I’m not fussy about my hair. After almost three decades of living with thick curly hair, I’ve realized it’s going to do what it’s going to do, regardless of what I want. So I figure experimenting to find eco-friendly hair products that worked for me re: time and budget was the way to go.
But here’s the thing: I totally get that low- or zero waste hair care options can be A) difficult to acclimate to, B) expensive, C) hard to access, or even D) all of the above. Plus, hair comes in so many different (flavors?) that what works for one will backfire spectacularly for another. So I’m giving you plenty of options below. If one doesn’t work, I’d encourage you to try another option to see what else might work.
What’s with commercial hair care items?
From a zero waste perspective, pretty much all of the shampoo options you can purchase in-store comes in plastic packaging. For me, that’s enough to find an alternative to something people go through often. I’m not one of those ‘chemicals are bad!!1!‘ people (water is a chemical, bro), but there are some ingredients in most commercial shampoos and/or conditioners that probably aren’t great for you or the water system.
Here are a few examples of what may be in your shampoo or conditioner*:
*NB: I am not a scientist so don’t take any of this as gospel. It’s totally up to you to do research and weigh concerns yourself. I personally worry more about the plastic aspect of commercial shampoo vs. health risks, but that’s a totally personal view.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: This is the big one that I personally don’t know enough about to comment on, although many unqualified people peg it as evil. It’s a chemical that acts as an emulsifying and foaming agent. EWG.org cites SLS as an overall low toxic hazard, but notes that it can be an irritant and potential cause organ toxicity. This study cites its safety for use as a household cleaning product but makes no mention of cosmetics. (Another ding against SLS is that it’s often derived from petroleum which is clearly not a great environmental win.) Whatever way you swing on the discussion, it’s pretty easy to cut out with a zero waste swap – so why not?
- Triclosan: this one worries me a bit more. With a high hazard rating, this antibacterial and preserving agent can cause irritation and may be linked to endocrine toxicity. (It’s also found in some toothpastes.) You can read more about it here. Luckily, many shampoos have phased this out but cheaper options may have it.
- Zinc Pyrithione: found in anti-dandruff shampoos, it’s claimed to be a moderate hazard although there’s limited information about it. It’s suspected to be a bioaccumulative environmental toxin and there are toxicity concerns for humans as well. Again, though, there’s only limited research into it.
The good news is that plenty of (even slightly-)higher quality shampoos don’t have all of these ingredients. My husband’s commercial shampoo only has SLS and it claims to be made in a plant that matches electricity with renewable wind credits.
So don’t go throwing your commercial shampoo right out the window, but consider your next purchase more carefully. Eradicate the plastic packaging and a lot of chemicals of unverified toxicity.
What am I using now?
I toyed with a water-only regime but this Indiana water is not kind to my curls. So I’m going with a regime that doesn’t make my hair feel like straw but that I also feel good about putting down the drain. For my curly mop of hair I’m currently using a green tea and honey rinse (I talk about it below) with an ACV rinse to follow every other wash.
Before I get in the shower, though, I put a little bit of coconut oil at the ends of my hair. My hair tends to be very, very dry so I let it soak in for 30 minutes to an hour. Then I brush my hair to spread the oil a little better and get all that dust and other gross stuff that accumulates in your hair out of there. Finally, I hop in the shower and apply the rinses, scrubbing my scalp pretty vigorously after they’re on.
There was a period of weird transition for my hair but my hair is naturally unruly and strange I don’t think it was too noticeable after a few weeks. For those of you with straight hair that requires frequent washing, learn some updos to hide the transition time, which can take up to several months. (May I suggest getting started when it’s cool and hats are appropriate?)
Speaking of frequent washing: stop. Overwashing is not great for your hair. I was my hair about once a week – maybe every four or five days if it’s warm. You get used to it pretty quickly. I admit, I’m a little put off by the smell of natural hair (you know what I’m talking about), so I’ll generally do a little dusting of corn powder mixed with a drop of essential oil. Boom – no one would even know you’re an ultra-hippy.
zero waste hair care swaps
Here’s my list of zero waste shampoo and conditioner options, from ‘basically still using shampoo and conditioner’ to ‘I’m crunchy AF’. As I said before, experiment! What works for one may not work for another!
Fill up at a bulk location near you ($$)
You may not have this option (I don’t), but if you do it’s certainly the easiest answer. Bring your own container and fill up as needed – no fuss and no awkward transition period like with shampoo bars. Even though the bulk shampoos are sold in plastic tubs, one larger container is less waste (and more useful) than the smaller options available in stores.
