Your guide to sustainable hair care that’s better for you and the planet.
It’s common knowledge that the beauty industry is a major contributor to the global climate crisis, and while you might be quick to point your fingers at the ever-popular multi-step skin care routine, your favorite shampoos and hair sprays — even your hair brushes — are just as responsible. Luckily, with the clean beauty boom, it’s become much easier to seek out hair products with sustainably-sourced ingredients, and create an overall greener, more sustainable hair care routine.
However, the biggest issue with traditional hair routines falls squarely on product packaging and the alarming amount of pollution it contributes to and waste it creates. “Plastic packaging used in beauty (and for food and other consumer goods) is often not recycled,” says Mia Davis, Credo’s VP of sustainability and impact. “In fact, less than nine percent of the plastic that has been made has been recycled. Instead, it’s usually landfilled, incinerated, or ends up as toxic pollution in the environment.”
Ashlee Piper, sustainability expert and author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet agrees that the amount of waste produced by beauty packaging — hair care included — is a problem that needs to be addressed. “While some ingredients can be controversial as to whether or not they’re harmful for human health or waterways, the biggest environmental toll of hair care routines is the packaging waste and lack of circularity,” says Piper. “Think of a hairbrush or a styling tool — where do those go after they kick the metaphorical bucket?”
Thankfully, due to industry-wide efforts to minimize environmental impact, creating a green hair care routine with eco-friendly products isn’t the monumental task it once was, nor do you have to sacrifice quality in the search for less harmful products.
In the spirit of Earth Month, read on for eight ways you can transition your hair care routine into one that’s way more sustainable. Remember — it’s not about being perfect, but rather making the necessary tweaks and changes to curb your own environmental impact, because the future of the planet absolutely depends on it.
Green Up Your Hair Care Routine: Learn How To Recycle Your Current Products
Recycling is complicated, and chances are that if you haven’t already been shopping with sustainable packaging in mind, a lot of the products in your medicine cabinet or on your vanity can’t be simply tossed in your kitchen recycling bin.
However — there’s *some* good news when it comes to your hair routine. “Fortunately, most hair product bottles are large enough to be caught by the machinery at the recycling centers, and they’re usually made from plastics #1, 2, or 5, which are the most likely to be recycled plastic types,” says Davis, noting that plastics #3, 4, 6, and 7 aren’t recycled, even when placed in “single stream” curbside bins.
This won’t always be the case though, so you’ll need to check your local municipality to see what they accept, and still make sure you’re preparing your empties properly. “Washing and drying the contents of the containers, ensuring your municipality recycles that material, and reusing containers whenever possible are good rules of thumb to lessen the burden on our already burned recycling system,” says Piper.
Alternatively, check in with the brands you use directly to see if they offer take-back programs for recycling empties (whether their own or all brands), and look into other options for non-recyclable items. For example, TerraCycle and Garnier have partnered on a free program that allows you to ship out typically non-recyclables such as product caps, hair gel tubes, and hair spray triggers to be properly recycled.
Once you’ve cycled out your current lineup of products, commit to using more easily recyclable — or even better, package-free or refillable products — going forward (more on that, below). “The number one rule of recycling is to not have a product that needs recycling in the first place,” says Piper. “Focusing on items that are low- or zero-waste regarding packaging, infinitely reusable, and multi-use should be the primary focus if someone’s looking to have a more sustainable hair care routine.”
Green Up Your Hair Care Routine: Opt For Products With Recyclable (& Recycled) Packaging
Products with low- to zero-packaging or refills are the most sustainable, but those won’t always be an option for certain types of products, such as hair spray or curl cream. When you can’t find a feasible alternative for a product you love, choosing one with packaging that can be easily recycled, especially if it's made from post-consumer recycled materials, is your next best option.
Packaging materials that are infinitely recyclable — meaning they can be recycled again and again without degrading — such as aluminum are best. “Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, meaning it can come back as aluminum many times over with no degradation to the integrity of the material,” says Piper. The same goes for glass, though glass usually isn’t preferred for use in the shower (especially if you’re the clumsy type).
