Are cotton pads bad for the environment?

  • Date: May 13, 2022

Single-use cotton pads are common in homes and hospital wards across the country. From removing make up to soaking up blood from minor medical procedures, they are a popular choice. However, we have become more environmentally-aware in recent years – small changes in all areas of our lives could make a dramatic difference to the planet. But how do cotton pads fare? Are cotton pads bad for the environment?

Firstly, what are cotton pads made from?

When determining if an item is eco-friendly or not, knowing what it is made from is a great place to start. Cotton pads are, unsurprisingly, made from cotton – this can be organic or non-organic, depending on the brand. However, pads are often produced with a synthetic/plastic coating to maintain their structure and stop them being so fluffy.

So, are cotton pads bad for the environment?

Cotton pads are not always biodegradable (or compostable)

An item is said to be biodegradable if it can be broken down naturally by microbes such as bacteria. The component parts, essentially, return to nature. Pads made from 100% cotton are biodegradable. However, those that contain plastic will not fully biodegrade.  The cotton element will biodegrade, but the plastic will remain. It will simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces rather than returning to nature.

In terms of the compost pile, pure cotton pads will contribute as a carbon-rich (‘brown’) ingredient. But you must consider what the pad has been used for. If the use includes harsh chemicals it is advisable to err on the side of caution – don’t add it.

Plastic-related environmental issues

As well as some cotton pads containing plastic, the packaging is commonly made from plastic too. In addition to the lack of biodegradability, plastics also are extremely resource-intensive in terms of their production. Most plastics are derived from fossil fuels. In addition to being a non-renewable resource, when extracting them from the environment they can have a significant negative impact including water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation.  The manufacture of cotton pads, and their packaging, contributes to the problem. 

Plastic manufacturing is also resource-intensive. As well as being one of the most energy-intensive materials to produce, it is also extremely thirsty. Gallons of water are needed during the manufacturing process, particularly in the heating and cooling phases.

Cotton production is thirsty!

As well as the water needed for the plastic parts, the cotton also requires large amounts of water too. The water footprint refers to how much fresh water is used in the production of an item. Cotton has a very high footprint. This is an extremely important factor since any fresh water used is diverted from ecosystems which need it to thrive. The WWF predict that by 2025 two-thirds of the global population may face water shortages if we carry on using water the way we do currently. The conventional production of cotton – including cotton pads – contributes significantly to this worrying prediction.

Chemical use in cotton pad production

In non-organic cotton production, the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers is vast. These impact the surrounding environment significantly. Pesticides – chemicals used to kill pests such as insects – are used in large amounts when growing cotton. In fact, the cotton industry is estimated to be responsible for one-sixth of all chemical pesticides used worldwide. Pesticides can find their way into waterways and harm aquatic wildlife and pollute soil. They decrease the quality of the soil and reduce plant growth. Wildlife may also have to relocate, or may even starve, if their food source has been sprayed with pesticide.

Cotton also requires a significant amount of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizer to grow optimally. Scientists claim that those fertilizers used in cotton production are the most harmful to the environment. They can run into water bodies and affect the delicate ecosystems that exist within them. They can even cause dead zones in the water – these contain a much-decreased level of oxygen and can drastically affect aquatic species.

The bottom line

Cotton pads are often viewed as environmentally friendly – they are made from a natural material after all. However, they often contain plastic which can cause havoc for the environment in production and disposal. Even pure cotton pads come with their problems – water and chemical use in production is high. Our advice is to opt for re-useable cloths. However, where this is not possible, organic single-use cotton pads are the best option.