Tips for selecting Biodegradable Toiletries

Guest post by Sustainable Jungle

 

Finally! It’s time for that vacation you’ve been looking forward to all year, and you’ve gone to great lengths to ensure your fun is also eco-friendly.

You’ve chosen durable and low-impact luggage like The Pakt One or The Pakt Travel Backpack, filled it with sustainable clothing like that recycled nylon swimsuit, and diligently packed all your zero waste essentials to ensure you avoid disposable plastics. Heck, you’ve even proactively purchased some carbon offsets for your flight! You’re probably feeling like quite the eco-savvy traveler, aren’t you?

But have you thought about the unseen impact of the other items in your suitcase? When it comes to travel toiletries, it’s not just the plastic bottles we should worry about, but what’s inside them.

 

How biodegradable is your shampoo?

So what does biodegradable actually mean? Biodegradation is simply a process by which microorganisms like bacteria and fungi break down material into its natural elements (water, CO2, and organic material aka “biomass”).

Time is another (tricky) factor. For something to be considered biodegradable in legal terms, it has to “completely break down and return to nature within a reasonably short period of time [a maximum of one year] after disposal.”

While this rule of thumb is applied toward solid waste products, like bags and packaging, it also applies to personal care products that don’t necessarily yield waste we can see.

Soaps and other personal care products are usually deemed biodegradable if bacteria can break them down by 90% into water, CO2, and biomass within six months, without any harmful side effects on the ecosystem.

 

 

 

The problem with off-the-shelf personal care products

While we often talk about biodegradable soaps in the context of camping and other wilderness travel, they are equally important to use when traveling even in urban areas, especially those in developing countries with less sophisticated plumbing and water treatment facilities. But why? What’s so bad about these bubbles?

Well since the 1950s, most soap, shampoo, and toothpaste products use synthetic detergents and surfactants (as opposed to natural saponified oils), desired for their foamy quality and ability to cut through grease. We’ve come to equate more foam with feeling more clean.

These detergents, however, are detrimental to the planet, no matter where they are used. Even in urban areas, many water treatment facilities aren’t able to filter them out. Which leads to suds seeping into the local lakes, rivers, and yes, back into the very water we drink. So it’s important for us travelers not to pollute the local drinking water.

Detergents are also formulated with non-biodegradable phosphates which run into waterways each time we use these non-biodegradable soaps at an estimated 1.5 to 2 pounds per person per year. In fact, between 50% and 75% of the phosphorus in lakes and rivers is now detergent-derived. Compounded by the fact that human waste and many agricultural fertilizers are also phosphorus-based, natural waterways are being inundated with phosphate-rich runoff.

While phosphorus is one of the most important nutrients for ecosystem health, it still abides by the good ol’ everything in moderation rule of thumb. Too much phosphorus stimulates the growth of algae and other aquatic plants, which in turn suck up all the oxygen in the water and leave oxygen-deprived “dead zones” and increasingly dirty water as the plants seasonally die and rot. Eventually, the waterway can dry up altogether.

This process is called eutrophication, and while to some extent it happens naturally, we humans and our non-biodegradable soaps have crammed thousands of years worth of eutrophication into the last few decades alone.

Aside from leading to less oxygen in the water, detergents and surfactants are also directly harmful to aquatic life (including fish, amphibians, birds, mammals, and even bees!), due largely in part to the sodium silicate and phthalates present in many regular beauty products. These chemicals act as endocrine disruptors or nerve toxins, cause adrenal and reproductive disorders like blue-sac disease. Detergent concentrations as low as 5 ppm (parts per million, which is tiny!) are shown to kill fish eggs.

 

 

Choosing Biodegradable Travel Products

We know, that was all a little depressing! But we don’t have to be a part of the problem! Let’s turn our minds toward what this means from a practical packing sense. You should be thinking of your travel toiletry kit as a super-condensed, minimalist version of your at-home zero waste bathroom. Here are some tips on how to create it:

 

  • Look for eco-friendly toothpaste (ideally zero waste), body soap, and shampoo (which can be combined into one product for the true minimalist packers out there). Today, there are lots of zero waste shampoo brands that are not only forgoing plastic packaging but specialize in all-natural biodegradable products.
  • And even though we’ve been talking a lot about soaps, as they make up the bulk of our necessary toiletries, don’t forget about another common travel item: sunscreen. Considering about 6,000 tons of toxic sunscreen and a host of reef bleaching chemicals end up in the world’s oceans every year, we best avoid those and opt for reef safe sunscreen to ensure no one has to compromise between protecting their skin and the planet.
  • No matter the product, when you’re shopping for biodegradable travel products, be aware of greenwashing. A lot of “biodegradable” products aren’t as harmless as they sound, and given the lax definitions of biodegradable, it’s easy to get away with false or misleading claims.
  • Look at the ingredient list. Do you know what they all are? If so, that’s a pretty good bet they’re natural and non-toxic. At a minimum the label should say (or ingredient list leaves out): phosphate-free, SLS-free, and paraben-free.
  • Also, be wary of biodegradable soaps that advertise suds and lots of foaming action. While natural ingredients can foam to some extent, true foaming agents are neither natural nor biodegradable.

 

Using Biodegradable Travel Products Responsibly

Biodegradable soap is not impact-free, and we don’t get a free pass to use them as we please, especially if traveling in the wild. Ask yourself, “Would you drink it?” If the answer is no, it doesn’t belong in a natural water source. Here are more ways to use biodegradable travel products responsibly.

 

  • Follow Leave No Trace (LNT) principles whenever you use biodegradable soaps outside official plumbing systems. Most importantly, do NOT wash your dishes, laundry, or self directly in a natural water source.
  • Biodegradable soap isn’t actually biodegradable when it ends up in a river or lake because water lacks the necessary bacteria required to break down its elements.
  • Biodegradable soap requires soil to properly break down, so if you’re washing in the woods, make sure you are at least 200 feet away from any water source. Then dig a cathole 6” deep and dump your soapy water there, covering when finished.
  • Also, be sure you use sparingly. Most biodegradable soap (like Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash and Dr. Bronner’s) is super concentrated, so you really don’t need much.


Choosing to use biodegradable travel toiletries shows respect for the places you’re visiting, urban or rural. It means you’re taking a small step to reduce your impact on septic systems, drinking water, and natural waterways, which in turn will help keep these places pristine for generations to come!

 

Sustainable Jungle is a podcast and blog focused on sustainable living.