If plastic is your only option, Davis suggests opting for bottles made from #1, 2, or 5 plastics that are made from as high of a percentage of post-consumer recycled plastics as possible, stressing the need to move away from virgin plastics. These usually can be tossed in your curbside recycling bin as long as they’re thoroughly cleaned and any non-recyclable parts such as caps and pumps are removed. Still, it’s important to note that all plastics, post-consumer recycled plastics included, have a limited lifespan and can only be recycled so many times before degrading.
We only include products that have been independently selected by The Zoe Report’s editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
Cruelty-free and vegan hair care brand Eva NYC recently unveiled its new 100% recyclable packaging, which is now 93% plastic-free, including this priming prep spray. Product bottles are now made from infinitely recyclable aluminum, while plastic components such as pumps and spray nozzles can be recycled for free through the brand’s partnership with TerraCycle.
Green Up Your Hair Care Routine: Commit To Brands With Refillable Packaging
What’s even greener than a product that has recyclable packaging? A product that can be refilled again and again, rather than requiring you to buy an entire new bottle each time you run out — thus, reducing the need for more plastic bottles. While this practice has been standard for many eco-friendly beauty and personal care brands for some time, it’s now starting to trickle into the mainstream, with cult-favorite hair care brands like Ouai, Act + Acre, and Hairstory following suit and selling refills of their most popular products.
In an ideal world, you’d be able to walk into a local shop bottles in tow to have them refilled in person. While this might be possible for some depending on their location and accessibility to stores around them, it’s just not feasible for all. The good news is that the refills you can buy online tend to be packaged in pouches that are much more sustainable than a typical bottle (using a lot less plastic and are much lighter in weight) and hold a larger quantity of product, meaning you’ll need to restock on these refills much less often.
Green Up Your Hair Care Routine: Jump On The Waterless Hair Care Trend
Did you know that traditional liquid shampoos and conditioners are made up of anywhere from 70% to 90% water? Waterless formulas, typically in concentrated cream or powder form, have been growing in popularity for good reason. “Fewer preservatives are needed [in these products] because water can cause spoilage, thus the need for preservatives in most liquid items,” says Piper. Rather than include water — and said preservatives — in their formulas, these innovative products are instead activated by the water in your shower. Plus, because they’re already developed with sustainability in mind, you’ll find that cleaner ingredients and recyclable packaging tend to be part of the deal, too.
These ultra-clean shampoo and conditioner concentrates pack an entire bottle’s worth of product into a travel-friendly 100ml tube. Both formulas are free from parables, sulfates, silicones, dyes, synthetic fragrances, and preservatives and work for all hair types. Plus, they’re color-safe, vegan, and cruelty-free and entirely zero-waste—the aluminum tubes are infinitely recyclable, and the brand even has a take back program for its non-recyclable caps.
When you mix these shampoo and conditioner powders with water, they instantly activate into a creamy, velvety lather that gently cleanse and condition the hair. Both formulas are clean, vegan, and cruelty-free and are safe for all hair types, including chemically treated. Plus, they come housed in bottles made of 95% ocean-bound recycled plastic.
Green Up Your Hair Care Routine: Switch To Bar Shampoos And Conditioners
Bar shampoos and conditioners are some of the best options out there in terms of sustainability. Like waterless products, these solid formulas don’t require any preservatives and are much more environmentally friendly. They also require no packaging containers whatsoever and are typically housed in paper or cardboard, rather than plastic, before they’re ready to be unwrapped and used. Plus, as Davis points out, they’re usually much lighter to ship due to their lack of packaging, reducing their carbon footprint.
While some may be apprehensive to switch to bar products, know that they’ve come a long way over the years and rest assured that in 2021, you can find a slew of great options for your particular hair needs and concerns. Hot tip: If your shower doesn’t already have a built-in soap holder, get yourself a sustainably-made soap dish to keep your bar dry between washes (and to avoid ending up with a soggy, mushy mess).
These soap-free and pH-balanced shampoo bars use Ayurvedic properties to clean and hydrate the scalp while stimulating growth, sans preservatives. Since they’re so concentrated, one bar is equivalent to two bottles of traditional shampoo, which is pretty impressive. It’s available in four different formulas—moisturizing, calming, balancing, and detoxing—all of which are safe for color-treated hair.
These vegan, sulfate-free, and ethically made conditioner bars work for all hair types, detangling and moisturizing with a blend of cocoa butter, coconut oil, and jojoba oil. Each bar is shipped in a recycled paper box with soy-based ink, which can easily be recycled along with the rest of your paper materials.
