Cotton wool: It’s natural, but not very sustainable. What are the alternatives?

One Change: There are plenty of easy, reusable products – or you can make your own

Cotton wool is not compostable – even though it’s a natural fibre, it becomes contaminated when used, with the likes of nail polish remover, facial toner or mascara. Photograph: iStock

Cotton wool has become a staple household item for many of us – but do we really need it? These small, fluffy disks have taken an awfully long journey – from a field in India, perhaps, then picked, treated, packaged, transported and stacked onto a supermarket shelf – to be used only for a few seconds before being tossed into the bin. A huge amount of time and energy goes into producing this throwaway item.

It takes about 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton, according to the World Wildlife Fund – that’s equivalent to one T-shirt and a pair of jeans, or nearly six months of water use for the average Irish person. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24 per cent of insecticides worldwide. India, China and the US are the largest producers of cotton, which globally amounted to some 120 million bales in 2017.

All of this may make your small pack of cotton wool seem rather insignificant – but it all adds up. My own usage of cotton wool – three or four small rounds a day – amounts to about 18 packs per year.

Cotton wool is not compostable – even though it's a natural fibre, it becomes contaminated when used, with the likes of nail polish remover, facial toner or mascara. According to the Government-run website, cotton wool should be placed in the general waste bin, and it should definitely not be flushed down the toilet, as it expands in water and can cause blockages.


Synthetic fibres

Some cotton wool pads also have synthetic fibres added – to help them hold their shape, or to give a smoother texture. What this essentially means is that they contain plastic, and will not fully biodegrade in landfill. While there are plenty of ethical, organic cotton wool brands on the market, these run into the same problems of water and energy consumption during production.

I recently switched to reusable cotton rounds, which I ordered online from Green Outlook Ireland and Earth Mother. Both brands work perfectly for removing cleanser or applying toner (I find the darker colours more practical for make-up removal), and come with a handy cloth bag to keep them together in the washing machine. It's a small adjustment to a daily routine and – barring a few times that I threw one in the bin by mistake – a relatively easy one to make.

You can also make your own reusable alternatives to cotton wool by cutting up an old towel or sheet into cotton rounds – check out for some tips. And, of course, there's always the good old-fashioned face cloth.

One Change is a weekly column about the changes, big and small, that we can make in our daily lives for the good of the planet