The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

May 20, 2011

Reusable cotton rounds beat cotton balls in plastic or paper packaging.

Cotton balls come packaged in plastic. So do cotton facial rounds. And even organic cotton balls come in plastic. So I’d pretty much given up using either of them after my last bag ran out a few years ago.

cotton rounds in plastic packaging

organic cotton balls in plastic packaging

And then, in March, I discovered cotton balls in a cardboard box at CVS. I checked inside the box to make sure there wasn’t a plastic bag hiding in there. Nope. A paper bag. I got all excited and bought a box.

CVS sterile cotton balls in cardboard box

But as I walked home, I started to think. And the more I thought, the less excited I got. First of all, the packaging might not have been plastic, but there sure was a lot of it. Double packaging — box AND bag. It didn’t seem like such great alternative to the plastic after all.

The problem with cotton

And then I started thinking about the cotton balls themselves. I could get organic cotton balls in a plastic bag, but the cotton in this box was not organic. And, according to the Organic Trade Association:

Cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop (1).

Now I really felt confused. So I decided to put the question to followers of the My Plastic-free Life Facebook page. I posted:

Your opinion please! Compare enviro impact of a) regular cotton balls inside disposable paper bag PLUS disposable cardboard box vs. b) organic cotton balls in disposable plastic bag.

And I got 30 responses! Some people chose paper over plastic. Some chose organic in plastic over paper. And then someone suggested cutting up flannel for reusable cotton squares. Oh duh! Reusables are always better than disposable! And another person suggested checking on Etsy. Of course, EVERYTHING is on Etsy! And finally, someone pointed me to a company called Better for Grownups that makes reusable cotton rounds from organic cotton and packages them in plain brown boxes. The best answer yet.

Reusable Cotton Rounds


There are many, many Etsy sellers offering handmade, reusable, organic cotton rounds.  And if you’re crafty, you could make them yourself and save money and shipping.  Collect used rounds in an organic cotton net or mesh bag (I keep one hanging on the bathroom door) and toss the whole thing in the washer when it gets full.

Etsy handmade cotton facial rounds

Why use cotton balls or rounds in the first place?

Here’s where someone’s going to question the necessity of using any kind of cotton ball or cotton pad, so I put the question to you all. Do you use them? What do you use them for? Me… I was really only using cotton balls to apply antiseptic to the occasional boo boo. I don’t really wear much makeup, and I find a wash cloth is fine for the times that I do. And I don’t put any kind of astringent on my face. I’m just lucky with good skin, I guess.

But what do you use them for? And could reusables be a better choice for you?

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Julia Whalen
4 years ago

I really like the idea of cutting up old flannel and using that :)

4 years ago

I use cotton balls for removing makeup only and I have used reusable but I find they are very rough on the eyes and they are hard to wash, mascara is really hard to wash off the reusable pads. I like your boxed cotton balls , where did you get them?

5 years ago

Hi, so I’m really trying to jump on the anti-cotton band wagon. I own a natural nail salon and go through cotton, literally like it’s my job 😉. We use it to ovbiviously take off nail polish but also during a gel polish soak off, where the cotton needs to stay wet with acetone in a finger clip for upwards of 20 mins. State board would never allow for a reuseable option due to sanitation. Have you found any other disposable options that I may look into?

7 years ago

You can always get a yard of flannel and using pinking shears, cut suitable pieces and use till worn out. I put mine in a mesh laundry bag. Great for fingernail polish remover too.

Summer W
5 years ago
Reply to  Grace

I thought about this the other day as I opened a felt pad from a disposable nail polish remover pack… would washing go if it was coated in nail polish.? Grace- since you mentioned it–how do you deal with it? Is it only ok to reuse if not coated in polish?? Thanks!

laura routh
7 years ago

I know I’m jumping in the conversation on the very very late side, but Life Without Plastic has the hemp/cotton cosmetic rounds. Aquarian Bath has small washcloths. I’ve become addicted to rose hydrosol on my face as a toner, and even though you can spray it, I prefer to apply it with a cloth or cotton rounds. I’m on my last bag of organic cotton as I can’t justify the plastic bag. I’ll buy conventional cotton rounds in a box for first aid use only and use baby washcloths or the ones mentioned above for my hydrosol. Baby washcloths are nice as they’re soft. I love the washcloth I purchased from Aquarian Bath, even though it’s not one specifically for babies.

8 years ago

I don’t know if anyone still reads this but if you do:
why not just get a spray on antiseptic? then you can skip the cotton round altogether.
i use cotton tissues to remove makeup and then just wash it. Yeah they do get disoloured but what can you do

8 years ago

I use cotton balls so seldom that one plastic bag of organic cotton balls has so far lasted me for more than 2 years. However, as lovely as the idea of reusable cotton pads is, they will not work for nail polish removal.

