Ultimate Guide to Eco-Friendly Hair Care

When setting out to reduce one’s plastic use and waste, I like to suggest to folks to start with one room or area of life at a time. For example, the bathroom. Take an inventory of all the products you currently use that is packaged in a plastic bottle, tube, pouch or jar. Then, look for products that have plastic-free packaging alternatives or are package-free altogether like bars. Use up what you have in the bottle, and when you run out, swap it out.

One of the easiest ways to remove plastic from your inventory of bathroom products (and specifically hair care products) is to transition to using products in bar form or refills. Shampoo, conditioner, body wash and body lotion can all be used in bar form. They are often more economical because they are concentrated and you add the water yourself. Some bottles are 80% or more water, and evidence of this is it being the first or in the top 3 ingredients on the back of the bottle. There’s plenty of water in our showers and sinks, why not add it ourselves? This often means products in bar form will last much longer as well. A small bar will last at least as long as a 16 oz bottle, but a larger bar will oftentimes last 80+ washes.

Plus, products like shampoo, conditioner and body wash which come in bar form do not require the plastic packaging that liquid bottles often come in. Micro-plastics are a growing ecological concern, and it is estimated that only 9% of plastic is actually recycled. Until we improve our plastic recycling infrastructure, reducing plastic packaging is a good way to reduce micro-plastics entering our ecosystems. This is where we can use our consumer purchasing power to influence markets and pressure the “powers that be” to invest in improving our infrastructure.

Back to hair care deets. Let’s start with shampoo bars. There are two types of shampoo bars available on the market and there are key differences between the two. That is, syndet/surfectant-based vs. soap-based. Let’s look at them both a little closer:

Soap-Based Shampoo Bars

Made using the same cold process (or hot process) method that is used to make soap. They are usually made with hair-loving oils, but the difficulty with these bars is the pH balancing. Soap by itself is not great for hair. Also it is not hard-water friendly. With soap, it is very difficult to alter the pH without ruining the saponification process required to make soap. The normal pH range for soap is 8 to 10, and hair’s natural pH is between 4 to 6.

Formulating citric acid into the soap-based shampoo bar (like our CITRINE bar, here at Corvus Botanicals) can bring the pH down to 7 or 8 at the very lowest, but it’s definitely a bit of a formulation challenge and still is too alkaline for hair’s liking. So these usually require a Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) hair rinse to balance the hair out. There will likely be an adjustment period as your hair + scalp transitions, but some folks swear by this type of bar and don’t mind the extra step with the hair rinse.

ACV Hair Rinse DIY
1. Mix 1 TBSP to 1/2 cup ACV with 1 cup of water in a reusable squeeze bottle or spray bottle.
2. Apply or spray mixture in hair and gently massage into your scalp.

Syndet Surfectant-Based Shampoo Bars

Made with cleansers called surfectants. These are pH balanced and don’t require an ACV rinse. A very commonly known syndet based surfectant is called SLS, which is well known because it can be overly cleansing for a lot of folks, causing irritation, which usually gives them a bad reputation. Not all surfectants (and sulfates) are harsh though, some are very gentle and actually much better for hair because they are non-irritating, pH balanced and better for color-treated hair. Also, they are more hard-water friendly than soap-based shampoo bars.

Here at Corvus Botanicals, we use a mix of gentle surfectants called Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS) and Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (SCI). They are synthetically made in a lab and derived from coconut oil. They do a great job at removing dead skin cells, oils and dirt from your scalp that can harbor dandruff-causing bacteria. Also, they have a more complex molecular structure and larger particle size than the notorious SLS. This prevents SCS and SCI from penetrating the epidermis, as their structure are too big to get into pores. This combo of SCS and SCI results in a gentle bar that won’t strip natural oils from your skin and scalp, and won’t cause irritation or damage hair.

