windows it has! The house still has the original wooden windows and so many of them. My house is light and bright year-round. My other favorite thing has to be my pink doors. Painting my doors pink was the very first project I did before I had even moved in.
Biggest Challenge: The back entryway of my home, the one I use most often, also serves as the laundry room. When I moved in, the entryway wasn’t set up for a stacking washer/dryer so I had them awkwardly side by side. There was no space to put my shoes or coat when I walked in the door, and doing laundry was not easy. I decided that I wanted a stackable unit, which required cutting a new dryer vent in the side of the house. I also wanted to increase storage, and so I built an enclosure around the washer and dryer with shelving. This was my first big build project, and I am so proud of how it turned out! The entryway is now super functional. I store my shoes, cleaning supplies, and Charlie’s supplies in baskets, which are both cute and functional.
Proudest DIY: I think I’m most proud of my laundry room custom built-in DIY. This was the first build I’d ever done, and I learned so much. I finished the laundry room right as the pandemic started, which kicked off a year of me being stuck in my house and doing every kind of DIY imaginable. I’ve built my own dining room table, built a custom window seat, painted a mini mural, added molding to the walls, installed a new bathroom vanity, and the list goes on and on. Tackling that laundry build gave me the skills and confidence I needed to dive into more DIY projects.
Biggest Indulgence: I invested quite a bit of money in my outdoor patio seating and fence. This was hands down the best money I have ever spent. During COVID, I wasn’t able to hang out with my friends inside, and we spent so many hours together on the patio with my dog, Charlie, running around in the yard. This past year was really hard on my mental health. I was living alone, isolated, and pouring a lot of emotional energy into supporting my therapy clients. Having my yard was invaluable in supporting my mental health, and I will be forever grateful for that space. This year, I’ve built several raised beds and have dreams of a luscious garden with climbing roses and cut flowers.
Do you work out of your home? If so, how do you make WFH work for you? Last March, I transitioned from working in the office to working from home in the course of one weekend! I very quickly had to set up a work space in my dining room. I ended up building myself a new dining room table, designing a gallery wall, building a window seat, and adding wallpaper. It was quite the room transformation! It ended up being a really great space to work in. I just recently transitioned back to working in the office several days a week, and I’m thinking about what changes I want to make to reclaim my home from my impromptu office setup. Life transitions can be hard, and sometimes it’s helpful to think if there’s a way to make changes in your environment that help support you as things change around you.
How does your home help you feel healthy (in whatever way that means for you)? I’m a therapist, and so I spend most of my days sitting with other people who are struggling. It’s a real honor to get to do the work that I do, and there are times when it can feel really hard. It’s important for me to have a space that feels cozy and comforting. It’s also been so helpful to have a creative outlet through doing home projects. There are few things more satisfying than a great before and after picture and to feel the pride that I made it happen myself!
How does your home help bring you joy? This past year, I haven’t been able to host many people in my home because of COVID. I am so excited to be able to host friends in my home again! It brings me joy to create a space that feels comfortable and welcoming for others. I never want my home to feel “too perfect” that other people can’t come in and make themselves comfortable. I’m also strategizing how to make my home more functional for hosting, like buying some additional seating (and plates!).
How have you set up your home for self-care? One of my greatest forms of self-care is reading, and my home is certainly set up for lots of cozy reading spots! Whether I’m curled up on the couch with Charlie, taking a bath, or in my big, comfy outdoor chair, I can escape to fictional worlds.
What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why? I will forever be obsessed with this little Bluetooth radio. I play music all the time, and it’s just too cute! I also love the vintage pieces I have in my home. My grandparents bought me my vintage mid-century credenza the first time they came and visited me at a local shop, and I couldn’t love it more.
Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: Like many old homes, my house does not have a lot of storage or closet space. I’ve learned to take advantage of vertical space for storage — for example: building shelving around the washer dryer, adding floating shelves in the kitchen and bathroom, and adding shelves in closets. I’ve also learned to take advantage of any time you can get furniture pieces that also double as storage. You wouldn’t know it, but I have an air mattress stored in my beautiful vintage credenza in my living room!
Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice? Do what makes you happy! We spend far too much time in our homes to not love the spaces we live in. As someone who has moved around a lot, it took a little while for my home to feel like mine. I hesitated to personalize a lot of my spaces because I was worried that I would move in a couple years. But no matter how much time I have left in this home, I will never regret the time, energy, and money I have put in to make it mine.
This house tour’s responses were edited for length and clarity.