8 years ago

@Andrea I would second this. My uncle was a professional musician who permanently damaged his ears when he had headphones plugged into his piano. Earplugs wouldn’t have helped this situation, but he can’t work anymore, and has to wear earplugs EVERYWHERE because any noise at all is so intense for him. His personality started changing and ultimately divorced my Aunt who he was married to for 20 years because of the after effects. Protect your ears!

9 years ago

If you use Micellar water to cleanse your face regularly then these reusable rounds are a good choice. Actually, I found your websites looking for alternatives to throw away cotton pads.

12 years ago

plastic is as biodegradable as lignin (which is in wood and cotton)… you’d call it a ‘recalcitrant’ polymer… we’ll soon be using fermenters to recycle plastic waste into new advanced bioplastics.

12 years ago

That’s great to hear Beth! Good luck with your search.

12 years ago

Hi Beth. I stumbled upon your blog this morning and just wanted to leave a comment about your post regarding earplugs. I was dismayed to see you say that earplugs were an item you “definitely don’t need” if you’re attending concerts. I’m an audiologist and it is true that there are custom musicians’ earplugs you can get made for your ears. They’re made by Etymotic Research and are designed to dampen sound so that the decibel (volume) level is reduced but have a natural sound response. Things sound “normal”, just softer.The foam earplugs you buy at the drug store dampen all frequencies equally which is why music sounds bad and usually end up being removed (like you said you and your friends do).

A set of custom molds are not cheap (probably in the $100 range depending on the area you live in) and they are made from plastic, which I realize is something you avoid, but please consider the impact that exposure to loud music will have on your hearing and, consequently, quality of life. The earplugs are reusable and will last for years if cared for. Your hearing, however, cannot be regained once lost and wearing several sets of hearing aids over the course of your lifetime will definately require more environmental resources, plastic, and money than the amount required to make one good set of earplugs.

I’m not trying to be a “Debbie Downer” about this but after 4 years of grad school to get my doctorate I am passionate about people protecting their hearing :)

You can check out this page from Etymotic if you’re interested in learning more about noise exposure and hearing loss:

12 years ago

I use them for wetting and watering down sunscreen makeup, and dry for adding, distributing, and removing surplus sunscreen powder.

Mrs W
12 years ago

as I read through your post I realized I had something that I could use instead of purchasing the cotton rounds….I have cloth/washable nursing pads. I haven’t gotten around to selling them or giving them away. I now realize that I can can use them instead of cotton balls.

12 years ago

I was just thinking about this. I (don’t judge) only shower about once a week and use washcloths to wash myself up inbetween and also apply witch hazel to my face and underarms. But I keep running out of washcloths because I do that a couple times a day and obviously I am not using the same washcloth I use on my underarms on my face! So I started using cotton balls for the witch hazel but then of course, I realized how wasteful that was.

I just bought a reusable pad (Willowpads) recently to try out and I guess it got me in the waste-free mood.

12 years ago

I don’t wear any make up but i do use paper tissue to apply apple cider vinegar on my face. Anyway thanks for the tips, I will find an old t-shirt for that purpose, I just never want to use a whole washcloth just for that…

I’ve never once purchased any cotton balls or Q-Tips. As for applying antiseptic I just use my fingers… but more often than not I don’t even bother and just use plain old soap.

Janice in GA
12 years ago

I have dry eyes and my eyelashes get irritated. My eye doctor told me I needed to wash my eyelids regularly to control the blepharitis. You can buy pre-moistened towelettes (paper) for washing your eyelids, but they come packaged in individual tear-open packets, and that just seemed wasteful and expensive to me.

That’s what I use the cotton rounds for — washing my eyelids. A cotton round and a few drops of no-tears baby shampoo do just as well as the purchased stuff. I’d been feeling kinda bad about the throw-away part of the cotton rounds, though, so I’ll definitely look into the home-made/reusable ones!

Sharyn Dimmick
12 years ago

I use cotton from cotton balls to help deep bleeding wounds clot. It just takes a little and I only have a bad enough cut once in a while (once every few years). I haven’t sought out organic cotton for this.

12 years ago

I am using up the last of my plastic packaged organic cotton rounds that I use for reflexology (cleaning feet). I do use washable towelling, which some people are squeamish about, but whatever, I have a sanitizer function on my washer dehydrator. I am grateful for your research and thoughtfulness once again and am going to buy from an Etsy crafter.


12 years ago

You know who the reusable ones would be good for? Diabetics – or anyone who injects themselves. i’m pretty sure they swipe the site w/ alcohol. Eco-conscious heroin users?

Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green
12 years ago

Just about the only thing I use cotton balls for is removing nail polish (the natural eco-friendly stuff of course). I can’t see this working so well for that.

