The New Green Hair Care: Suds, Shine, and Satisfaction

New eco-friendly hair products offer surprises (shine! suds!) and won't let your style go down the drain.

For many well-intentioned women, hair care is the last frontier of a greener beauty routine. Natural hair products have long suffered from lackluster results -- limp locks, greasy scalp, and flakes -- while their synthetic counterparts, with their clouds of lather, barometer-proof frizz busting, and lustrous hold, have given them a lot to live up to. But new formulas containing lighter ingredients and new technologies are putting the clean back in green.

For starters, those bad-hair days were largely due to natural products' reliance on heavy oils like jojoba and olive. "Oils are a key component in natural hair care," says Nelson Vercher, senior hairstylist at Rita Hazan salon in New York City. "They are the cleansers, conditioners, and shine enhancers." But they also can weigh down strands and leave hair greasy. Fortunately, many newer products contain a combination of oils such as argan, babassu, grapeseed, and meadowfoam, which spare locks from limpness.

Moreover, the very definition of "natural" has gone high tech. Botanical scientists can now map the molecular structures of natural ingredients and use plant-based components to create the detergents and softening agents that deliver the shiny, manageable hair we want.

Many emerging brands have leveraged this technology to yield a hybrid category of what could be called "synthetic naturals." Several of the products we think of as natural fall into this classification anyway, as they contain a few synthetics (such as dimethicone for detangling) to enhance results. Whether you're an eco-evangelist or a neo-natural, reading labels as you browse the options will tell you a lot of the story. "If a formula contains one or two natural ingredients at the end of a long list of chemicals, that tells you it's not very green," Vercher says. On the other hand, if you see ingredients like natural oils, aloe, or wheat protein near the top of the list, you can assume the product has good eco cred.

Green Routine #1: Shampoos

Natural cleansers have typically been formulated without sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a potentially harsh chemical ingredient that creates lather and removes oil; as a result, they were pretty sad in the suds department. Instead, naturals have relied on gentler plant-based oils to reduce grime, but these could lead to ingredient build-up, explains Celeste Lutrario, vice president of research and development for Burt's Bees. Now gentle cleansing agents derived from sources like coconut, nuts, and palm oil bring foam, spreadability, and a deeper clean into the shower. (Coconut derivatives are the most popular cleansers; on labels, seek out words with "coco" or "cocyl" in the ingredients list.) When you lather up with a natural shampoo, add water to generate extra foam instead of slopping on more product, Vercher says. "Because they're made with oils -- even the lighter ones -- adding more shampoo adds more oil to the scalp, leaving hair limp."

Green Routine #2: Conditioner

The nourishing value of oils for dry, split ends has long made natural conditioners popular. "They supply frayed ends with vitamins, proteins, and hydrating lipids that are lost during daily wear and tear," Lutrario says. What you won't get from an eco-friendly conditioner is that ultraslick feeling after rinsing -- that comes from silicone, a petroleum-based ingredient in most conventional formulas that coats the shaft. But, experts say, silicone does nothing to fortify hair, so the trade-off (less slickness) is worth it. Many hybrids walk the middle line with some amount of synthetic smoothers like silicone and dimethicone. Just be aware that while conventional conditioners with silicones can be used across a range of hair types, oils in natural products can be too heavy for finer hair, so be sure to buy products tailored to your hair texture.

Green Routine #3: Styling

Finding products with amazing hold is the greatest challenge to going natural. "It's hard to create nature-derived plasticizers, and those are what give gel, mousse, or hair spray its hold," says Pat Peterson Werre, vice president of research and development at Aveda. Plasticizers, combined with resin, cling to hair and bend when you brush it without breaking and flaking. Natural options like pine resin (think of the tackiness you feel when you touch a pine tree) or natural gums like sclerotium (from mushrooms), guar gum, rice, and even kaolin clay now give styling products light hold. To test an all-natural styling product, spritz or swipe it on your arm, Vercher suggests. If it feels sticky when dry, it offers some control. If you want more hold, you need to cross over to a conventional product. The good news is that most reputable companies do their best to minimize the amount of synthetic holding agents, and what you get is much more natural than a mega-hold gel or hair-freezing spray. But there is an organic way around this issue, Vercher says. "If you stop fighting with your hair and embrace your natural texture, you won't need that much hold." A natural win.

Hair Triggers

Natural and hybrid shampoos, conditioners, and stylers give hair suds, shine, and style.


1. John Masters Organics Bare Shampoo has an unscented natural formula. $14.50, johnmasters.com

2. Caudalie Gentle Conditioning Shampoo is a hybrid with dimethicone and natural oils. $18, caudalie.com

3. Collective Wellbeing Flake Fighter Shampoo is a hybrid featuring tea tree oil. $12.50, collectivewellbeing.com


4. Garnier Fructis Pure Clean Conditioner has apricot kernel oil to soften strands. $4, drugstore.com

5. Burt's Bees Color Keeper Green Tea & Fennel Conditioner features green tea to prevent color fade. $8, burtsbees.com

6. Aveda Be Curly Style-Prep is a leave-in with wheat protein and aloe to lock in curls and prevent frizz. $24, aveda.com

Hair Spray

7. Aubrey Organics Nustyle Hairspray offers a natural hold with quinoa proteins. $10, aubrey-organics.com

Volumizing Spritz

8. Amika 2-in-1 Styling + Volumizing Spray gets its hold from rice-based fixatives and some synthetics. $25, loveamika.com

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