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Liquid plastics

Your shampoo is still full of plastic – here’s what you can do about it
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Woman washing her hair with shampoo

This article first appeared in our Organic September issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 08 September 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Hair care might not be the most talked-about culprit in sustainability conversations, but the energy, water and chemicals we use to maintain our hair create a potentially huge environmental footprint.

The irony is that all the money and resources we’re spending might actually be a cause of poorer hair (and environmental) health in the long run.

Synthetic polymers in hair care

We’re all by now aware of the devastation caused by plastic pollution – sales of plastic-free shampoo bars and refillable beauty products have gone through the roof as a result – but what about the plastics inside the products?

Synthetic polymers, or ‘liquid plastics’, are used in shampoos and conditioners to give a coating to the hair – that glossy shine we see in the ads.

Each time we wash our hair they are sent down the plug hole and into our waterways; what happens next is up for debate.

‘The big open question is what happens to them once they are used and washed off into the sewers’, said David Santillo, senior scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories. ‘Do they degrade as part of the organic matrix, or do they persist and maybe even clump together to form microplastics? I don’t think anyone really knows their fate with any certainty.’

The ‘precautionary principle’ exists so that precautionary measures can be adopted when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high, as would appear to be the case with the use of synthetic polymers in hair care products.

So we asked three top-selling UK shampoo brands – TRESemmé, L’Oréal Elvive and Head & Shoulders – all of which use synthetic polymers in their shampoos – whether they had conducted research at a company level to ascertain the environmental fate and impact of these liquid plastics, and whether they had any plans to replace them in future formulations.

A spokesperson at Unilever said: ‘The majority of polymeric ingredients used in TRESemme products are naturally derived with a small number containing synthetic polymers. As part of our commitment to make all our formulations biodegradable by 2030, we are in the process of removing solid polymers and replacing them with natural or biodegradable alternatives.’

The spokesperson added that all Unilever products are tested by Unilever’s Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC), Unilever’s global centre of excellence in safety and sustainability science, but didn’t respond to a follow-up request to see the conclusions of any research conducted specifically into the fate and impact of synthetic polymers.

At the time of going to press we still hadn’t received a response from L’Oréal Paris or Procter & Gamble (Head & Shoulders).

Doing hair differently

So what are we getting in return for taking these risks with the environment? An unbreakable personal care regime that ties us to unnecessary financial costs and suffocated, unhealthy hair, according to ‘hair whisperer’ Tabitha James Kraan.

‘Over-washing the hair with a detergent-based shampoo can leave us stuck in a dangerous cycle’, Tabitha tells us. ‘Shampoo has been designed to work as a degreasant and remove all traces of oil; the ingredients in the base formula to most shampoos are molecularly the same as industrial floor cleaner and engine degreasant. If we remove all traces of oil from the scalp, the body will work hard to put it back again. This leads to over-washing; I know cases of men who wash their hair twice a day, and this can lead to other problems such as extremely dry areas and a flaky scalp.’

Over-washing our hair also means longer showers and more water. ‘We leave our showers running while we apply shampoo – often twice, which is another fallacy’, Tabitha says. ‘One good wash should be more than enough; any advice to wash hair twice is just about making you use more product. You could also use a leave in conditioner to avoid more water and more rinsing.’

Tabitha’s advice? Let’s all slow down, and treat hair care like the ritual it was in ancient times: an opportunity for some self care.

‘We can train our hair and scalp to be washed less and once a week could be a good goal’, Tabitha suggests. ‘Most of us grew up with a weekly bath and this would have been the norm then anyway. The trick is not to rush the process as our bodies have had years of creating excess sebum (the oil that sits on our scalp). Any changes to our routines will need to be undertaken gradually to allow the body to catch up. If you are a daily washer, try extending to every other day to start with. After a few months, extend by a day at a time, allowing the body to adjust. Full cell renewal in our bodies takes a full month cycle, and such a big shift can take a few months. The result is so liberating, though: you’ll get to wake up with hair that doesn’t feel dirty and instead you’ll feel good about your hair and your choices.’

In-salon education

Tabitha has been working on this space for 30 years and uses her salon on the Farncombe Estate, Worcestershire to help educate her clients about the importance of organic hair care.

Sitting in Tabitha’s chair is itself an exercise in doing hair differently; intricate gold mirrors reflect opulent plants and natural light, and the air is filled with a warm, luxurious mix of Tabitha’s signature essential oils. Fresh, organic smoothies and herbal teas are available on demand. It’s a far cry from many salons, where hair dryers heat air thick with hairsprays, serums and ammonia.

‘Every appointment is an opportunity to educate’, Tabitha explains. ‘I’m building a community of hairdressers dedicated to using less in their salons, and crucially sharing ideas with their salon guests on how to have more sustainable routines at home. There are so many simple life hacks that could be shared via hairdressers who are in a great position, being up close and personal with their in-salon guests. It is such an empowering experience for everyone.’

The education goes both ways; you can ask your hairdresser to adopt greener practices, and Tabitha has created a page with advice on keeping these conversations alive (see ‘Find out more’, below).

Spotting sustainable salons

One-to-one education can be very effective, but we need more people on the case if we’re going to effect a broad shift in the way we treat our hair.

Habia (the Hair and Beauty Industry Authority) is the standard-setting body for the hair and beauty industry, and develops national occupational standards that form the basis of UK qualifications in hair, beauty, nails, spa and aesthetic beauty.

Habia has championed wrap-around education in hair care, helping hairdressers to use the physical and emotional closeness of a hair appointment to support their clients’ broader health.

Early signs of skin cancer can be detected on the scalp and face during hair appointments and conversations can open up a dialogue around mental health.

Habia also supports the idea of getting sustainability on the syllabus for hair care qualifications, but acknowledges that change can take several years.

‘There’s not currently a huge amount of sustainability in the majority of qualifications, but we encourage people to teach beyond the qualification,’ said Joan Scott, CEO and chair of Habia. ‘Instead of waiting for qualifications to be reviewed, why not enhance and enrich the curriculum with sustainability knowledge? We encourage hairdressers across the industry not to wait, but to start being more sustainable right now.’

Joan and Tabitha are now exploring the potential for a sustainability certificate to enhance training courses; it would allow students and qualified hairdressers to gain additional expertise around eco-friendly hair care, and let potential clients spot sustainability-trained salons on the high street.

We’ll be following Tabitha and Joan’s progress, to help you use future hair appointments to make a positive impact on your health, bank account and the environment – all while getting the hair you’ve always wanted (naturally).

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