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Packing Sustainable Travel Toiletries? Make Sure They're Biodegradable.

Guest post by Sustainable Jungle


Finally! It’s time for that vacation you’ve been looking forward to all year. You’ve gone to great lengths to ensure your adventure is as eco-friendly as travel can be.

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 you love. And you’ve diligently packed all your plastic free travel essentials to ensure you avoid disposable plastics. Heck, you’ve even purchased some carbon offsets for your flight! You’re feeling like quite the eco-savvy traveler, aren’t you?

The last thing on your list? Sustainable travel toiletries. But be wary. When it comes to those daily essentials, it’s not just the bottles we should worry about. It’s what’s inside them. Here’s why finding biodegradable travel toiletries is a huge part of packing an eco-friendly toiletry kit.


What are biodegradable travel toiletries?

So what does biodegradable actually mean? And why do we care about finding biodegradable and sustainable travel toiletries? Biodegradation is a process by which microorganisms like bacteria and fungi break down materials into their 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 year after disposal.

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

Soaps and other sustainable travel toiletries 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

We often talk about biodegradable soaps in the context of camping and other wilderness travel. But they’re 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?

Since the 1950s, most soap, shampoo, and toothpaste products use synthetic detergents and surfactants. These are desired for their foamy quality and ability to cut through grease. We’ve come to equate more foam with feeling cleaner.

But these detergents 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. This 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. They run into waterways each time we use these non-biodegradable soaps. This occurs 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. Add to the fact that human waste and many agricultural fertilizers are also phosphorus-based. Natural waterways are being inundated with phosphate-rich runoff.

Phosphorus is one of the most important nutrients for ecosystem health. And it still abides by the good old “everything in moderation” rule of thumb. Too much phosphorus stimulates the growth of algae and other aquatic plants. This in turn sucks up oxygen in the water and leaves oxygen-deprived “dead zones.”  The result? Increasingly dirty water as plants die and rot. Eventually, the waterway can dry up altogether.

This process is called eutrophication. 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. This includes 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. They cause adrenal and reproductive disorders like blue-sac disease. Detergent concentrations as low as 5 parts per million are shown to kill fish eggs.



Choosing sustainable travel toiletries that are biodegradable

Wow, that was a little rough! Luckily, you don’t need to be part of the problem. When it comes to picking your sustainable travel toiletries, you’ve got good options. You should be thinking of your sustainable travel toiletry kit as a super-condensed version of your home zero waste bathroom. Here are some tips on how to create it:


Look for sustainable travel toothpaste, 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 specialize in all-natural biodegradable products.

Don’t forget about another common sustainable travel toiletry item: sunscreen.

About 6,000 tons of toxic sunscreen and a host of reef bleaching chemicals end up in the world’s oceans every year.  Avoid those and opt to add a reef safe sunscreen to your sustainable travel toiletries to ensure no one has to compromise between protecting their skin and the planet.

No matter the product, when you’re shopping for biodegradable and sustainable travel toiletries, be aware of greenwashing.

 A lot of “biodegradable” products aren’t as harmless as they sound. 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 the least, the label should say: phosphate-free, SLS-free, and paraben-free.

Be wary of biodegradable soaps and sustainable travel toiletries that advertise foaming action. 

While natural ingredients can foam to some extent, true foaming agents are neither natural nor biodegradable.


    Using Biodegradable and Sustainable Travel Toiletries Responsibly

    Biodegradable and sustainable travel toiletries are not impact-free. We don’t get a free pass to use them as we please. Especially if we’re traveling in the wild. A good rule thumb when using your sustainable travel toiletries is this. 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.
    • Remember that biodegradable soap isn’t actually biodegradable when it ends up in a river or lake. Water lacks the necessary bacteria required to break down its elements.
    • Biodegradable soap requires soil to properly break down. 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.
    • Use sustainable travel toiletries sparingly. Most biodegradable soap (like Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash and Dr. Bronner’s) is super concentrated, so you don’t need much.


    Choosing to use biodegradable and sustainable 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.  It will help keep these places pristine for generations to come!


    Ready to hit the road? Shop eco friendly travel bags.


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