Just be sure to check the ingredient list. While bulk options are generally organic and full of the good stuff, sometimes it’s no better than a regular shampoo, ingredient-wise. If that bothers you, this may not be the best option.
Plaine Products ($$$)
Plaine Products have been sweeping the zero waste community because they’re a natural hair care company that offers their product in metal bottles. Once you’re done, you send the bottle back and they’ll reuse it. You keep the pump they send you with your first order and simply stick it into the next bottle that arrives. I haven’t tried this because I think it’s way too pricey, but if you like the convenience and have the cash it might be worth a try. I do wonder at the travel miles necessary, but consider how far you have to drive to get your hair care currently and then check out this post as to whether shipping might actually be a more eco-friendly option.
Shampoo and conditioner bar ($-$$)
Shampoo and conditioner bars offer a pretty simple process of lathering up the bars and working the product into your hair. You’ll likely see the transition period while using these, so be prepared.
Shampoo bar options:
- my personal favorite, J. R. Liggett’s shampoo bars. They come in recyclable or compostable paper.
- here are some recommendations that seem solid for natural hair.
- tons of options on Etsy. I’d also recommend going to the bottom left of the sidebar and restricting your search to local vendors for lower travel miles.
Conditioner bar options:
- LUSH. I don’t like them because the price point is way too high for the product (in my opinion), but they do have an unpackaged conditioner bar that has decent reviews.
- again, see all of the Etsy options.
Soap nut shampoo and ACV rinse ($)
Soap nuts are actually berries that contain a natural foaming agent. Making a soap nut shampoo is very simple and cheap once you source the soap nuts themselves. Simply boil them in water and then use the liquid as a shampoo wash. I also add a few drops of essential oil to give it a more interesting smell. After you wash it out, finish with a simple ACV rinse. To avoid the issues surrounding soap nuts (ie. western demand driving up prices in traditional markets), source a local version like horse chestnuts.
Green tea rinse ($)
I’ve actually experimented with this recipe when traveling and didn’t carry any product with me. I was pleasantly surprised at the results and have gone back to using it regularly. I find my hair has a similar reaction to using a shampoo bar – awkwardly greasy for a little while, but quickly acclimating. Because the mixture can be a little drying for me, I tend to coat the ends of my hair with coconut oil before showering. I don’t follow up with any conditioner, but occasionally do an additional ACV rinse afterwards.
Other zero waste hair considerations
Coconut oil works well on the ends of my thick, dry, curly hair but may be overpowering for others. You could try more expensive but less greasy oils like argan, jojoba, or even olive oil. I apply heavier oils before my shower and lighter oils throughout the week if my ends are looking super dry. There’s also approximately one million natural mask recipes available on Pinterest that may or may not do anything to your hair. Find a cheap one and get experimenting.
While I think it’s best to avoid dry shampoo as much as possible (I mean, if you’re washing your hair once a week, think of the build-up!), but there is a very simple zero waste option for dry shampoo that avoids those awful sprays. Cornstarch! I add a couple drops of essential oils in to mask that not-fresh hair smell and I’m good to go. If you have darker hair, add a little cocoa powder to get closer to your hair color. Apply and massage in gently with your fingers.
There are eco-friendly hair-ties out there, but they aren’t cost-effective. These are the holy grail, but they’re also stupid expensive. Instead, I hoard all the hair-ties I find very carefully. (Are you brave enough to wash ones you find on the ground and re-use?) When they run out, I’ll go from there.
I’ve also moved toward using bobby pins more often. Another option for longer hair may be wooden hair sticks, although I don’t think they’re an adequate stand-in for a good hair tie.
While there are hair gel options in glass, they’re quite expensive. Consider going the DIY route which, even if there is trash produced, is likely less than buying a plastic bottle every time you run out. Here’s a flaxseed gel recipe and a hair wax recipe as well. Someone also mentioned diluting aloe vera gel into water and using it as a spray which may be a good zero waste option for those with aloe plants or access to aloe leaves in stores.
There are a few low-waste hairspray recipes floating around out there, all of which have people who highly recommend and others who tell everyone to stay away! I think this is a case – again – of trying it out yourself and seeing what works best for you: sugar and water or lemons and vodka.
Tell me: how do you do an eco-friendly hair care routine? Do you use any of the products here or have you found something else? Drop some knowledge in the comments section!