Between climate change, the biodiversity crisis, and our throw-away, single-use plastics problem many people find themselves searching for ways to shrink their ecological footprint.
For solutions we look at our cars, light fixtures, recycling practices, and may even start composting.
But according to a study by the Swiss company Reduit, just one in three of us consider our hair care routine’s impact.
Yet the personal care industry makes up a huge part of the global economy. The packaging alone for products like shampoos, conditioners, and body washes represents $25 billion and most of that packaging includes plastic. Not exactly sustainable hair care.
Statistics like these show the real opportunity be more earth friendly with our hair care.
In this article, we’ll lay out some solutions for keeping your layered locks luscious yet with less environmental disruption.
Naturally to understand how to make your hair care routine more eco-friendly, you first have to know how it currently creates ecological problems.
What Environmental Issues Does Hair Care Create?
Problem is few give much thought to how their hair care impacts the environment.
In reality hair salons can have serious environmental impacts.
Our homes too can be an unexpected source of harmful consequences.
Take waste water from our daily hair care routine. That alone can be a serious threat to the environment.
The typical hairdresser’s recommendation to wash twice and then condition each day uses over 3700 gallons of water a year — to say nothing of the energy required to heat the water. Or the hundreds of pounds of CO2 released into the atmosphere annually to do so.
Not that surprising if you think about it. Because it can take a full two or three minutes to thoroughly shampoo your mane.
Then do the math. Repeating that twice means four to six minutes or as much as 25 gallons down the drain just shampooing.
Add to that conditioning.
Problem is CDC guidelines suggest limiting your shower time to only eight minutes.
Yet the typically recommended hair care routine would take up almost all those eight minutes. Leaving precious little time for washing the rest of your body.
Now try some subtraction. Cut back from daily washing and conditioning to just a couple of times a week. Perfectly doable for most hair types AND it would significantly reduce your water waste and carbon footprint.
Have you gone blonde? If so here’s another subtraction trick. It’s to use purple shampoo on dry hair. This is really a smart hack. Yet if using purple shampoo on dry hair is not something you’ve done but would like to know more check out our deep dive into doing just that.
Talking real subtraction you could always go short. As in super short and embrace your inner pixie. Hair that short takes next to no water to lather up. Then when you tire of the look you can check out our take on growing out a pixie cut for thick or fine hair and start your journey to longer hair. Just saying.
Surprising our feeling of “cleanliness” is often tied to the use of dirty petroleum-based feed stocks.
One example would be Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS). This is what makes the foaming action of shampoo possible. And we all love our suds, don’t we? We (mistakenly) take the froth and bubbles as a sign the shampoo is working.
Yet SLS can dry our skin and scalp. That’s because it creates that feeling of cleanliness by bonding to our body’s natural oils and carrying them away when rinsed off.
So many cleansing products use a petroleum-based SLS. (Others may use palm oil — not necessarily an improvement.)
Then did you know the various great-smelling fragrances associated with hair care products also come from crude based ingredients? In essence fossil fuels help lock fragrances in to keep shampoos or conditioners from losing their appealing scent while sitting on the shelf.
But the real culprit here is the product packaging. That might account for our hair care’s most significant contribution to fossil fuel emissions.
Not to mention plasticizers. They’re what gives plastic its moldability and rigidity. Here again these typically have a petroleum-based origin.
None of this should be surprising. Not when plastic production accounts for an estimated 4-8% of the world’s total oil consumption. (And we’re cheerfully ignoring the emissions generated by transporting them.)
When we think of air pollution, we often consider the emissions coming from automobiles. Indeed, the contribution of producing and transporting hair care products could figure into the calculation of how our routine affects air pollution.
But a recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder makes a more surprising assertion: our cosmetics usage creates a pollution plume on par with the emissions from our automobiles. The science gets wonky, but basically, the researchers measured the number of pollutants in the air during rush hour and found a spike in a few specific classes of atmospheric chemicals.
Digging deeper, they found that those chemicals do not come from vehicle exhaust, but from the volatile organic compounds that cosmetic products produce. Once released from our hair and scalps, these products combine with existing chemicals in the atmosphere to produce ozone and particulate matter, which exacerbates the greenhouse effect.
You may think that beauty products evaporating from our scalps account for a relatively small percentage of drive-time pollution. Yet surprisingly researchers found they may make up almost half the total greenhouse gas spikes recorded during the typical commuting hours.
Sure we have had success eliminating ozone-depleting chemicals from hair sprays and aerosols. But our beauty routines still have room for improvement.
There’s nothing pretty about that picture.
In fact it’s quite disgusting.
Plastic waste is a significant challenge.
Mass production of plastic began some sixty years ago, and virtually all of it has stuck around.
What’s worse an estimated 90% of plastic products do not get recycled.
Single use shampoo bottles alone account for a healthy piece of the pie; more than 550 million end up in a landfill each year.
Part of the problem is it takes effort to recycle a shampoo or conditioner bottle. Just like a jar of pasta sauce, hair care product containers need to be rinsed clean before they can go in the recycling. Most people simply can’t be bothered.
This results in a situation where millions of pounds of plastic waste go from our bathrooms to our landfills. From there it takes hundreds of years to decompose.
Which means we produce and discard plastic waste at a far faster rate than it breaks down. In the long run, without changing the math, we will see our landfills expand to unsustainable levels.
Further complicating the picture, the plastics break down into various toxic chemicals that find their way into our groundwater.
Effects on Groundwater
The breakdown of plastics in landfills creates a wide range of ecological issues.
Not the least of which is those plastics break down into tiny micro-plastic particles. When those small particles make their way into our drinking water, we consume them — to the tune of 70,000 particles per year.
