A Zero Waste Project: Finding the perfect, plastic-free shampoo

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Replacing bathroom essentials like shampoo and conditioner can cut out roughly millions of bottles that end up in landfills each year. Photo by Castorly Stock from Pexels.

For my first true zero waste challenge this week, I decided to try swapping out my shampoo and conditioner, bathroom essentials that seemed like an easy place to start. Although there are tons of options for zero waste hair care, everyone’s hair is different and depending on your water, different products may or may not work great. Read on to hear about my search and experiences with different products. 

Why make the switch? 

Before getting into my experience, how does going zero waste with your shampoo and conditioner actually make a difference? 

According to a Johnson & Johnson video from 2014, roughly 552 million bottles of shampoo end up in landfills each year. The average American uses somewhere around 10 bottles of shampoo a year. All of these bottles not only contribute to pollution, but also use up energy, water and resources to produce. According to one zero waste shampoo brand, Beauty and the Bees, their company alone has saved 1 million shampoo bottles from landfills. Your contribution may feel small, but by investing in more sustainable brands, we make small shifts toward a more sustainable world. 

Besides just the plastic packaging, some shampoos contain palm oil or microplastics, which are also harmful for the environment. Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet, but its production contributes drastically to deforestation, and by extension, climate change. Even more weird to consider is that a lot of shampoos actually contain microplastics, which are tiny little plastic particles that can wash down your drain and then end up in your seafood. 

How I started 

The first time I used zero waste was actually this past summer, when my sister ordered a sample set of shampoo bars from Bambo Earth (https://bamboearth.com/collections/shampoo-bar). Unfortunately for me, I still share a bathroom with my siblings when I’m at home. Intrigued by the little circular blue bar sitting in the shower rack, I gave it a try. And I didn’t like it. Ironically, it made my hair feel plasticy instead of sleek, even when I tried to compensate with globs of conditioner. At the time, I gave up and moved on. 

Once I moved up to my off-campus apartment here, near the University of Connecticut, I realized I needed to buy new shampoo, giving me a perfect opportunity to try again to find a zero waste alternative. This time I did a little more research and found a website that ranked 19 different zero waste shampoo options.

Since I wasn’t super fond of the shampoo bar at home, I decided to go a different direction and try Plaine products. Plaine makes zero waste hair, face and body products, but instead of using shampoo bars they use refillable aluminum bottles. When you order a product off their website, it comes in an aluminum bottle in an appropriately-sized cardboard box, with a screw-on pump. When you run out, you can order a refill and they’ll send you a new bottle with a return shipping label. You move your pump to the new bottle and use the return label to send back the old, empty bottle so they can refill it and send it out again. 

Plaine also seems to be a fan-favorite among lots of zero waste shoppers, rated number one by sustainability YouTuber Shelbizlee  in a video ranking 10 zero waste shampoo options. 

I liked the citrus-lemon scent a lot, and it definitely wasn’t as bad as my sister’s shampoo bar, but it did feel significantly different from normal shampoo, almost as if my hair wouldn’t fully get wet in the shower. Full disclosure, this could also be the effect of the hard water in my apartment. I only bought their travel-sized shampoo and conditioner as a kind of trial run, so when that ran out, I decided to shop around a little more, especially since their full-sized bottles go for about $30. 

After reading through a natural shampoo troubleshooting guide on Australian-based zero waste company Beauty and the Bees, I learned that hair normally needs time to adjust to natural bar shampoos. Normal shampoos and conditioners are full of polymers and silicon that replace natural oils in your hair. When you start using a natural shampoo, it takes some time for your hair to start producing those natural oils again. In fact, most of the time these natural oils eliminate the need for conditioner all together. 

I decided to give bar shampoo another try, and landed on a brand called Natural Violet, an Etsy shop selling homemade, natural soaps and shampoos. I bought a sample box with three bars, each one using different ingredients, for only $5. I’ve only used it once so far… and I wasn’t super thrilled. Again, my hair felt plasticy, but this time I’ll give it a few weeks before jumping to any conclusions. If in a few weeks my hair isn’t feeling better, most likely I’ll bite the bullet and pay for the Plaine products. 

The conclusions I do have 

There are literally TONS of options for zero-waste shampoos, and many brands even cater specifically to curly hair, or dry hair. Beauty and the Bees even recommends different options based on whether your hair is colored or dyed, and has a guide to help you pick one. It may take a little time and research to figure out which option is best for you, but chances are it’s out there. 

This first swap may not have given me the results I wanted right away, but I know I’ll stick with it. If I don’t like the shampoo bars I have now, I may switch back to Plaine products, or else try out a different brand, but I definitely won’t give up. There’ll be no more shampoo bottles in my recycling. 

Coming up next week: Making homemade granola bars to reduce single-use plastic packaging 

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