Green Up Your Hair Care Routine: Break Up With Aerosols
While aerosols haven’t contained ozone-depleting CFCs (or chlorofluorocarbons) for decades now, their packaging can still be quite problematic. “The biggest issue with aerosols now is that they really can’t be recycled due to the complicated mix of materials that most municipalities cannot handle, so they end up in the landfill,” says Piper. That said, when it comes to products like hairsprays and dry shampoos, there are plenty of greener alternatives to reach for instead. “Pump sprays, which have fewer components and can be taken apart and reused or sometimes recycled, as well as powder formulas, are more sustainable options,” she says.
This powdered dry shampoo is formulated with scalp-loving Binchotan charcoal to draw impurities from the scalp, detoxifying both the scalp and the hair, while a complex of clay, tapioca starch, and rice starch absorb excess oil to refresh and clean the hair. Most importantly, it comes in recyclable, aerosol-free packaging.
Green Up Your Hair Care Routine: Read Into The Ingredient List
Packaging might be the bigger issue with the hair industry’s contribution to pollution, but the ingredients themselves still have an impact on the environment. “Whatever goes down the drain ends up in our waterways, and often, our drinking water,” says Davis. However, deciphering ingredients can get complicated, and figuring out if a product is safe for both you and the environment is more complex than you might think.
It’s a well-known fact that terms like “clean,” “natural,” and “organic” are pretty much BS, and that just because a product has them slapped on their label doesn’t necessarily mean it’s 100% what it claims to be — or even safe and healthy for that matter. “Clean doesn’t have a legal definition — most beauty words and claims don’t,” says Davis. Credo has created the Credo Clean Standard (which has been used industry-wide as a standard to follow), and if a brand follows these standards and omits the 2700+ ingredients on “The Dirty List,” you can typically trust them to be better both for you and the planet.
In terms of common hair care ingredients, there are a few ingredients to look out for. “Ethoxylated ingredients (think: sodium laureth sulfate or SLS, ammonium laureth sulfate, and most ingredients ending in ‘-eth’) that can be found in many traditional shampoos are synthetically produced using ethylene oxide, which is a carcinogen,” says Davis. She also includes cyclic silicones as other ingredients prevalent in shampoos and conditioners that should be avoided. “Data indicates that some of these chemicals may have reproductive, developmental toxicity, and/or endocrine disruption concerns,” she says. “They are also persistent in the environment and may build up in the food chain.”
“I think it’s good to look for more regulated terms like cruelty-free and vegan and the coordinating symbols,” adds Piper. “And, if one can avoid conventional palm oil in products, that’s a huge boon for the environment because significant deforestation and animal slaughter happens for palm oil that’s literally destroying the planet.”
Overall, the best products are the ones that come from brands that are fully transparent. If they advertise exactly what ingredients go into their products, their purpose, and where they’re sourced from, the more likely it is to be a safe bet. And if you’re not sure of an ingredient, do your own research or reach out to the brand directly before making a purchase.
This gentle, sulfate-free shampoo cleanses the hair while being kind to your scalp. Made of only ten ingredients, which are 99% naturally derived, this formula is designed to help rebalance and regulate the scalp’s natural sebum product, something that can be thrown off by traditional surfactant-heavy shampoos. In addition to being vegan and using recyclable packaging, this shampoo scored an impressive 100/100 on Yuka, an app that deciphers the safety of ingredients in health and beauty products.
This gentle shampoo nourishes the scalp and enhances shine for all hair types, from straight and fine to coarse and curly. The vegan formula is handcrafted in California using sustainably sourced ingredients and, unlike common hair care products, is transparent about where its fragrance comes from—a number of essential oils.
Green Up Your Hair Care Routine: Upgrade Your Hair Brushes
Last but not least, when it comes to committing to a more sustainable hair care routine, don’t forget to account for your tools, too. Instead of traditional hair brushes made with plastic handles and nylon bristles, Piper recommends opting for brushes made with wood, metal, and fairly and sustainably sourced rubber. “Basically, components that will last a long time and can be taken apart to be separately recycled,” she says. “Plastic hair brushes really can’t be recycled, even the ones made from post-consumer recycled plastic.”