At any age and culture, everyone knows that hair is a big deal. Good hair days boost our mood and self confidence while bad hair days put us into a funk. Hair has meaning. It's associated with beauty, expression, and identity. It has emotional and cultural significance.
It's no wonder the haircare industry has grown over 20% in the last 8 years: there's thousands of brands and products that help consumers avoid bad hair days. Shampoo has gone as far as containing beer and being worn on the runway.
We'll start with the basic — shampoo, a product that everyone suds up with almost everyday.
At a Glance
While commercial shampoo has only existed for a little over a century, hair washing and “shampoos” have existed for thousands of years, with mixtures having been extracted from all kinds of natural herbs, minerals, and animals to help remove sebum, a bodily oil preventing moisture loss in your hair.
Today, the shampoo industry boasts a $29.38 billion global market, encompassing a wide variety of shampoos people can choose from for all diverse types of hair.
In order to produce at a low cost, companies throw in cheap ingredients that can have negative impacts on our bodies, water supply, and environment. On the bright side there's been a ton of innovation in the shampoo industry and a shift in consumer behavior that paves a whole new future for the industry.
While the industry has made great strides in accommodating for different skin and hairs, there still hasn’t been a great handle on the waste and environmental damage produced by the millions of plastic bottles thrown away.
Most shampoo bottles use HDPE, or high-density polyethylene, as their plastic packaging material because of its versatility, strength and long lasting nature. It acts as a fairly safe and can be an easily recyclable material, making it a more affordable and potentially environmentally friendly option.
Over 552 million shampoo bottles are trashed every year. With the average person using up to 10 bottles of shampoo per year (each taking 1000 years to break down) over 300 million tons of plastic sit in landfills. The plastic disintegrates over time, releasing small toxic microplastics that when seep into the ocean, kill marine life.
Hugo Tagholm from Surfers Against Sewage puts it best: “Whilst the production of throwaway plastics has grown dramatically over the last 20 years, the systems to contain, control, reuse and recycle them just haven’t kept pace.”
The shampoo that goes down your shower drain can also have a major impact on the water supply in the local ecosystem, eventually making its way to the ocean and back to you. Many shampoo chemicals persist through the waste water system and local treatment plant, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifying personal care products as an “emerging contaminant of concern” for marine life.
If you've taken a look at the back of your shampoo bottle, you'll see there's a lot of ingredients, most of which are a mouthful to pronounce. What are these ingredients and how do they affect our bodies? Which ones cause potential damage for wildlife?
Although there's lots of different types of shampoos: basic, those for hair types, “2-in-1”, medicinal, UV protection, coloring, etc, the basic ingredients remain the same:
Water: Heated to around 130℉ before mixed in with other ingredients.
Surfactants: Primary ingredient to remove oils and wash away with water in your hair. Amount added based on concentration, with different levels of viscosity.
Conditioners and Additives: Oils used to help moisturize, strengthen and add volume to hair. Added based on what type of shampoo it is.
Viscosity Modifier: Traditional thickening agent.
Others: Coloring, fragrance, preservatives, etc. are added depending on brand.
The normal manufacturing process itself is a fairly simple process:
Compounding: All ingredients are mixed together (varies per company) by laborers or machinery, with water and surfactants pumped in and the other ingredients added in bags.
Quality Control: After a batch is completed, QC tests the batch for proper pH, color, viscosity, odor, and other characteristics. Then it is piped into another storage device to hold.
Filling: Empty bottles line a long conveyor belt, with the mixture pumped into each bottle. Bottles are then capped, labeled and sorted into delivery boxes.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES): A harsh cleaning agent that creates lathering foam in shampoo and high concentrations can cause irritation. Many groups have identified this as an environmental toxin and a potent pesticide that can cause major damage to your internal organs.
Parabens: A preservative to prevent bacteria from growing in cosmetics and shampoo that has been found to mimic the hormone estrogen. Although estrogen contributes to breast cancer, there's no evidence that people who use paraben containing products face an increased risk, although they cause major damage to aquatic life.
Sodium Chloride (salt): Maintains thicker consistency in shampoo, but it can make a sensitive scalp dry and itchy.
Polyethylene Glycols (PEG): A thickening agent derived from petroleum.
Formaldehyde: A known human carcinogen, with a common shampoo derivative known as quaternium-15.
Fragrance: Used to make shampoo smell like flowers, sunshine, etc., but can contain thousands of hidden chemicals (endocrine disruptors, irritants, etc). Phthalates are one of these hidden chemicals often found in fragrances and are not required to be listed by the FDA, despite their damage as an endocrine disruptor and toxic nature for fish.
Synthetic Colors: Used to make shampoo look pretty, mostly derived from petroleum or tar sources.
After digging for hours on the internet, we could barely find any info on manufacturing and labor conditions in the shampoo industry. We thought our search engines were broken and we were ready to call it a day. Maybe there is no human cost?