I use hydrogen peroxide for my ears, much safer and better for you. Now if I can just get my husband to stop sneaking q-tips. I complain all the time but it’s not helping lol.

12 years ago

It’s funny you posted this, after giving birth to my second daughter 3 weeks ago I started sewing re-usable nursing pads, beacuse the ones you can buy still didn’t work well for me. Now I know what I can use them for after I am done nursing!! Thanks for the great post Beth!

12 years ago

Beth – I SWEAR I told you, but sorry if I failed to disclose. Melissa I don’t have a mesh bag like the ones Beth has, so I just lay them on top of the dryer (or whatever) mine dry pretty quickly.

12 years ago

I’m still using up a bag of cotton pads I bought a while ago. They’re useful for applying toner or removing the last bits of makeup, but I don’t need either every day. I cut them into quarters so they are lasting quite a while. When they run out, I have some irregularly shaped flannel and fleece scraps from my cloth pad making project. They won’t be as pretty as the ones on Etsy, but they should work just fine.

12 years ago

A long time ago, so long I can’t even remember where I got them, I purchased a bag of ten reusable cotton pads made from the off-cuts of (organic cotton) towel manufacture. I love them!

I use them for taking off make-up, applying toner, cleaning up cuts and grazes. I did ruin one by using it to remove nail polish, and then the nail polish didn’t wash out. So, lesson learned and I have to use disposable for that. But I barely even wear nail polish so one bag of balls lasts about a decade in this house!

12 years ago

I pretty much only use cotton pads for removing nail polisher, and I really don’t want that to be reused in any way :-). I know I oughtn’t use nail polish because it’s nasty stuff but every once in a while I simply can’t resist.
For the face: washcloth. My mascara is removable with water.

12 years ago

My friend actually felted her own cotton rounds (from old sweaters and such) and gifted some to me :) I love them!

Also- as someone who works closely with Audiologists I have to say:


They can very easily rupture your ear drum and damage your hearing. Very much NOT recommended EVER.

Instead- to clean your ears- in the shower tilt your head up towards the shower, pull your ear (the upper part) up and back allowing the water to naturally and gently clear out any loose wax from your ear.

If you have significant wax build up, it’s probably impacting your hearing and you should get that checked out by an Audiologist (hearing tests in Canada are free of charge and for the most part you don’t need a doctor’s referral).

12 years ago

I save the cotton balls that come in bottles of vitamins and use those for whatever cotton-ball needs I have. Of course vitamin bottles are plastic, but in my household we make an exception around plastics for medical supplies, both prescription and over-the-counter.

Beth, my husband and I began an experiment in September to see if we could go a year without buying anything made of or packaged in plastic for a year. Partway through our experiment we discovered you — a kindred spirit! — and have been meaning to make contact. So, hello!

Five Seed
12 years ago

I have reusable cotton rounds and I LOVE them so much. Way better than cotton balls. I’ll have to look into this company – looks great!

12 years ago

I’ve had the same bag of cotton balls for years. I use them with rosewater on my face as a toner/light moisturizer/mild cleanser every once in awhile. I could totally make a reusable version for this purpose. I spritz the rosewater from a glass bottle daily (reusable plastic mist/spray top). Sometimes I feel the need to rub it, though.

Once in awhile I wear toenail polish and use cotton balls to remove it. This reminds me of a recent outing where an older gentleman noticed my bare toenails in sandals and commented. He was surprised to see bare toenails on a woman. He seemed impressed by it. LOL

I don’t wear makeup often. Even when I do, though, I don’t use cotton balls to apply it nor remove it.

I use Q-tips more often, but only rarely for my ears…if I’ve been sick or am oozing goo for some reason (sorry, TMI). I use one washcloth per shower and I just use the corner of that after washing my face for my ears, if I feel the need. (I wring out the washcloth after washing my face and hang it over the shower door; then use it after my shower to dry my ears more than to clean my ears, but it probably does both.)

I use Q-tips for applying some homemade concoctions to small areas, such as pimples or scratches, and to remove eye makeup when I wear it and it doesn’t come off completely in the shower, and to clean tiny little things or areas, like my itty bitty glass vials I use for homemade essential oil mixes. Soap and water doesn’t work for those and they are too small for the dishwasher, even with a basket.

I’m working on the same box of 500 Q-tips, though, from at least 5 years ago. Not a big concern for me. I got the ones made with the paper stick versus the plastic stick.

For reducing purposes in general (less stuff to keep up with), though…

I have been known to wrap a small bit of a rag (cut-up t-shirts) around a small stick-like object (anything available) to clean icky home improvement type things when a single Q-tip wouldn’t be enough. I use a corner of the rag, if possible, or use an old-ready-for-the-trash rag and cut off a small section.

