The global beauty market is massive, valued at an estimated £395.7 billion in 2022. That’s a lot of purchasing and, as more and more people begin to value sustainable choices in their daily lives, this transfers to large lifestyle sectors like personal care. As we see more discussions of supply chains, ingredients lists and approaches to packaging, haircare is a huge part of the sector. Beauty is also notoriously unregulated when it comes to ‘green’ claims; here’s what you need to know in order to make considered conscious choices.
The beauty industry are major culprits when it comes to waste. It’s reported that the global cosmetics industry produces 120 billion units of packaging every year. A lot of this isn’t recyclable, and what is often doesn’t end up in the right bin. Bathroom waste accounts for up to 40% of total landfill waste in the UK, with only 50% of bathroom waste recycled (compared to 90% of kitchen waste).
According to Our World in Data, ‘packaging is the most dominant generator of plastic waste, responsible for almost half of the global total’, whilst ‘the booming $500 billion per year global personal care industry relies on plastic,’ as reported by National Geographic.
Many ingredients used in conventional hair products can harm human and environmental health. Some ingredients of concern include:
- Parabens: a type of preservative to prevent bacteria or fungus in products, which have also been linked to breast cancer. The EU has classified butylparaben as an endocrine disruptor and a priority to be phased out of products, while the European Commission capped the maximum concentration of propylparaben and butylparaben in 2015.
- Phthalates: acting as a gelling agent for shampoos, these are listed as a prohibited substance in the EU. Recent studies have also labelled these chemicals as hormone disruptors.
- Formaldehyde: conventional hair products often include formaldehyde-releasers to prevent microbes growing in water-based products. These can potentially cause cancer and skin irritation, with the EU only allowing a maximum of 0.2% of formaldehyde in products.
- Diethanolamine: a thickening ingredients in shampoos and conditioners that allows them to lather, this is ranked as a high hazard ingredient by EWG.
- Ethoxylated ingredients: sodium laureth sulfate or SLS, ammonium laureth sulfate, and most ingredients ending in ‘-eth’ are synthetically produced using carcinogenic ethylene oxide.
These ingredients also aren’t good for hair itself. Silicone can coat hair, making it appear nourished when it actually needs deep moisturising. Petrochemicals in conditioners can also make hair seem silky and soft, hiding the fact that hair is actually more fragile and prone to breakage.
Natural ingredients like vitamins, oils, and fruit extracts are likely to be gentler on the hair, scalp and skin. This is especially important if you have sensitive skin or are prone to irritation, as organic and sustainable options should be kinder all round. Sustainable brands should also use ingredients sourced from ethical and fair trade supply chains, with workers’ rights respected.
Ingredients also have a significant impact on the planet, as whatever goes does the drain will eventually end up in waterways and various ecosystems. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic database, 86% of 2,388 shampoo products assessed contained ingredients deemed moderately to highly hazardous.
Daily products could be hiding plastic, petroleum or crude oil derivative-based ingredients that are often sourced using methods with a high carbon footprint
Some ingredients also harm the environment during the supply chain or manufacturing process, such as ingredients derived from palm oil and synthetic colours, which can be made from coal tar (conventional purple shampoos are a key example of this).
Unfortunately, labelling of beauty products can often go unregulated. Words like ‘clean’ and ‘natural’ don’t have specific, legal definitions, allowing brands to use them without actually holding these credentials. Plus, under the fragrance label, brands are able to hide countless ingredients due to them being ‘trade secrets.’
In 2018 Credo created the Credo Clean Standard for the industry, with a list of over 2700 ingredients often used in mainstream beauty products that are hazardous. If brands follow these standards and avoid these ingredients, this is usually a good sign. Additionally, if brands carry external certifications such as ECOCERT or Soil Association Organic Standards, they are far more likely to utilise better ingredients.
Beyond this, while aerosols no longer contain CFCs (short for chlorofluorocarbons, gases that harm the ozone layer), they also do still contain hydrocarbons and compressed gases which can contribute to climate breakdown. Aerosols exacerbate air pollution, particularly in cities, with one study finding them a 50% source of fossil-fuel volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in urban areas, even with fuel-related sources like cars.
