woman brushing wet hair

The Environmental Impact of Hair Care Products

Week 25

In 2008, Euromonitor reported the cosmetics industry created 120.8 billion units of packaging. Over the last few weeks, we've found sustainable alternatives for lotion, hand soap, body wash, face wash, lip balm, and makeup. Hair care products are the final branch of cosmetics to tackle for our Tiny Waste Resolution, so let's get to it!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Why are hair care products a problem?

Over 552 million shampoo bottles are thrown away every year and as you know, they are almost exclusively plastic. Plastics are problematic because they are made from non-renewable resources, have limited recyclability, and take hundreds if not thousands of years to break down.

Shampoo and Conditioner

Shampoo and conditioner bottles, like all plastics, are made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource, which is harmful for two reasons: manufacturing generates significant pollution and the product is not biodegradable. As Sciencing.com put it, "they are difficult to produce and nearly impossible to get rid of once produced". Instead of biodegrading, plastic breaks down into tiny micro-plastics that litter our soil, our waterways, and even our air.


Aerosol hairspray, while usually sold in aluminum or steel spray cans, bring a different kind of environmental issue. According to ScientificAmerican.com, "they still contain hydrocarbons and/or compressed gases notorious for their contribution to global warming." These aerosols emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to ground-level ozone levels, a key component of smog.

Are there any harmful ingredients in my hair care products?

As with many other cosmetics, there are a few ingredients in conventional hair care products that can be bad for both our health and the environment. Here are a few to look out for:


Parabens, which are synthetic compounds used as preservatives, have been linked to hormone disruption, reproductive issues, and breast cancer. Most cosmetics use a such small amounts that the FDA official stance claims there is no reason for consumers to worry, however, in my opinion, it's not worth the potential risk. On top of that, studies have shown that they can be devastating to coral reefs.

The six most common parabens to look out for are: methylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, propylparaben, benzylparaben, butylparaben.


Pthalates are used as softeners in cosmetics, lubricating oils, childrens toys, and vinyl flooring. The CDC has found measurable amounts of pthalate metabolites in the general population. Some pthalates have been proven to affect reproductivity in animals, while others have been banned from children's due to their toxicity. However, since there is not enough research to conclude long term affects in humans, many pthalates are merely on the EPA's "Chemicals of Concern" list.


Yes, that stinky stuff from your frog dissecting science class can be found as a smoothing agent in some hair care products. According to OSHA formaldehyde (also known as methyl adelhyde, methylene oxide, oxymethylene, and oxomethane) is a known cancer causing substance.

Are hair care product containers recyclable?

Typically, plastic hair care bottles are made from #1 and #2 plastics, which means they are often accepted in most curbside recycling programs. Look for the number inside the recycling symbol to determine if it is withing local requirements. Aerosol hairspray cans, though typically made of aluminum or steel, may or may not be accepted. If they are, make sure you've emptied the can before tossing it in the bin.

If any of these bottles cannot be recycled in your town, you can print out a free shipping label and send them to Terracycle via a program sponsored by Garnier. Or, you can drop them off for recycling at participating Nordstrom stores.

How can my hair care routine be more sustainable?

As always, the most sustainable thing you can do is use what you have and replace it with a low-waste option. I've compiled a list of 10 low-waste shampoos and conditioners to make your search a little easier. You can also make shampoo, conditioner, gel and hairspray with these easy DIY recipes. Other items to consider are a wooden comb, bamboo hairbrush, and compostable hair ties.

My thin, curly hair has responded best to Plaine Products, which comes in refillable aluminum bottles. Use code TINYWASTE at checkout for 20% off your purchase.

Plaine Products
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