But in the final hour we stumbled on some info...that highlighted the human cost of palm oil, a common ingredient that was in shampoo, which we covered last week. Check out our last edition to learn more.
Here is some additional meager info we found on factory conditions, which we wouldn't be surprised if they are prevalent globally:
A leading maker of soap and shampoo for hotels and retail was fined over 100K for exposing workers to chemical and fire hazards. Inspectors visited Marietta Corp. in Cortland and found flammable liquids were not stored or used properly, employees with respirators were not trained or checked medically, and containers with hazardous chemicals were not labeled correctly.
The complexity of the supply chain of beauty products seems to be largely undocumented, so a few groups like Alga Cosmetica are trying to help build better transparency. Yet, this still remains a large problem today— if you're able to find anything about the human cost of shampoo, let us know.
Have you been washing your hair less frequently during the past year? With people staying indoors with no place to go during the pandemic, people have been washing their hair less. Salons also closed down, with many closing doors due to stay-in orders and lack of customers.
People are gravitating towards products that mimic the salon experience at home, and 4 trends that have emerged from that are at home beauty tools, purple shampoos to preserve color, serums, and blue light blocking skincare.
The Future of Shampoo
We think that transparency and true environmental sustainability will be the future of shampoo, with lots of areas that can be improved in the product life cycle. Some areas of improvement include:
Improving shampoo packaging with less, recycled or biodegradable-friendly plastic. 30% of the waste in the environment comes from product waste packaging.
Increasing the supporting facilities and infrastructure to create better packaging.
Changing how waste management is viewed to better use shampoo after it is finished.
Gen Z has shifted the beauty industry into an emotional industry. This generation cares about the story, and many personal care consumers look for these sustainable and healthy products with a purpose. Beauty is now "associated with being confident, yet respectful of sustainability. They're very conscious of the world" says Charlotte Delobelle, a brand ambassador at trend bureau Fashion Snoops.
Procter and Gamble tried their hand at creating a more sustainable shampoo bottle through Head&Shoulders, developing a new technology with TerraCycle to use recycled plastic bottles collected on beaches.
One masters’ designer created a solution where the shampoo bottle is created from soap itself, essentially serving as packaging for other hygienic products.
Another trend that we see coming up is customization. We're used to having our social media and food personalized to our taste, and thanks to technology and data collection, personalization in the wellness and self care industry has become the hot new thing.
Companies such as Prose (hair), Strands (hair test kit, hair product) Function of Beauty (hair, skin), Stitch Fix (clothing), Curology (skin), Nurish (vitamins) are tapping into the powerful idea that we are all fancy and special enough to have something made just for us, at an affordable price.
Alternatives to Consider
There are so many shampoos out there that use natural ingredients and environmentally-friendly packaging (and won't break the bank). You can also consider purchasing shampoo bars (no worries about TSA and they are concentrated to last longer — just supply water!). If you wash your hair 2-3 times a week, 2 shampoo bars can last you around one year.
All these products are made with cruelty-free, plant-based ingredients that are ethically and sustainably sourced (say bye to sulfates, parabens, formaldehyde, etc), and have minimal packaging.
Note: We are not sponsored to show any of these, but wanted to list a few that stood out from our research.
Public Goods | ~4.50 | Members only ($59/year for access to hundreds of affordable household products) | Buy online
Ethique Shampoo Bars | ~$15 | Palm oil free, and the company donates either 2% of revenue or 20% of profit (whichever is higher) to charity | Womxn founded | Buy online
Lush | ~$12-$15 | Most are vegan with the exception of "Honey I washed my hair" | Buy online or at a store near your
If you're looking to treat your hair to some finer (designer?) shampoos:
Briogeo | $36 | Womxn Founded | Black Owned | Buy online or your closest Sephora and Ulta Beauty
Function of Beauty (Maitri's personal favorite) | ~$30 | Packaging made from post consumer recycled (PCR) plastic | Buy online or at a Target near your
Rahua | ~$32-$36 | Womxn Founded | Buy online
What You Can Do
Recycle your shampoo bottles after you finish using them.
Contact your local Household Hazardous Waste facility to see if they will take shampoo mixtures if you have any left over that you want to throw out.
Look out for those toxic chemicals and find natural ingredient replacements you can use. Check out curlsbot for a quick look on the ingredients on your bottle.
Consider purchasing shampoo bars to help reduce plastic bottles.
Learn more about what type of shampoo might be best for you — it goes a long way for your health and the environment! Subreddits (r/AsianBeauty, r/CurlyHair, r/NaturalHair, r/HaircareScience) help a lot here.
Friends don't let friends buy toxic shampoo — educate your friends (and share this email with them 😉).
Questions or comments on this piece? Suggestions on what we should cover next? Send us a note.