Ultimately, transparency is key. If a brand can tell you exactly what is in a product, how it’s sourced, how workers are treated and what it does, they’re likely to be more trustworthy.
What to look for
There are many things you can look out for when opting for more sustainable options, after making sure to use up what you already have first. These include conscious approaches to packaging and waste, such as solid bars, refillable options or recycled and recyclable packaging, palm oil-free formulas, certifications that guarantee products are non-toxic, cruelty-free and vegan-friendly, and ethical sourcing policies and transparency.
When using these products, there are also some changes we can make that help the planet and our haircare. Try washing your hair on a lower temperature to make it less fragile and use less energy. Plus, try to work towards washing your hair less often. Washing every day can actually damage hair, stripping the scalp of its natural oils and triggering extra oil production to overcompensate. Overwashing essentially makes hair more greasy over time, so taking more time between washes can help right this balance while saving water, energy and product use.
If you choose a brand with recycled and recyclable packaging, make sure to wash and dry your empty containers properly, check your local area takes that material, and find ways to reuse this packaging whenever you can. You can also check whether specific brands offer take-back programmes for their packaging. For example, some companies have partnered with TerraCycle, who take complex materials such as product caps and hair spray triggers for recycling.
If you do get along with solid options, this will also help in numerous ways. Traditional liquid products can be comprised of 70 – 90% water. Waterless formulas are more concentrated, so they last longer, and require fewer preservatives as water can cause spoilage. Solid bars will usually also be packaged in paper or cardboard, making them lighter to ship (and lowering the shipping footprint) and packaging will be easily recycled or composted.
Beyond the wash, it’s important to consider your other tools too. Instead of plastic brushes look for FSC-certified wood, metal and sustainably sourced rubber (I personally love the options available at Glasshouse Salon).
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Brands to buy from
For more sustainable haircare options, here are my favourite options:
Rahua’s products are enriched with rahua oil, working with over 500 indiginous Quechua-Shua tribes to ethically harvest this oil and purchasing directly from these communities. This work has produced legal tools for full protection and preservation of roughly 150,000 acres of pristine (primary) rainforest.
The company is certified Symbiotic, which requires ingredients to be wild grown in undisturbed virgin forest, prepared using Indigenous knowledge by Indigenous people, and purchased at a price that helps grow and sustain these traditions and support Indigenous people. Products are also non-toxic, vegan, cruelty-free and organic.
Davines source ethical and eco-certified or organic ingredients. All products are made in The Davines Village in Italy, which is fully powered by renewables, emissions for the rest of the product lifecycle are offset through a long-running partnership with EthioTrees, and they also support traditional agroecological farming practices.
They package in recycled or bio-based materials and have refill stations at salons around the UK.
Champions of the solid sustainable options for both beauty and home, Ethique’s products are plastic-free, vegan, palm oil-free, petrochemical-free, cruelty-free, and sustainably produced. One Ethique bar is equivalent to three 350ml bottles of liquid product, ingredients are sourced via direct trade, and bars are packaged in cardboard. They’re also a living wage employer and B Corp.
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Plaine Products are palm oil-free, vegan and cruelty-free. They’re also packaged in 100% recyclable and refillable aluminium bottles; when the product runs low simply order a refill, and you can send any empty bottles back to Plaine. All ingredients are checked against the EWG database to ensure each product is non-toxic, they don’t include sulfates, parabens, phthalates, or silicone, and they also offer travel-sized options.
Faith in Nature
Faith in Nature’s products are vegan, cruelty-free, made in the UK and packaged in 100% recycled materials. They offer both solid and liquid options, use organic ingredients whenever possible, have a nationwide refill system across the UK, and ask customers to send any finished bottles back to them.
B Corp Prose creates bespoke haircare from natural ingredients, all of which they list online. Take an online quiz on your hair, and they’ll deliver customised haircare to your door. Products are made with ethically sourced, cruelty-free, and natural ingredients and are free from parabens, sulfates, GMOs, phthalates, formaldehyde and alcohol. Bottles are made from recyclable plastic, and Prose encourage you to reuse your pump by sending your next bottle with a recyclable cap.