I could apply that concept to my cleaning uses with Q-tips and practice just skipping the application with a Q-tip and use a clean finger instead. :)

Thanks for making me think about it more, Beth! :)

12 years ago

The only thing I use them for is removing toenail polish (which I know isn’t good for me anyway). I only apply polish in the summer, and I wear it a long time, so I don’t go through many cotton balls.

I do love my q-tips. I really like the skewer and cotton idea!

12 years ago

I don’t wear makeup, but for nice occassions will wear nailpolish (maybe 3 or 4 times in a year). To remove the nailpolish, I use cotton rounds, which are organic but are in a plastic bag. But at the rate I wear and remove nailpolish, the bag will last me years. I will pass this on to my sister since she uses tons of cotton rounds and balls for makeup removal every day. So thanks for the info!

12 years ago

I use cotton balls to clean dog ears and once in a blue moon for makeup (I do wear it regularly, but I usually shower before bed and take it off in the shower).

12 years ago

For Q-tip alternative…. for years i have made my own. Buy a roll of 100% cotton from the pharmacy, pull off a little and wrap it around a bamboo skewer intended for the BBQ. I have cut the skewer in half (maybe about a third of the length) just to make it shorter and more manageable. I have done this for about 25 years! I am on my second roll of cotton. They are, or were…. who knows it has been a long time…. about 6 inches in diameter and about 10inches long. They are rolled very tight. Years of Q-tips!
So…. pull of a little pinch of cotton, roll it around the end of the skewer, use it, and pull it off. Compost it too!

12 years ago

Beth, I know exactly what you mean! I hear ear picks aren’t as bad though because they don’t impact earwax (gross thought sorry).. Mine has lasted me almost three years so far with no sign of wear. I just wipe it down to clean it (not sure if that’s what you’re supposed to do). Mine has a little down puff ball stuck to the other end which I don’t like but I guess that’s for sweeping away anything you get out?? I’ve never seen a need for it so I don’t use it but I would have no idea how to clean that part of it. Hopefuly there are options without the puff if that’s what you’re after.

12 years ago

I usually use a washcloth, too. It’s just already there and it’s easier for me. I love the wash bag, though!

I actually have been asked by some customers to make cotton velour rounds – mine are actually square, though, lol. I don’t have any in stock right now, but I’m hoping to get some up in my etsy shop dedicated to all things reusable this weekend. I love the prints on the rounds from etsy – heck, I love etsy! :)

I currently use cotton balls for things like tea tree oil (as antiseptic and pimple clearer) but maybe I’ll have to try rounds out!

Melissa B
12 years ago

I love my etsy cotton rounds :) But how do you dry them? I hang them individually. I use them to tone & clean my earrings & for cuts.
I’ll definitely second the Japanese ear pick – they’re great! You can get then from Jlist

12 years ago

I don’t use a huge amount of make-up so buying a whole bunch of cotton rounds at Duane Reade seems really wasteful to me. Getting reusable ones is great!

12 years ago

I have been using unbleached hemp cotton rounds for over a year (etsy) and I really love them. After use, I stick them in a cloth drawstring bag that was left from a set of sheets and wash all when I need to. I do think this item is preferable to a piece of toilet paper or something, if not necessary. Like cotton balls, they hold more of whatever you are using and absorb more. I have used them for nail polish removal… but that did not seem like a great idea as the polish won’t wash off. I did purchase disposable solely for this purpose.

I wholheartedly endorse reusable cotton rounds for all of your cosmetic and first aid needs.

12 years ago

Beth, maybe instead of q-tips you could use an ear pick. It’s kinda sorta like a tiny bamboo crochet hook thing and it scrapes our ear wax instead of swabbing it out. I got mine at a Japanese grocery store. It did come in plastic but to me a reusable thing in plastic always beats out disposables in plastic. This is all assuming you’re using them for ears :)

12 years ago

It’s nice to see more reusable cloth alternatives. In the past I have used cotton balls for applying ointments or peroxide to cuts, I’m not a big makeup fan either. I do use a lot of Q-tips, and will check out the store listed for an alternative.
Thanks for letting us know.

12 years ago

Ha! I was reading along thinking to myself… OK, but does anybody really use that kind of stuff anyhow? What’s it for? I’ve never even heard of a “cotton round”. Then I got to the end and it hit me… oh yeah… makeup… that hideous stuff that I haven’t used since high school. It’s funny. I seem to forget that the whole world didn’t come along on my life changing ride with me.

12 years ago

“And finally, someone pointed me to a company called Better for Grownups that makes reusable cotton rounds from organic cotton and packages them in plain brown boxes. The best answer yet.”
~made me feel all warm and squishy! Yay!

Akemi S.
12 years ago

ooh! i didn’t know about reusable cotton rounds. thanks for the tip! maybe i can even sew my own.