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Razors vs lazers – hair removals environmental footprint

Photo of bare legs using a razor.
Razors have the most environmental impact. Photo: Sora Shimazaki.

How much environmental impact does your hair removal have? With the method LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) it’s possible to find out. Sustainability researchers from Lund, United Kingdom and Italy put the shaving habits to a test when they tried to find answer to which method has the least environmental impact. That is, if you don't consider the option of not removing it at all.

Researchers Tullia Jack from Lund University, Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs from the University of Strathclyde and Monia Niero from the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies wanted to conduct a study to understand the environmental impact of a product and what is included in a life cycle assessment of a product. The researchers wanted to test something simple and mundane, and settled on various hair removal products that are found in every home.

– Many users want to find out what impact their items have on the environment, but we rarely realise all that needs to be included in that analysis, says Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs. And as a member of the public, you don't have the opportunity to investigate it either. The production itself we can find out to some extent, but the whole life cycle of the product is more difficult to measure. For example, how does the fact that we often shower while shaving our legs affect the life cycle analysis?

Razor has the highest environmental impact

The environmental impact of the three different products - wax strip, laser and disposable razor – was calculated for 10 years of use. The benchmark was bananas, a fruit known for its high impact on the environment. Measured in bananas, a ten-year use of the wax strips was equivalent to 263 bananas, the laser 61 bananas and the razor a staggering 70 304 bananas, or the production of four laptops.

– Hair removal may seem like an everyday beauty routine and purchase, but there is some environmental impact over the years. Especially considering how many other unnecessary routines we also burden the planet with," says Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs. She says that while it is not up to individuals to solve the world's environmental problems, we can do something by changing our thinking about planetary boundaries.

– We need more information about the environmental impact of the products we buy. Not only the cost of production, but also waste management, quality and most importantly, we need to measure usage. Taking the train is more environmentally friendly than the car, yes. But most importantly, we need to travel less and when we do, travel shorter distances.

Questioning behaviour

But above all, the researchers want to highlight the illogicality of certain behaviours.
– Our most important conclusion is not really which hair removal method is best, but to clarify the social systems we are trapped in, says Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs. 
– Instead of finding the product with the least environmental impact, we should start thinking about normalising not shaving. Why don't we leave the new generation alone and stop passing on these practices?

Contact details to the researchers:

Tullia Jack, Associate Professor, Lund University, Department of Service Sciences.
Contact: tulia [dot] jack [at] ses [dot] lu [dot] se (tulia[dot]jack[at]ses[dot]lu[dot]se)

Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs, Chancellor's Fellow, University of Strathclyde, Department of Design, Manufacturing and Engineering Management.
Contact: katherine [dot] ellsworth-krebs [at] strath [dot] ac [dot] uk (katherine[dot]ellsworth-krebs[at]strath[dot]ac[dot]uk)

Monia Niero, Associate Professor, Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies, Sustainability and Climate Interdisciplinary Centre
Contact: Monia [dot] Niero [at] santannapisa [dot] it (Monia[dot]Niero[at]santannapisa[dot]it)

How was the study conducted?

The study conducted a simplified life cycle assessment (LCA). The goal was to compare alternative methods of hair removal on the entire leg: a) shaving, b) waxing and c) laser. To build the LCA model, they chose products from Amazon that were available for delivery to Washington DC, where their avatar Emma lived in 2022, and kept them constant over the following ten years.
Download the article: Feminist LCAs: Finding leverage points for wellbeing within planetary boundaries

Why bananas?

Bananas are used to get an idea of the difference between the environmental impacts of these products. The method was first used in a popular science book on life cycle assessment called How Bad Are Bananas, by Mike Berners-Lee. It is the title of this book that led to the banana comparison, although they also compared hair removal to cotton jeans and the purchase of a laptop computer to help a reader understand the meaning of kg CO2-eq.