Friendly Soap is cruelty-free, vegan, and free of parabens, sulfates, and phthalates. They use a small number of ingredients and utilise the cold process method, before packaging in recycled and plastic-free materials. They’re also a living wage employer, fair tax certified, and hold a Best rating from Ethical Consumer.
Alaffia’s products are handcrafted by women’s coops across West Africa using fairtrade ingredients. They’re certified by ECOCERT and use ingredients such as unrefined raw shea butter, African black soap and coconut oil. They’re cruelty-free and free from sulfates, parabens, phthalates, silicones, and artificial fragrances or colours. Their palm oil is also orangutan safe: their palms are native to West Africa, grown and harvested by small-scale farmers in multi-cropped sustainable farms in the Maritime region of Togo, instead of industrial plantations. They also carry products for a range of textured hair.
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We Are Paradoxx
We Are Paradoxx are vegan, cruelty-free, sulfate-free and non-toxic. They use aluminium packaging, list ingredients online, and are gender-neutral.
Strandz Unlimited was founded to create better products for textured hair. Everything is produced in small batches from natural and organic ingredients, and they’re free from sulfates, silicone, parabens, phthalates, artificial fragrance and colourants.
Hairstory is non-toxic, biodegradable and refillable via a subscription system. They sell product in flexible pouches, which require significantly less plastic than bottles and take up less space when shipping. Overall they reduce carbon emissions by 76%, manufacturing emissions by 84%, and transportation emissions by 61%. Their pouches are made from plastic that can be recycled normally, they’re in the process of transitioning to a 100% refillable beauty company, and their New Wash formula doesn’t require conditioner, halving product consumption.
Ursa Major’s gender-neutral formulas are cruelty-free and vegan. Formulas are free from SLS, SLES, parabens, silicones, petrochemicals and synthetic fragrances or colours, ingredients are organic when possible, and products are manufactured in the USA. They also partner with rePurpose global to offset plastic usage.
Love Beauty and Planet
LOVE beauty AND Planet source sustainably from fair-wage suppliers. Their bottles are 100% recycled and they’re moving all caps and pumps to at least 50% recycled plastic, and they’re vegan and cruelty-free. They also track their carbon, contributing €40 per carbon ton to a carbon tax fund which then supports programs that help to reduce carbon emissions and landfill waste.
Breed Love Beauty Co
Breed Love Beauty Co. is a Black-owned company using natural and organic ingredients. Everything is handmade in small batches in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while also being cruelty-free and packaged in recyclable and reusable packaging.
Each & Every
Each & Every use non-toxic ingredients selected according to the EWG’s standards. They’re cruelty-free and vegan, containing no phthalates, parabens or artificial colours, dyes or fragrances, and source from sustainable and ethical suppliers.
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Long Wknd handmake natural, vegan products from non-toxic ingredients. Their bars are plastic-free, made in small batches and cruelty-free.
Corvus Botanicals prioritise renewable, regenerative, pesticide-free, upcycled and post-consumer recycled materials in both ingredients and packaging. They use a low-waste manufacturing facility and source from sustainable suppliers, fair trade and organic suppliers.
Meow Meow Tweet
All-natural vegan apothecary Meow Meow Tweet is committed to creating pure plant and mineral-based formulas. Products are palm oil-free and cruelty-free, with plastic-free shipping and fair trade ingredients. Products are made by hand in small batches, and their bulk program is a zero waste closed-loop refill system. Every month they also redistribute funds to small, mutual-aid, grassroots focused, BIPOC- and queer-led organisations.
Seed Phytonutrient is certified cruelty-free, package in aluminium bottles, and have partnered with Pact on a mail-back recycling program. They list all ingredients online, are cruelty-free, manufacture in the US, and are free from parabens, phthalates, preservatives, or animal byproducts.
SuperZero’s bars are vegan and cruelty-free, with at least 95% plant-based formulas. They adhere to the Credo Clean Standard and are free from plastic, sulfates, silicones, phthalates, synthetic fragrances, or colours.
