Why Are Cotton Pads Bad for the Environment & What Are The Alternatives?

When thinking of sustainable materials, cotton often comes to mind as one of the most widespread and eco-friendly choices available on the market.

After all, cotton is an all-natural and fully renewable fibre. It’s used by a variety of industries, from textiles to healthcare and personal care. 

Since it is so easy to harvest, versatile and biodegradable, it’s not surprising that so many people think of cotton as one of the most sustainable materials around.

But the realities of modern cotton production are, unfortunately, anything but sustainable. While a single ball of cotton can be discarded without harming the environment in the process, cotton products like pads are a whole different animal.

So, what is the environmental impact of modern cotton production and why are cotton pads bad for the environment? Here’s all you need to know about cotton pads, plus the alternatives available to make your personal care routine a whole lot greener!

What’s the impact of cotton production on the environment?

Cotton has been harvested for thousands and thousands of years. The origins of cotton use are believed to date as far back as 5000 B.C!

Evidence of cotton harvesting has been noted thousands of years ago in South America, South Asia, Egypt and China. But it’s only when mass trade between civilizations started to really pick up that cotton became an accessible material, woven into all sorts of textiles and spread across the globe.

Modern cotton production has come a long way since its millenia-old beginnings. However, one thing hasn’t really changed through it all – the amount of water needed to make plantations grow.

large cotton field for production

Water usage is by far the biggest environmental drawback of cotton production. It’s estimated that about 2,700 litres of water are needed to make a single cotton shirt. That’s an incredible amount. Other material crops, such as the flax plant which produces linen, doesn’t need as much water. You can read up here on how sustainable linen is.

Since modern cotton plantations tend to be located in some of the driest, warmest regions of the world, most of the water needed for production comes from intensive irrigation. 

The impact of intensive water irrigation on the world’s most precious resource is clear. Cotton cultivation in Central Asia has been so intensive that the mighty Aral Sea basin has shrunk by a whopping 85%!

Conventional cotton production is also linked to increasing waterway pollution and soil degradation.

In fact, cotton is the most heavily chemically-sprayed crop in the world. This means that the pollutant pesticides used to keep each crop safe from pests and diseases will eventually end up polluting nearby lakes, rivers and wetlands, destroying marine life and causing untold trouble to the surrounding ecosystems. This is also why certified organic cotton is a better choice.

Conventional cotton production also harms the quality of the soil due to the extensive, constant harvesting of the crop and the heavy use of pesticides. This is similar to intensive food production, which is why regenerative agriculture should be the world’s go to as a well-needed, sustainable method.

Are cotton pads bad for the environment?

Clothing and furniture aside, cotton is also commonly used for making skincare and personal care essentials like cotton tips and pads. 

Many people use these cotton products to take make-up off at the end of the day and to clean wounds. 

The environmental pressure of modern textile production is relatively well-known and understood, but are cotton pads bad for the environment too?

The answer is a resounding yes.

The overwhelming majority of cotton pads and balls are single-use. So, if we were to use a pad or two every day, as many people do, we’ll be consuming a lot more cotton than we think — yes, even if you rarely ever shop for clothes! 

On top of being a single-use item, everyday cotton pads are also not as biodegradable as a 100% cotton ball. They are also definitely not recyclable, and the cotton pad waste is destined for landfill or to burn. 

Do cotton wool pads have plastic in them?

One of the biggest issues with everyday cotton pads comes down to how they are made. 

It’s quite unlikely that you’ll find a pad made out of 100% unbleached, organic cotton, unless you already shop at a sustainable eco shop. 

In fact, many cotton pads have plastic in them. This is because they are commonly treated with synthetic fibres to achieve their compressed, round shape and signature firmness.

This means that on top of being single-use and needing unsustainable amounts of water to produce, cotton pads aren’t even biodegradable either.

cotton wool balls in a bowl

Are cotton wool pads compostable?

It depends on what type of cotton we’re talking about.

100% cotton balls and rounds made of pure cotton are compostable and can decompose naturally and relatively quickly (about 12 months in a compost bin), this is certainly not the case for the cotton pads you buy at your local shop or supermarket.

Pure cotton can take as little as a few weeks to fully break down in the environment, but mainstream cotton pads (manufactured with synthetic plastic fibres in them and infused with chemicals) will not break down at all.

This is the case whether you dispose of them in your compost bin or throw them away to end up in the landfill.

What are the best environmental alternatives to cotton pads?

In recent years, quite a lot has been done to reduce the heavy environmental impact of cotton production. One improvement is the move to organic cotton crops, which are becoming more and more widespread around the world.

But despite the industry’s best intention, moving to organic cotton will only help reduce the impact of soil degradation and waterway pollution, leaving the bigger issue of unsustainable water use virtually untouched. 

While switching to 100% organic cotton pads might not be the be-all-and-end-all answer, there are plenty of cotton pad alternatives you can start incorporating into your daily routine today to make your makeup removal regimen much greener.

Use and reuse is key to using organic cotton better.

Sustainable alternatives to cotton balls and pads

If you’re looking for the most sustainable solution, you’ll want to focus on reusable alternatives like washable bamboo pads, designed to be washed and reused time and time again. These are 100% plastic-free and made through a combination of eco-friendly bamboo cotton and 100% natural organic cotton.

You can also swap your old cotton pads with equally effective flannel pads and hemp fabric pads. These are made of organic woven cotton and hemp, which are washable, reusable, and compostable. 

Finally, watch out for one of the latest and most eco-friendly cotton pad alternatives around, set to become a lot more mainstream – Konjac sponges.

These all-natural sponges are made from the porous Asian vegetable konjac. While they are not entirely reusable (the porous material makes them a little hard to wash after a few months!), they are fully compostable and a lot more sustainable than any cotton product, organic or not.

If you’re interested in buying a more sustainable alternative to cotton balls and pads, have a look at the great online eco shops listed on my blog post.

The answer to ‘are cotton pads bad for the environment’ might be a yes, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on your daily skincare routine or even give up on cotton products altogether! 

Making better and more sustainable choices over the long term is what is going to help improve your environmental impact. 

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Ben & Murphy Peaks Mam Tor

I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about living a more sustainable, environmentally friendly life. Away from the laptop, I love spending time in nature and with my young family (plus Murphy the dog!). I write and send out the Eco Life Newsletter.