On top of that, the further breakdown of plastics into their chemical components, has been shown to cause hormonal disruptions, changes in gene expression, and even changes in behavior in fish.
Then too many plastic-based pollutants have a troubling tendency to find each other within our bodies due to their binding nature. When they do they can quickly accumulate even if they exist at low concentrations in the water from which they were consumed.
Looking at the hair care products themselves, we also see the infiltration of various chemicals that can have lingering health effects. Nitrogens and phosphates, in particular, can throw off the balance required for healthy groundwater.
However, many cosmetics companies have taken steps to reduce their use in hair care products production.
Pesticides and Fertilizers
Palm oil and soybean oil make up two of the major ingredients commonly used in the manufacture of shampoos. Both require intensive management using fertilizers and pesticides in their plantations to maximize yield. But that management has a cascading effect on the ecosystems they inhabit.
Fertilization has the potential to create eutrophication in adjacent waterways. Eutrophication refers to an excessive influx of nutrients that allows for algal blooms and oxygen depletion. Pesticide application, particularly neonicotinoids, has links to the global decline in pollinators like bees, moths, and butterflies.
Essentially, the traditional production of palm and soy oil to create hair care products has the potential to damage biodiversity significantly. Both palm and soy require replacing large tracts of native ecosystems, with hundreds or thousands of different plants and animals, with large monocultures that cannot support nearly the same variety of life forms.
Pesticides and fertilizers represent real problems with traditional agricultural practices, and our hair care routines bear some responsibility. By choosing a more eco-friendly hair care routine, you can lower your footprint on the rain forests and grasslands across the planet that have been destroyed in pursuit of single-species ecosystems with no ecological value.
All of these issues mentioned above can have direct and indirect adverse effects on animals. For example microplastics in the water get consumed by fish and invertebrates, and work their way up the food chain.
Increasingly, researchers in the field of “behavioral toxicology” have found that pollution can trigger a range of abnormal behaviors. Given the surprisingly large contribution typical hair care routines can make to air and water pollution, the responsibility to go a more eco-friendly route becomes clear.
One last and most obvious issue with regular hair care has thankfully declined dramatically in recent decades. Animal testing has historically helped cosmetics companies determine whether a product might have adverse effects on humans by delivering those adverse effects to animals.
Many producers have abandoned animal testing, but China still requires animal testing on imported products, meaning many companies with a global reach still have to subject research animals to potentially dangerous chemicals.
Features of an Eco-Friendly Hair Care Routine
Sustainable hair care means using products that will either safely biodegrade in the environment or get recycled.
Single-use plastics that take hundreds or thousands of years to break down are unsustainable.
Fortunately, more and more cosmetics companies have embraced more eco-friendly production and packaging in an effort to green up hair care.
Like using shampoo or conditioner bars. They have a much lower carbon footprint and there’s nothing to throw away after the last wash.
Another idea? Green packaging that includes reusable or refillable shampoo and conditioner bottles made of aluminum or steel. These have near-infinite recycling potential without degrading.
At the very least an eco-friendly hair care routine should include recyclable plastics.
Then too extra-large bottles can also cut down on the amount of plastic involved in your routine.
Sustainable, Zero Waste Hair Care Routine
Most who are minimalists when it comes hair care usually only use a few environmentally friendly hair products.
Typically, as just mentioned, that’s a shampoo bar and maybe a conditioner bar. Yet her hair looks far from grungy.
Flaxseed gel is another commonly used item in the zero waste hair routine toolkit. If you don’t know this one it makes makes for a great styling gel.
Speaking of makes we’ve got a great post that explores making flaxseed gel. Some swear it leaves them with curls that are moisturized, well defined, frizz free and dare I add shiny?
Cruelty-Free or Vegan
An eco-friendly hair care routine should use cruelty-free products to avoid participating in the process of animal testing.
However, even without animal testing, many products use beeswax, lanolin, keratin, or gelatin.
Using vegan products would go a step further. Not only do vegan products avoid any animal exploitation, but they also tend to have fewer ingredients in general.
Vegan products generally do not contain harsh chemicals like preservatives or sodium laurel sulfates. Avoiding those chemicals means vegan products have a lower environmental impact overall and keep more artificial materials from washing down the drain and into the ecosystem.
Final Zero Waste Hair Care Tips
Sustainability goes hand in hand with zero-waste. Zero-waste means using nothing that will end up in a landfill — at least not without breaking down.
While that seems pretty straightforward, a proper zero-waste routine has a little more to consider around the margins when it comes to hair care.
The first things we think about when it comes to zero waste typically relate to containers for styling products — shampoo, conditioner, coloring, hair sprays, toners, etc.
But hair care also uses a variety of accessories including brushes and hair ties.
Those accessories, too, should fall under the zero-waste category if you want to create a genuinely eco-friendly hair care regimen.
Did you know hair ties, elastics and scrunchies also make a significant contribution to our waste output?
Compostable hair ties offer a solution, albeit at a slightly higher cost.
Even better you can eliminate a lot of waste with a little more diligence in washing and reusing hair ties and scrunchies.
While using wooden or bamboo combs means you don’t add more plastic to the routine after getting out of the shower.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, an eco-friendly hair care routine requires cutting down on the amount of water wasted. That means washing less frequently or at least skipping the “repeat” portion of rinse and repeat.
For those with extra oily hair, the cosmetics industry has an array of dry shampoos or conditioners that can keep you on an everyday schedule without using too much water.
Changing your hair care routine to something more eco-friendly might seem like a lot to take on. Yes, it represents a significant departure from a routine you’ve likely had for many years. But like anything else, with a little time and commitment, it becomes a habit, and before long, you can become a part of the movement to create a healthier world for people, plants, and animals.
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