Hair care products—boasting a global value of $4.7 billion in 2005—are often considered the most powerful and trend-influencing of all personal care products. With this massive level of popularity and influence, the hair care industry also carries considerable eco-impact: the petrochemical-based ingredients in shampoos and conditioners; the toxic coloring agents in hair dye; the waste created and energy consumed by these beauty rituals. It's enough to turn your hair white overnight. But fear not: there are simple ways to maintain a dazzling, healthy head of hair, while avoiding a hair and earth don't.
Cleansing, conditioning, coloring, and full of chems
No matter what hair care product you're searching for—be it shampoo, conditioner, or hair dye—check the ingredients list to avoid environmentally and health-damaging chemicals, opting for natural, plant-based ingredients instead. Some common hair care chemicals to avoid include:
- Ammonia is a toxic chemical used in hair dyes, as well as bleaching and cleaning products, that's been linked to long-term health effects, including cancer, skin irritation, and environmental contamination.
- BHA, or butylated hydroxyanisole, is a chemical preservative used in cosmetics and certain foods to prevent fats and oils from becoming rancid. It has a negative impact on aquatic ecosystems and bioaccumulates in the tissues of organisms.
- DEA, or diethanolamine, is a foaming detergent that is a known carcinogen. TEA and MEA are also often contaminated with DEA.
- Ethanolamine is a toxic chemical that can cause central nervous system depression and other health problems.
- Hydrogen peroxide is a government-restricted chemical found in hair dyes, face washes, toothpastes, and as a common antiseptic.
- Fragrances used in shampoos and other hair care products are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which add to air pollution, are persistent in the environment, and contaminate waterways and aquatic wildlife. An estimated 5.72 million Americans have skin allergies to fragrance, while around 72 percent of those suffering from asthma claim that their condition can be triggered by synthetic fragrance. Artificial fragrances can also contain phthalates, widely used industrial chemicals that are estrogenic or anti-androgenic. Studies conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health reveal a link between monoethyl phthalate, a chemical used to preserve scent in perfumes and colognes, and sperm damage. Phthalates are sometimes listed as DEHP, DHP, and DBP5, but are often not listed separately if included in a fragrance.
- Lead acetates are highly hazardous metal compounds that are known carcinogenic toxins affecting human reproduction and development, the nervous system, and respiration.
- Mineral oil is a petroleum-based substance. The production of the petrochemicals used in items like hair dye and shampoo pollutes the environment by releasing hazardous chemicals into the air and water. Mineral oil-based products support the hazards of the petroleum industry, which include about 2.6 million gallons of oil spilled every month during transportation and about 71 million pounds of toxins released into the air and water during refinement.
- Parabens are known endocrine disrupters that are not only detrimental to human health, but also destructive to animal hormones and development. Studies have found higher levels of parabens in tumors from human breast tissue, but, because the potential damage to the endocrine system has yet to be proven, the controversy surrounding the toxicity of parabens is still being debated.
- Para-phenylenediamine (PPD) is a chemical used mostly in dyes and as a photographic developing agent. Exposure is linked to a number of health problems, including eye irritation and tearing, asthma, renal failure, vertigo, and coma in humans. It's estimated that 5 percent of permanent hair dye users develop allergies—primarily contact dermatitis—because of PPD, which can be found in two out of three permanent hair dyes in the US, despite being banned in several other countries.
- Triclosan is a potent synthetic antimicrobial agent, used in some shampoos and other hair care products, which has been found in 55 percent of streams examined in 2002 at levels high enough to disrupt the natural life cycle of frogs. Effects may range from skin and eye irritation to the formation of dioxin and chloroform in the right circumstances, both probable carcinogens.
When it comes to packaging waste, less is more
Although many hair care companies are taking steps to use recycled-content plastic bottles and encourage recycling, spent bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and other products can take hundreds of years to decompose, while ingredients in leftover product—including phenoxyethanol and parabens—can contaminate soil and water.
Shampoo bottles, like many consumer products, are usually made from HDPE, although they can also be made from damaging PVC. The manufacture of PVC creates toxic pollution, threatening the health of both factory workers and the communities surrounding factory sites. Incineration of PVC products produces dioxins and furans, which are among the most toxic environmental contaminants and are known carcinogens. Recycling is not an option with PVC plastic: one PVC item can contaminate a batch of 100,000 recyclable bottles.
The green alternative? Solid shampoo and conditioner bars (commonly made with natural materials) that completely circumvent the whole plastics waste mess. There are additional eco-boons, too. For example, Natural beauty and skincare company LUSH reveals that their unwrapped, solid products last longer and weigh less than their bottled products, which means they take less energy to transport. The company points out that that one truckload of solid shampoo bars is enough for 800,000 washes and that it would require 15 truckloads of bottled shampoo to perform the same task.