Monday Haircare’s products are cruelty-free, packaged in 100% recyclable bottles, and focus on natural ingredients. They’re paraben and SLS free, and are working on refill pouches.
Innersense products are packaged in 100% post-consumer recycled materials. All products are cruelty-free, and they partner with Climate Neutral, rePurpose Global and 1% for the planet. They use organic and non-toxic ingredients, sourced from trusted, transparent suppliers, and products are formulated through cold-pressing, distillation or processing without synthetics. Plus, they now have refill pouches.
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EcoRoots products are cruelty-free and free from silicones, parabens or phthalates. All products are made in the USA and shipped plastic-free.
Hairy Jayne products are vegan and cruelty-free, using natural and biodegradable ingredients. Everything is handmade in Bristol, UK, and packaged in plastic-free or biodegradable materials, or housed in refillable bottles.
Briogeo use natural, ethically sourced ingredients. Products are vegan, cruelty-free, and free from sulfates, silicones, parabens, and artificial dyes and scents. All bottles are recycled and recyclable and they’re aerosol free.
100% Pure are cruelty-free, non-toxic, and utilise natural ingredients, all of which are listed online.
Sienna Naturals is Black woman-owned, cruelty-free, vegan, non-toxic and sustainably sourced. They’re free from sulfates, silicone, artificial fragrances, parabens and phthalates. They’re intentionally formulated for textured hair, and operate with Environmental Working Group standards.
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JVN Hair products feature hemisqualane sustainably sourced from sugarcane. Formulas are free from silicone and sulfates while also being cruelty-free and vegan. Packaging is made from aluminium and glass, while most caps are made from post-consumer recycled plastic. Ingredients are also listed online for transparency.
EVOLVh adhere to the Credo Clean Standard and are ECOCERT certified. They’re free from silicone, parabens, sulfates, and phthalates, and are vegan and cruelty-free. They produce everything in the US and use recyclable packaging. They aren’t currently palm oil-free, but use RSPO-certified palm oil.
MO MI use plant-based and ethically sourced ingredients. They’re cruelty-free and vegan, predominantly package in aluminium bottles, and donate to environmental charities.
HiBAR have a range of shampoo and conditioner bars made from natural ingredients. They’re paraben, phthalate, and sulfate-free, and both packaging and shipping is plastic-free. They’re also cruelty-free and have options suitable for the curly girl method.
Ceremonia are vegan and cruelty-free, using natural ingredients (all of which are listed online) and manufacturing in New York. They curate natural ingredients from the heart of Latin America, bottles are made of at least 30% – 100% post-consumer-recycled material, and they offset emissions from shipping.
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Other hair products
Beyond shampoo and conditioner, check out the following brands for other sustainable products you might be looking for.
Khali Min use a range of fairtrade, sustainably sourced and ECOCERT-certified ingredients. All products are manufactured in England in a facility which is 50% solar powered. the majority of packaging is also made in the UK, and all packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable
Tints of Nature
Tints of Nature create eco-friendly home dye kits for permanent and semi-permanent henna dyes. They use natural and organic ingredients, including the lowest possible levels of PPD pigments and leaving out harsh ingredients such as ammonia, sulfates, and parabens. Over 75% of ingredients are sourced from within the UK, they’re cruelty-free, use low-carbon manufacturing methods, and all packaging is recyclable and where possible made from post-consumer recycled materials.
Maria Nila are vegan and cruelty-free while also being sulfate and paraben-free. Everything is manufactured in Sweden. While they carry shampoo and conditioner, their colour range provides a kinder alternative to mainstream bright colour options (I’ve used them more than once to go pink!)
Re=Comb’s hair combs are made from 100% recycled plastic. They’re created from recycled PP or LDPE plastic, but the plastics are never mixed so they can be recycled again in future.
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Lumi Basics’ natural and non-toxic dry shampoo contains minimal ingredients that absorb excess oil, add texture, and aid hair growth. It’s a powder rather than aerosol, and is also packaged in 100% plastic-free, biodegradable, and compostable packaging.
Areesa Botanicals products are handmade with certified organic ingredients. Their Ayurvedic Indian Hair Oil prevents hair loss and nourishes dry and damaged hair.