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Dissolvable Pods May Be the Future of Beauty Product Packaging

Like the ones laundry detergent comes in, but for shampoo and conditioner.

Packaging for beauty and personal-care products can run the gamut from genius (cushion compacts) to terrible (this leaky toothpaste tube). Dissolvable pods, which you probably know as those things that laundry detergent comes in, might very well be the next big thing in cosmetic packaging. While it’s way too early to call them either genius or terrible, it’s an intriguing technology for certain sectors of the beauty industry.

Pacific Shaving Company is the first company to use this technology for a commercial cosmetic application. The company released its Single Use Shaving Cream Minis($8.99) in late April. You can buy them all over the country at stores like CVS, Target, Publix, Bed Bath & Beyond, and on Amazon. They’re sold in a flexible, zip-locked plastic pouch that contains 40 little pillow-like one-time-use pods of concentrated shaving cream. When you get them wet and rub them vigorously, the thin, transparent sheath dissolves, leaving behind a pleasant spearmint-scented lather. The company touts their TSA-friendliness.

“It just seemed like a perfect application for shaving products,” says Pacific Shaving Company co-founder Stan Ades. Ades took his idea to MonoSol, a company owned by Japanese parent conglomerate Kuraray, which makes the vast majority of the water-soluble films that are currently used in the household-cleaning market. It took about a year and a half to develop the product. “What I love about it is it’s like nothing else on the market, but at the same time people totally understand what it is.”

Okay, but what is it, exactly? Tossing a disappearing pod into your dishwasher or washing machine is one thing, but seeing what looks like a piece of plastic dissolve right in front of your eyes and then smearing that on your skin is another thing entirely.

These water-soluble films are made out of a polymer called polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). It’s been around since at least the 1950s, and MonoSol has been using it as a film in different iterations and for different industrial applications since then. (They also make a film used by the pharmaceutical industry to deliver drugs to people via an orally disintegrating film, kind of like those Listerine strips.)

Pacific Shaving Company’s shave cream pods.

While the film dissolves when water hits it, it’s also strong enough to stand up to a certain amount of tension without breaking in transit. But, of course, many beauty products contain water, and so the amount in a given product is a potential limitation for what can be produced in a pod. However, products can contain a certain amount and still maintain the pod’s integrity without essentially dissolving themselves from the inside out.

“We are continuously developing the film technology and trying to push the boundaries on that,” says Christian Herrmanns, the senior vice president of marketing and sales at MonoSol, who acknowledges that this has been an issue when developing other personal-care product uses for the film. “There’s this contradiction… you want the water to dissolve the film as quickly as possible in use, but you want the pouch to maintain its integrity.” He says the water content of Pacific Shaving Company’s shaving cream wasn’t an issue.

There’s definitely a bit of a learning curve for using the shaving cream pods, which Ades acknowledges. You need to let the water sit on the pod for a good three or four seconds, then be pretty aggressive when you rub your hands together to ensure the coating dissolves completely. If it doesn’t, you’re left with an unpleasantly gooey chunk on your skin. If you use too much water, the final product is too diluted. Also, you need to have dry hands when you reach into the packaging to pull a pod out or risk melting all the other ones.

But if you do it right, it’s a lovely experience, with a lather that’s not too foamy with a nice amount of glide. Ades says he’s excited to have offered an innovation to the shaving cream market, which he claims hasn’t offered up anything new since shaving gel was introduced in the 1970s.

More beauty product pods are in the pipeline. Herrmanns says MonoSol is currently working with some companies (he declined to name them since nothing is finalized yet) that provide those tiny shampoo, conditioner, and body wash bottles to hotels. “What usually happens is you don’t use all the product and at the end of the day, you have waste in the form of the bottle left behind,” says Herrmanns. “The key challenge is figuring out the secondary packaging.” This means the packaging the pods come in to protect them. “How do we bring a product to an end consumer in a hotel setting where we have maybe three pods — shampoo, conditioner, and body wash?” Hermanns muses. “How is that being delivered? That’s the biggest challenge.” They are looking at wall dispensers, but there still isn’t an ideal solution.

Which brings us to the question of eco-friendliness. Pacific Shaving Company, to its credit, does not greenwash this product, but does mention in its video that the pods are “waste-free.” Ades notes that they are portioned to be just the amount you need, because who hasn’t squirted traditional shaving cream out of a can only to be left with an amount that could shave a Yeti? My husband, who rides his bike to work and showers and shaves there, says they’re the perfect amount for his face, with maybe a little extra. It takes three pods for me, a female person, to shave — one for each leg and one for both underarms.

The claim about decreased product waste is probably legitimate, confirms William Russell, a principal at Transitioning to Green, a sustainability management consulting firm that has worked with several large multinational beauty companies, including L’Oréal. While he acknowledges that he can’t rate the pods’ overall sustainability profile without doing a special test called a lifecycle analysis, he says, “For me, the best value or innovation is the portioning. I know I’m wasting my gel every time I use it! And I do think the water-soluble [pod] is environmentally safe. Environmentally, at worst it’s neutral.”

Russell’s issue, though, is with the secondary packaging, meaning the flexible low-density polyethylene plastic pouch the pods are sold in. He says the sustainability community is “not there yet” when it comes to recycling and repurposing this kind of material. Still, he says, “I’m not anti-flexible plastic packaging. I’m a realist. But I have to acknowledge that the end of life for that packaging material is a work in progress.” MonoSol’s Herrmanns also says that sustainability for the secondary packaging of the hotel amenities is top of mind, but has to be balanced with convenience and an experience for the consumer that is going to be palatable.

The packaging for the shave cream pods.

Also top of mind for consumers will likely be safety, especially in this age of chemophobia and the ongoing conversation about safe cosmetics. You could be forgiven for being slightly freaked out by dissolving plastic, but PVA is likely not going to harm you. The EWG, the organization that tends to err on the side of calling everything “toxic,” gives polyvinyl alcohol its safest “1” rating. MonoSol uses food-grade film for its cosmetics applications, meaning that its ingredients are on the FDA’s GRAS (“generally recognized as safe”) list. In 2005, the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) evaluated PVA as an edible film coating for dietary supplements and deemed it safe.

But there’s also the issue of small children eating the pods because they look like colorful treats. In these cases, it’s the product inside the films that can be potentially harmful. Herrmanns says that in the years since the first cases were reported, MonoSol has worked with cleaning companies to add a “bittering” agent to the films to make them taste bad and also to add increased strength to the film, meaning that they will take longer to dissolve. And, the industry has moved to opaque secondary packaging and added warnings. Less convenient, but definitely safer for the toddler who shoves it in his or her mouth when no one’s looking. But it’s an issue this industry still has to deal with; last month NBC News reported that adults with dementia were also at risk for ingesting laundry pods.

Still, there are tons of potential uses for these pods in beauty. Travel face wash makes a lot of sense, as do bath bombs. If someone could figure out an application for pre-portioned sunscreen, that would be incredible, since no one ever applies the recommended amount. The pods are also just fun.

As Ades says, “There’s a little bit of 12-year-old mad-scientist boy in me. I just want to create stuff, and this seemed cool.”

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