7 Ideas for a Low-Waste Hair Care Routine

In a nutshell, choose your products carefully and use less of them.

conditioning hair

Getty Images / Piotr Marcinski / EyeEm

If you're looking to cut down on plastic waste, changing your hair care routine is a great place to start. There are plenty of plastic-free and zero-waste alternatives that work just as well as conventionally-packaged items without loading up your trash can or recycling bin afterward. 

As a green lifestyle writer who has tried it all, here are some recommendations on where to begin your journey toward a low-waste hair routine. 

1. Refillable Shampoo and Conditioner

Plaine Products shower model

Plaine Products

The subtlest switch you can make is from disposable to refillable bottles of liquid shampoo and conditioner. The company pioneering this model is Plaine Products, based in Ohio. It ships boxes of shampoo and conditioner in sleek aluminum bottles that are returned for sterilization and refill. You can purchase single units or sign up for a range of subscription options (once every 2, 3, 4, or 6 months).

The formulas themselves are lovely to use, great-smelling and effective. They are free from sulfates, parabens, phthalates, silicone, palm oil, never tested on animals, vegan, and biodegradable. You can choose between Rosemary-Mint-Vanilla, Citrus-Lavender, or Unscented.

2. Solid Shampoo and Conditioner

Superzero shampoo bars
A collection of superzero shampoo and conditioner bars.

superzero

Bars of shampoo and conditioner have become popular in recent years. These are like using a bar of soap on your hair, though formulated to have lower pH so as not to cause damage to the hair cuticles. Conny Wittke, cofounder of shampoo bar company Superzero, tells people to avoid ingredients such as sodium stearate, sodium olivate, or sodium cocoate, as these indicate that a product is more like soap than shampoo.

They are easy to use: Wet your hair and rub the shampoo bar into your hair, then lather with your hands. Rinse and repeat with the conditioner. My favorite companies are Unwrapped Life, Lush, Ethique, HiBar, and Superzero, though there are many others on the market.

3. Powdered Shampoo and Conditioner

Cocofomm shampoo powder

Cocofomm

A relative newcomer to the world of green hair care, powdered shampoos and conditioners have been making an appearance this spring and summer. They're a great substitute for liquid shampoos, as they essentially function in the same way, activated by water as you rub your hands together and then lather up wet hair. 

Meow Meow Tweet, which recently released a Rose-Geranium powdered shampoo that's a delight to use, describes it as multipurpose: 

"The shampoo powder can be used in tandem with our shampoo bars as a weekly clarifying and demineralizing hair mask if you have hard water. Use it as your everyday shampoo, or use it occasionally to de-gunk and refresh locks... The conditioner powder can also be used as a softening hair mask. For added moisture, put a few drops of your face oil, body oil or favorite oil into the mix and leave it in for a few minutes before rinsing."

Another good brand is Cocofomm, whose minty-tea tree powdered formula has a super thick and creamy lather (not foamy like regular shampoo).

4. Homemade Dry Shampoo, Serum, and Hair Spray

The hair aisle is a long one at the drugstore, but so many of the products can be recreated using ingredients already in your kitchen. Two Treehugger writers experimented with DIY dry shampoo recipes using arrowroot flour and cornstarch, reporting back with positive results.

Serums are used as a styling tool to reduce frizziness and add shine to hair, but they're typically made from silicone, which is an artificial substance that can build up in hair and doesn't always come out with shampooing. You can make your own natural alternative using coconut, argan, olive, sweet almond, jojoba, or grapeseed oils. Just work a few drops into wet hair before styling.

Hair spray can be made by boiling lemon slices in water, with the optional addition of rubbing alcohol to prolong its lifespan. (See recipe.) The resulting mixture will help hold hair's shape while sparing yourself exposure to aerosol propellants and synthetic fragrances, neither of which you should inhale.

5. Compostable Hair Brushes and Elastics

Terra Ties

Terra Ties

Instead of buying a plastic brush and comb, consider going with wood when the time comes to replace your old ones. If you let a wooden brush or comb dry out between uses, it will keep for years and will break down fully once discarded. 

Kooshoo makes wonderful all-natural organic rubber hair ties, scrunchies, and headbands. Another great option are these 100% biodegradable elastics made by Terra Ties, containing only natural rubber and organic cotton (dyed with natural dyes). Terra Ties—and I can attest to this, having used them—are said to be not only more environmentally friendly, but also "thicker, more durable, and softer." They also come in plastic-free, minimalist cardboard packaging.

6. 'No Shampoo' Method

The lowest-waste hair care routine is simply to stop washing your hair, which is the true version of "no 'poo", as it's sometimes called, or switch to washing with baking soda and conditioning with apple cider vinegar. Having done both, I can say that the baking soda/ACV approach was very effective for me—I did it for 18 months—whereas water rinsing lasted about 40 days, at which point I was desperate for some kind of cleaning agent.

7. Simplify Your Hair Care Routine

Embracing less is always preferable to substituting different products for the same wasteful routine. See if you can train your hair to go longer between washes, by using less product, wearing different hairstyles, and applying homemade dry shampoo. You will be surprised at how adaptable your hair can be.