Zero waste hair care for all budgets

I think you’ll agree with me when I say:

finding zero waste hair products is hard.

And I’m not even 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, try another option to see what else might work.

But first…

Here’s the problem(s) with commercial hair products!

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. 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. 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.
  • 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.

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.

Look:

Don’t go throwing your commercial shampoo right out the window, but consider your next purchase more carefully. 

ZERO WASTE HAIR CARE OPTIONS FOR ALL BUDGETS! - Polly Barks

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!

NB: some of these links are affiliate links, which just means that I’ll get a small portion of the purchase price – at no extra cost to you. This money goes towards maintaining the site!

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.

View this post on Instagram

My current hair routine is this wooden brush (apparently made of neem that I picked up from a pile at a flea market – it smells amazing) and a vinegar rinse of either homemade ACV or kombucha. . I found myself experimenting a lot with hair care and amassing a not insignificant amount of products. Because exploring and talking about zero waste is my job, I’m exposed to more product than the average person might be. It can get overwhelming and confusing when I start sorting through everything. To that end, I’ve tried to get back in the minimal mindset and consider what exactly I need and what I don’t. . For me, keeping my routines simple is not only a kindness to the environment, but a kindness to my anxious brain. The fewer items in my routine, the easier life becomes for me. Brushing and a quick rinse is what’s working for me now and it’s honestly pretty great. #keepzerowastesimple

A post shared by Polly Barks (@polly.barks) on

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:

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.

View this post on Instagram

February AKA 28 days of #zerowaste DIYs. Because most of the time the answer to your trashy problem isn’t buying something new, it’s getting creative. DIY EIGHT: green tea hair rinse (AKA low-waste shampoo). I’m always hesitant to share hair care options since hair varies so wildly. This is what I’ve tested and has worked for me, though I’m mostly water-only now (plus lots of conditioning treatments). I try to avoid pricey shower bars since nothing I used to like works for me in my local water. This is a very simple recipe that can be pre-made with just a little bit of hot water and a few minutes. Green tea is traditionally known to help fight dandruff and a dry scalp, which makes it especially great for colder weather. Onwards to the shampoo recipe. Here’s how to make it: ✨ 1 cup of water ✨ 1 tablespoon of green tea ✨ 1 tablespoon of honey ✨ 2 tablespoons of ACV Boil water and let green tea steep for at least 10 minutes. Add in honey and ACV, mixing well. Ideally, you’d put it in a spray bottle and apply to wet hair in the shower. (If not, just pour carefully over your head.) Let sit until you’ve reached the end of your shower, then wash out. Notes: 1. 1 cup is enough for about one wash – maybe two – for me since I have very thick hair. If you do have some leftover, store it in the fridge between uses so it stays fresh. 2. YES. Your hair will smell like ACV when it’s wet. NO. Your hair won’t smell like ACV when it’s dry. What low-waste shampoo options do you use? Got an idea for a future DIY swap you’d like to see? Leave it in the comments!

A post shared by Polly Barks (@polly.barks) on

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.

Related Article: A Comprehensive Guide to Ethical Bulk Tea

Other zero waste hair considerations
Mask/deep hydration

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 oil, jojoba oil, or even a specialty mix created specifically as hair mask. I’ve also had great luck with Dulse & Rugosa‘s herb-infused hair oil.

I apply heavier oils before my shower and lighter oils throughout the week if my ends are looking super dry.

Dry shampoo

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.

View this post on Instagram

February AKA 28 days of #zerowaste DIYs. Because most of the time the answer to your trashy problem isn’t buying something new, it’s getting creative. DIY TEN: dry shampoo. Because sprays aren’t great. According to the @scientific_american “Modern-day, CFC-free aerosol sprays also emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to ground-level ozone levels, a key component of asthma-inducing smog.” Plus, many mainstream dry shampoo sprays contain a host of potentially-damaging chemicals. (As always you can check out ewg.org for info on a specific project. Here’s how to make it: ✨ cornstarch ✨ cocoa powder ✨ essential oil (optional) OR ✨ 1 part cornstarch ✨ 1 part vodka or witch hazel ✨ 4 parts warm water ✨ essential oils For dry powder (what I prefer – it’s easier) start with cornstarch and slowly add in cocoa powder until you reach the desired color. (Really dark hair? Go the opposite way – a dash of cornstarch helps with extra oil absorption.) Add in a few drops of essential oil for fragrance, if desired. Sprinkle over hair or brush in with a big powder brush. Let sit for a few minutes and brush through with comb or massage in with fingers. You can also make a spray version. Mix the ingredients well until cornstarch is dissolved and spray onto roots. Let sit and gently comb or massage into hair. Notes: 1. I prefer the powder to the spray, but if you have particularly dark hair – or fine hair that gets weighed down easily – it may be a better options for you. 2. My hair does look a little dull after adding in the powder, but massaging it in with my fingers (brushing my dry hair is a disaster, so only when I know I’m putting my hair up) works much more effectively. Dry shampoo – do you use it, or just hide the grease with a hat fancy braid? Got an idea for a future DIY swap you’d like to see? Leave it in the comments!

A post shared by Polly Barks (@polly.barks) on

Hair ties

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.

Hair Gel

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.

Hairspray

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.