Get greener cleaning: shampoo

It’s an unfortunate irony that the things we do to stay clean can pollute the planet and even harm our own health. It’s also daunting that something as simple as a shower requires you to search multiple categories of cleaning products, from shampoo to shower gel. But let’s start at the top; you can adopt a green hair care routine without giving up on your hygiene or your health.

no poo

But you could give up your hair. You can shave your head and just use regular soap on your scalp. Most of us aren’t ready to make such a bold style statement in service of the environment. But unlike most other grooming products, simply going without shampoo is an option.

The no-poo (or unpoo) movement encourages people to ditch shampoo and simply rinse their hair with water. When that’s not enough, non-pooers can use a DIY method involving baking soda and apple cider vinegar. These materials are certainly eco-friendly and efficient in cleaning. However, depending on your hair type, they may not be very good for your hair. While some people have used this method successfully for years, after a few months my hair started to look like hay under a scarecrow’s hat. It took deep conditioning treatments to avoid the first suggested method – shave it all off.

Detergent-free shampoos

Most shampoos are basically liquid cleansers made from synthetic detergents. Additional chemicals are added for the aesthetics of the product, to create a pleasant color, scent and texture. Although raw materials make up only about 9% of the product’s environmental footprint, many people avoid synthetic petroleum-based products on principle.

In particular, many of us want to avoid SLS detergent (sodium lauryl sulfate or sometimes sodium laureth sulfate) which makes shampoos foamy. Rumors that SLS is carcinogenic seem baseless; however, there may be other health issues. Sulfates like SLS are known skin irritants. They can also remove oils too effectively, leading to dry hair. There are biodegradable products, like Hairstory New Wash that use essential oils and fatty alcohols instead of detergents.

There’s another reason to look for a biodegradable shampoo. According to a European Life Cycle Assessment of over 10,000 personal care products (referenced throughout this article), disposal accounts for 20% of shampoo’s environmental footprint. This is because the shampoo is not consumed when you use it; all of that stuff washes out of your hair and ends up in the wastewater. Wastewater treatment uses a lot of energy and chemicals and does not necessarily remove all shampoo ingredients before the water is released into the environment.

Other chemical problems

Surprisingly, shampoos and other common personal care products are significant sources of volatile organic compounds contributing to air pollution. Many shampoos also contain parabens and phthalates. Since the most problematic ingredients are typically found in the fragrances used to flavor shampoos, unscented shampoos like Free & Clear or No Nothing Very Sensitive are less likely to contain many of the most harmful chemicals. You can also find more natural and safer shampoos using the Environmental Working Group verified list. The list includes inexpensive and familiar brands like Herbal Essences as well as less common options like Korean beauty brand Whamisa.


Plastic bottles dominate among shampoo packaging options. These bottles represent 22% of the environmental impact of shampoos. Depending on where you live, the plastic in shampoo bottles may be recyclable, but in many places it is not. Some shampoo brands use recycled plastic — even recycled beach plastic — to make their bottles. The polythene pouches used by Hairstory require far less plastic than bottles and are recyclable where facilities exist.

But there are also plastic-free packaging options. Brands like Alpine Provisions and Plaine Products sell shampoo in aluminum bottles. Lush estimates that its bar shampoo bars have avoided 100 tons of plastic waste in one year. EWG Verified Soap for Goodness Sake is a combined shampoo and body bar wrapped in FSC paper.

In fact, most solid shampoos are advertised for use on both hair and skin. Many environmentalists follow a rule of thumb that using fewer products creates fewer environmental impacts. There is no specific data in this case to support the principle. But if you find one cleanser that works for both your hair and your body, you’ll make your life a little easier.

clean technique

No matter what you choose to cleanse your hair (or shaved scalp), keep in mind that usage accounts for 28% of the environmental impact of shampoos. Most of this impact comes from the water you use for washing and the energy needed to heat that water. Use a low-flow showerhead and an efficient water heater. You can also use homemade dry shampoo to lengthen the time between washes.

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