Daily Footprint, #5 – Shampoo: safety v. sustainability

Nature’s Gate, Avalon Organics and Clairol Herbal Essences are examined here to show the difference between safety (such a high score on EWG) and sustainability (a high Green Stars score for social and environmental impact).

Ok – you’ve brushed your teeth and shaved something – now it’s time to jump in the shower and wash (that Trump right out of) your hair.

Alternatives to shampoo – worth trying?

I have to admit, I’ve always used commercial shampoo (the shame!). But it turns out there are some good alternatives:

  1. The No-Poo method is popular: wash with a tablespoon of baking soda dissolved in a cup of water. Then rinse with apple cider vinegar, also diluted at 1 tbsp. in a cup of warm water. The vinegar is important since hair is happiest at a slightly acidic pH (around 5), and no, your hair won’t smell of vinegar.
  2. You can use a bar of soap to wash your hair (directions here from Sappo Hill soap makers), which you can also follow with a diluted vinegar wash. Regular soap works for this (bars containing olive oil, coconut oil, and/or castor oil work well) or you can buy a specialized shampoo bar.
  3. Powdered seaweed has been used to wash hair for centuries in Japan

Since writing the post on toothpaste, I’ve been using baking soda most of the time and love it – my teeth feel cleaner and it doesn’t dry out my mouth like toothpaste can. So, I’m tempted to try one of these alternatives for my hair. Products made from seaweed since can help alleviate several planetary problems: seaweed doesn’t compete for land space and there’s no need for fresh water, fertilizer, or pesticides. Also, seaweed can help reverse the acidification of the oceans that’s happening because of the increased CO2 levels in our atmosphere.

Ethical shampoo brands: Nature’s Gate & Avalon Organics

If you are interested in the impact of regular shampoo, you can check out my reviews of shampoo from Nature’s Gate and Avalon Organics, both of which I think are pretty responsible. It’s hard to avoid that plastic bottle though (one reason why people are switching to the alternatives above). When choosing a bottle, bear in mind that the pump dispensers are not readily recyclable because of the mixture of materials involved.

Safety does not equal sustainability.

It’s hard to shop for shampoo without considering all of the big buzzword ingredients (parabens and sulfates to name a couple) so I want to clarify something on that topic. There are two organizations that attempt to provide ratings on product safety – the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have a project called Skin Deep that looks at safety of cosmetic ingredients and then the Good Guide covers used to cover a wider range of products. The Good Guide (now owned by Underwriters Laboratories) used to consider the social and environmental impact of items but, disappointingly, have recently dropped these considerations and shifted to rating products primarily for consumer safety. So, I want to compare a couple of shampoos from a consumer safety point of view (Skin Deep / Good Guide ratings) versus the social and environmental impact (Green Stars).

Shampoo safety ratings

I decided to compare safety ratings for two brands of shampoo that use the term “herbal” – Clairol’s Herbal Essences and Nature’s Gate’s Herbal. Be aware that only the Nature’s Gate product contains many plant extracts; terms such as “Natural” or “Herbal” are often not regulated. Both products get similar middle-of-the road scores on the EWG and also on the Good Guide (when it existed). For the Nature’s Gate product, the EWG has almost no concerns except for the ingredient “fragrance” (because its composition is undisclosed – trade secret) while the Good Guide’s only concern is the preservative phenoxyethanol (which the EWG doesn’t rate as being particularly harmful). Similarly, for the Clairol product the EWG and Good Guide don’t share concerns over the same ingredients.

Nature's Gate and Herbal Essences shampoos are shown, to contrast between brands that looks/ sound similar but rank very differently for social and environmental impact. Nature's Gate is the more sustainable brand.
Two Herbal Shampoos: similar safety ratings, but what about the social and environmental impact?

Looking at the other shampoo I’ve reviewed, Avalon Organics, the Good Guide expresses concerns (and again they don’t match the EWG’s concerns) with four ingredients – limonene, alcohol, linalool and citric acid. Ever had a lemon, a strawberry, beer? If so, you’re drinking or eating all four of them in much higher concentrations than is contained in this shampoo. While information on safety is desirable, there is not enough attention to detail (e.g., the concentration in the product versus the dose or conditions used in safety studies) by the Good Guide to provide meaningful safety guidelines. There’s also the misleading implication that a good score means that a product is good for the planet or society (especially since the Good Guide used to consider these factors) – this is not true.

Shampoo Social and Environmental impact

So, let’s take another quick look at these three shampoo products, which all got similar scores (4/10 or 5/10) on both the Good Guide and EWG’s Skin Deep site, but this time from a few social and environmental perspectives:

  1. Nature’s Gate and Avalon Organics products are all vegan and cruelty-free while Clairol conducts animal testing for some products.
  2. Nature’s Gate and Avalon Organics shampoo bottles are made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. Clairol were also early adopters of using recycled plastic in their bottles, but have taken a step backwards after being taken over by P&G in 2001.
  3. Nature’s Gate is carbon-neutral certified. Avalon Organics (owned by Hain Celestial) takes second place in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, followed by Clairol (P&G).
  4. Avalon Organics uses organically-grown ingredients and the product is certified organic. Nature’s Gate uses plant ingredients that are grown at a nearby farm (reducing fuel use), irrigated with rainwater and runoff from the Sierra Nevada snowpack. Clairol used to use organic plants in their formulation but again this changed after P&G ownership and the current ingredients are predominantly synthetic.

So, in contrast to the pretty similar ratings awarded to these three products by Skin Deep and the Good Guide, I think that there’s a very large gap between the Clairol product and the other two in terms of social and environmental impact. I rated Nature’s Gate and Avalon Organic’s 5/5 green stars (they are not perfect but I think they are in the top 20% of shampoo products in terms of impact) and I would rate Clairol’s product 1/5 green stars for social and environmental impact.

Bottom line: ingredient safety ratings on sites such as EWG’s Skin Deep and the Good Guide do not correspond to ethical ratings.

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