Eco-friendly hair salons
It's obvious that permanent dyes, shampoos and conditioners, and other hair staples often contain a bevy of questionable chemicals that can cause health problems and environmental damage. So how does this affect having your tresses professionally handled? A recent study by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection concluded that the wastewater being emitted from salons is more industrial in strength than other wastewater sources. They now encourage salons to use only non-hazardous, nontoxic substances. Many salons are voluntarily cleaning up their acts by choosing eco-friendly products, such as Atlanta's EcoColors Salon, which lowered chemical usage by developing its own low-PPD hair color.
Water and energy consumption (especially for heating the water) is also relatively high in beauty parlors. To combat this problem, one Aveda salon in Madrid installed a water recycling system that reuses rinse water to flush toilets. Similarly, Boston's Fresh Hair installed solar panels and a graywater heat recovery system to reduce their carbon emissions and save money.
Making sense of green claims on product labels
As if the ingredient lists weren't murky enough, a lack of regulation allows personal care product companies to tout their products' green attributes with claims that at times can be confusing and misleading, and without any third party certification that the claims are true. To help you determine whether your shampoo will provide a green wash, or it's just a product of greenwashing, learn more about product testing, labeling, and reputable certifications:
Lack of safety testing
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of personal care products, yet neither the actual products nor ingredients are reviewed or approved by the FDA before they're sold to the public. In fact, while the European Commission banned 22 chemicals found in hair dyes after research linked long-term use of certain dyes to bladder cancer, only one of the 22 banned chemicals appears on the FDA's registry of restricted cosmetics ingredients. Instead, it's up to the manufacturer to ensure that a product is safe, and to theoretically attach a warning label if it isn't. Clear safety guidelines are lacking, and no independent third-party safety testing is required. Submitting product formulations is voluntary, and according to the FDA, only about 35 percent of cosmetic companies do so. While the European Union (EU) approved a cosmetic ingredient listing of over 1,000 prohibited substances, the FDA list only prohibits eight.
One murky area is the term “organic.” While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains clearcut standards for organic food, the same can’t be said for body care products. The personal care industry is in turmoil trying to agree upon a set of standards. Some companies use the USDA certified organic food standard, which requires 95 percent of the ingredients to be organic. Others use the less stringent California state standard for organic cosmetic products, which requires at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients. And still others label their products organic without meeting any external criterion.
In the meantime, a nonprofit standard-setting group called NSF International has released a draft set of rules for organic personal care products and a group of 30 cosmetic companies recently devised their own set of specifications called Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards (OASIS). How it all washes out remains to be seen.
On May 1, 2008, the Natural Products Association announced the Natural Seal for Personal Care Products, a new certification program that defines "natural" and includes an easily-identified seal. Advisers to the association include Aubrey Organics, Burt’s Bees, Badger Balm, California Baby, Farmaesthetics, Trilogy Fragrances, and Weleda.
While you're contemplating green attributes, you may also wish to join the cruelty-free movement. Just keep in mind: a company may claim that they don’t employ animal testing for their products, but without third-party verification, it’s hard to know whether these statements are in fact completely true. So stick to those products certified as cruelty-free by looking for products with the Leaping Bunny Logo or the Certified Vegan Logo. You can rest assured that no bunnies (or monkeys or cats for that matter) were harmed in the making of these non-animal-tested products.
In a recent study that shook the natural products industry, 100 “natural” and “organic” soaps, shampoos, dish liquids, lotions, and body washes were tested and nearly half contained 1,4-Dioxane, a carcinogenic chemical. This toxin has been found in conventional personal care products, but this study commissioned by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) was the first to test green products.
In scientific studies, 1,4-Dioxane has caused cancer in animals; scientists have not yet confirmed the long-term effects on humans. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says current levels do not pose a hazard to consumers but they have advised manufacturers to lower amounts in cosmetics as much as possible. None of the products tested that were Certified Organic by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) contained 1,4-Dioxane. In response to this study, some of the affected companies have said they will work toward removing 1,4-Dioxane from their products.
- 1,4-dioxane: A petroleum-derived contaminant classified as a probable human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- HDPE (high-density polyethylene): A plastic polymer, mainly derived from petroleum, and one of the main plastics used for plastic bottles for beverages and consumer goods.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air, where they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.
- Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
- The Green Guide - Soap and Shampoo: Personal Best
- Sprig - Lustrous Healthy Hair (in the Color You Want)
- The New York Times - Is Organic Shampoo Chemistry or Botany?
- TreeHugger - TreeHugger Asks: What's a Good, Green, Cheap Shampoo?
- Ideal Bite - Do you change your hair color as often as you change your shoes?
- Environmental Working Group - Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database Before you lather up, check out where your favorite hair care product ranks on the hazard scale.
- CosmeticsDesign.com - World hair care market: victim of its own success?
- Fragranced Products Information Network - Fragrances by Design
- Plum Organics - Toxin Free Home Guide
- TreeHugger - There's a Frog Disrupter in my Soap
- Center for Environmental Health - Target Agrees To Reduce Use of PVC, a "Poison Plastic"
- LUSH - Packaging is rubbish
- MedicineNet.com - 22 Hair Dye Chemicals Banned in Europe
- The Green Guide - Lip and Eye Makeup