Are cotton pads biodegradable? Can they be composted?

  • Date: May 13, 2022

Cotton pads remain a go-to item for everything from make-up removal to minor medical procedures. However, their use leads to ridiculous amounts of waste. They can’t be recycled (or flushed down the toilet…) and tend to end up in landfill. What are the other alternatives for their disposal? Are cotton pads biodegradable and can they be added to your home compost bin?

Firstly, what are cotton pads made of?

What an item is made of is a key factor in determining if it is biodegradable (and eco-friendly) or not. When it comes to cotton pads, this is straight forward – they are made from cotton, right? Mostly, but it depends heavily on the brand. Pads are often produced with a synthetic (namely, plastic) coating. This helps them keep their structure and prevents them being so fluffy. In medical procedures this is especially important. After all, you don’t want stray threads finding their way into open wounds.

So, are cotton pads biodegradable?

For cotton pads to be regarded as biodegradable they must have the ability to be broken down by micro-organisms such as bacteria. And these micro-organisms are only interested in natural materials, not synthetic.

Cotton pads will only fully biodegrade if they are made from pure cotton. If they contain plastic, they will only partially biodegrade. The cotton element will biodegrade, essentially returning its components to nature. The plastic, on the other hand, will break into smaller pieces over time and has potential to cause harm to nature.

It should be noted that to biodegrade, an item must be in favorable conditions. Landfill does not provide these. Often items are packed together tightly with very little airflow and moisture is limited. This is far from ideal when it comes to natural breakdown. You should always keep this in mind when buying a biodegradable product. A matter of months is, generally, quoted for biodegradation times of cotton pads but this timeframe is unlikely to be achieved in landfill.

Are cotton pads compostable?

Composting is increasing in popularity across the globe, albeit at different rates in different countries. As well as the obvious waste disposal benefits, it also provides a nutrient-rich, homemade fertilizer for your garden.

Often the terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are used interchangeably. But unfortunately, all biodegradable items are not compostable. If an item is fully biodegradable but it is, say, saturated in chemicals or hazardous biowaste it will not be suitable for the compost bin. Some chemicals are suitable to add but others may contaminate the pile and, ultimately, your garden.

However, for an item to be fit for composting it must be biodegradable. In other words, all compostable items are biodegradable but not all biodegradable items are compostable! Since plastic is non-biodegradable, cotton pads that are coated with it won’t be suitable. They will need to go in the trash, unfortunately.

Those that do not contain plastic, and have not be used with harsh chemicals, can be added to the compost pile.  Deciding what constitutes harsh chemicals is, perhaps, a bit more challenging. For example, oils may seem fairly innocuous but they can harm the composting process. Look to see what ingredients your cosmetics contain and take it from there. As always, it is important to only add what you feel comfortable adding. Err on the side of caution if you are unsure – it isn’t worth the risk.

Cotton pads that are plastic and harsh chemical-free are a relatively straight forward item to compost. Arguably, deciding if they are suitable or not is the most complicated part! Not only do they add to the ‘brown’ carbon-rich element of the pile, but they also do a great job in soaking up any excess moisture.  

Some considerations when composting cotton pads…

As with many items, the composting process is quicker if the cotton pads are cut up into smaller pieces. If you do not have scissors to hand, don’t worry – they will happily compost in their original form, they will just take a little bit longer. Smaller pieces simply present a larger surface area to the bacteria.  It also allows the pieces to be mixed throughout the pile, spreading the carbon that they contain.

The bottom line

Single-use cotton pads contribute massively to landfill.  Composting them is a potential option to divert them from landfill. However, if they have a plastic coating or have been saturated in nasty chemicals they are a definite no-go! As always, we recommend you opt for reusable alternatives where possible. As well as avoiding the issues of waste, the environmental impact of production is also minimized. It will save you money too!