Environmental impacts of hairdressing

When thinking about the environmental impact of hair, people often remark: “Oh yeah it‘s everything and everywhere isn’t it.” (It being the destruction of the planet.) The impacts we have on the world around us run deep and are highly interwoven. For ages I’ve been meaning to write some thoughts about my environmental perspective as a hairdresser, here’s my first post:

The fast fashion industry is comes under heavy scrutiny regularly, however, it appears to me that the beauty industry’s environmental impacts are somehow more immune, I’ve got lots of thought to write about that. To set the ball rolling in this first post, I’m going to try and write quite broadly about three aspects of haircare. In increasing order of their environmental issues, these are cutting, maintenance, and colouring.

Cutting hair

Cutting hair has very few environmental issues involved with it, which is one of the main reasons I was attracted to it as a career (as opposed to colouring) in the first place. Hairdressing scissors are self-sharpening the hair polishes the steel as they’re used. Combs, which were traditionally made from bone, are now made from plastic. The only other necessaries: clips, a water-spray and a gown are all very durable, and can last many thousands of haircuts. I’d say taking into account what a dramatic change a haircut alone can make, the environmental impact per job is negligible, especially when compared to the next two aspects. Hair cuttings are of course a natural product and can be composted, however, the vast majority ends up in landfill.


Cleaning, conditioning and styling hair, has the potential to have a very low impact too, as the nopoo movement has shown. Nopoo, NO sham-POO, in its purest form is about using only water to clean your hair until it recovers its natural self-cleansing abilities. [n.b. use of word ‘chemical’ can be misleading – water is a chemical [even if it’s called “aqua”]]. This is not always achievable and so alternatives to commercial shampoo products, are often sought. Most of these can be found around the home, such as apple cider vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and so on. These products, owing to their extreme acidity/alkalinity, kill the bacteria which build up on the scalp and cause unwashed hair to smell bad. Using natural dry-shampoos (such as cocoa for brunettes and starch for blondes) between washes can help to reduce the visible buildup of oils. On the other hand, coconut and other oils can be used to calm frizzy hair. For the sake of brevity and positivity, I’ll save the whole anti-Sodium-Laureth-Sulfate case and the story of foam for another time.

There’s a lot more to write about on the subject of NoPoo… but in a nutshell, my advice would be to make use of a variety of plants that have been proven for millennia to be safe, effective and indeed – free. The two plants I recommend are Wild Sweet William (for greasy hair) and Nettle (for dry hair). Both of these grow in the UK as weeds and consequently can be foraged. Nettle is known for its ability to alleviate skin conditions such as eczema and its ability to give shine. Wild Sweet William’s scientific name Saponaria officinalis comes from the Latin stem ‘sapon-‘ meaning soap, it is still used to clean delicate fabrics like tapestries today in museums etc. It is very strong, use a weak solution.

Colouring hair

Colouring hair is a very big subject. Colouring today involves the use of a range of mostly synthetic chemicals, with varying degrees of toxicity – some are associated with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This is why professional hairdressers refuse to colour pregnant women’s hair.

There’s an ever-increasing range of natural/organic haircare products available, all pledging their environmentally friendly credentials, such as ‘recyclable’ packaging, not having been tested on animals, carbon offsetting etc. None of these stands up to even the slightest scrutiny and in my opinion, they’re some of the most insidious examples of greenwashing.

Here’s a quick background to what got us here:

What we now know as hair colour began in the 1860s with the discovery of PPD and in 1907 Eugène Schueller (founder of L’Oréal) invented the first hair colour. Thus began the multi-billion dollar industry which is now hoodwinking us on many levels into thinking we are not perfect as we are, that we can reverse the ageing process and that we *need* to colour, shave, and obsess about our hair to the extent that we currently do.

To really expose the foundation on which the advertising industry has created and profited from insecurities about imperfection and ageing, try searching YouTube videos of hair ads from the 1950s onward. On a connected note, there’s plenty to delve into with regards to race, gender and so on which I look forward to writing about another time. But I’m digressing, so back to hair colour…

While there are the plants I’ve already mentioned at our fingertips that we can use to clean our hair, Henna and Indigo grow further afield in tropical climates. The powdered leaves of these plants are simply mixed with water and have been used successfully to colour and condition hair for thousands of years. Organically grown henna and indigo are easy to find online and can be used at home or taken to a sympathetic salon. They darken hair by adding pigment molecules to the hair shaft.

To lighten hair, pigment needs to be removed and this can be achieved by spraying citrus juice on hair on a long term basis and leaving it in. The effect is speeded up by UV from the sun. There are records of Celts bleaching their hair thousands of years ago. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there that I’ll be exploring in future posts. But that’s about it, for this article.

So yeah, that’s my basic analysis of the environmental impacts of haircare. But when you care for your hair what are you trying to do?

On a social and individual level, whether we admit it or not, hair’s quite a big deal… I’ve read theories about hairdressing being the inspiration for the invention of acting, owing to the way a change in hairstyle can so dramatically alter one’s appearance. I’ve even seen it argued somewhere that, given the social complexity with which primates groom one another, hairdressing is older than humanity itself. Or perhaps even a precursor to it!

In my next post, I’ll be looking back to the recent past, specifically around the early years of globalisation, modern science, etc where we find hairdressing leapt into a state of incredible creativity – perhaps its most extreme. And I’ll link that with how I propose to find satisfaction as a hairstylist, being part of this paradigm shift which civilisation is hopefully embarking on, having taken globalisation to its limits.

I look forward to reading people’s comments on this post and if there are any topics I touched on which you would like me to write more about, or any other directions you’d like me to explore, please leave a comment!


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