This type of shampoo bar is the closest to salon-quality shampoo, which is why most folks adore them. Corvus Botanicals offers a variety of these surfectant-based bars (like our ETHEREAL bar) that serve a range of hair care needs (dandruff control, oil regulation, moisturizing, volume, etc.) They are ocean-safe, biodegradable and plastic-free.

At Corvus Botanicals, we like to respect and offer both shampoo bar options; soap-based and surfectant-based. We found that folks are pretty evenly split in their preference with these shampoo bars, so we like to provide something for everyone. We strive to make happy hair for our sustainability-conscious customers!

Now on to the topic of conditioner bars. There are a variety of plastic-free conditioners out there, each having pros and cons of their own.

BTMS Conditioner Bar

The ingredient BTMS is shorthand for “Behentrimonium Methosulfate” it is synthetically made in the lab and derived from rapeseed oil. BTMS is a very conditioning emulsifier and therefore has a very good feel on the hair, most closely resembling liquid conditioners. The only problem with BTMS is that it is not made with 100% rapeseed oil as many folks are made to believe.

Emulsifiers and conditioning agents (including BTMS) are made with cetyl or cetearyl alcohols, which can be derived from any combination of coconut, corn, soy and almost always PALM oils. Therefore, it is hard for suppliers to say with absolute certainty that there is no palm oil in the BTMS.

Palm oil is still very destructive environmentally; causing deforestation, endangering species like the Orangutan and creating a hostile market in its local community. Most palm containing emulsifiers and conditioning agents (like BTMS, cetyl or cetearyl alcohol) are not sustainable RSPO certified, as it costs significantly more to have that certification in the supply chain. And even then, the RSPO certification is not without its own shortcomings. Though it has the best intentions and is a progressive concept, in practice the RSPO certification for sustainable palm oil is insufficient; failing to meet high standards, and still unable to curb the environmental damages of the palm industry.

At this time, Corvus Botanicals does not use palm oil (RSPO “sustainable” or otherwise) in our products for this reason. There is a supplier in New Zealand that has pioneered palm-free BTMS, but American markets have yet to offer a 100% palm-free BTMS that is widely available, so we use our New Zealand supplier to source the palm-free BTMS in our CYGNUS Conditioner Bar.

Hair Lotion Bar

This type of haircare bar is more like a moisturizer rather than a “conditioner,” by definition. It contains hair loving oils and butters to restore moisture to hair and improve slide. It won’t have the “silky” feel associated with traditional conditioners, but it will still provide ample moisture to dry + split ends. The challenge with these is over-application. A little bit goes a LONG way. Put a little dab on the ends and your hair will be happy, but put too much and your hair will look greasy. Always apply to damp hair for best results, and ends can really benefit from the extra moisture to keep them from looking dry and dull. Try our ECLIPSE Lotion Bar on your hair for added moisture.

Hair Mask

This is a tip that will bring your hair health to the next level -- use a weekly hair mask! When your hair is feeling dry or brittle, people usually assume the problem is with their shampoo that it is not hydrating enough. It actually has to do with you hair needing a little boost of moisture, which can be provided by a good hair mask with nourishing oils and butters. The product typically comes in a jar, but the Lotion Bar (above) can also be used as a hair mask. For the mask, take a scoop or two and rub it all over your hair. Make sure you massage it in all the way from the roots to the ends. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes. Jump in the shower, shampoo and rinse as you do normally. We love to use ECLIPSE for our hair mask. 

Final Thoughts

If you are new to plastic-free shampoo and conditioner and these other low waste hair care swaps, it may take some trial and error to find the right combo that works for you. Experiment until you find the combination that makes your hair happy. Keep in mind, there may be a bit of a transition period if you are going right from the liquid bottled products. A couple days to a few weeks should be enough time to adjust.

And a small percentage of folks just can’t give up the liquid shampoo and conditioner; the bar is just not right for them — for those folks, I say to check out your local bulk goods stores, and opt for the refills! There really is a plastic-free option for everyone, and most importantly an option that’s good for BOTH our hair AND the planet.

- Stacia