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How to reduce the carbon footprint from your hair care and cosmetics

We are often led to believe that a product is green because it comes in recyclable packaging or uses ‘eco’ ingredients. But for many products, especially those used in washing or cleaning, the majority of the carbon footprint is in how they are used.

This article looks at the climate impact of cosmetics and toiletries in general, with an additional focus on shampoo.

The Carbon Trust released a report in 2023 which found that, beyond the polluting impact of plastic packaging, there is limited awareness of other environmental impacts of the beauty and personal care sector. The production, distribution, and use of beauty products all produce greenhouse gas emissions which drive climate change.

Are the beauty industry’s climate change commitments only skin deep?

The report found that the vast majority of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions come from two activities:

1. Sourcing of raw materials to make products and packaging.

This includes fossil fuel-based synthetic ingredients, extracted minerals such as mica, and sourced raw materials that can lead to deforestation such as palm oil and wood pulp. The companies assessed attributed around 30–50% of their emissions to this activity, which makes this a key priority for the beauty and personal care sector.

2. Consumer use of products. 

The hot water required for many rinse-off beauty products, such as shampoo and shaving foam, is often generated through energy derived from fossil fuels. For this reason it has been estimated that the use phase of a shampoo accounts for about 90% of the total CO2 emissions along its life cycle. The companies assessed attributed between 40–80% of their overall emissions to this activity.

More action is needed from the sector to educate consumers on the environmental impact of their beauty and personal care routines and to innovate products that minimise the need for
hot water.

What companies need to do to reduce the climate impact of their cosmetics?

  • Reduce packaging (no or minimal packaging), especially plastics
  • Reuse and refill – The Ellen Macarthur Foundation found that if all beauty and personal care product bottles were refillable, the greenhouse gases emissions would decrease by 80–85%.
  • Recycle – the use of more recyclable paper, plastics or packaging made from recycled plastic, or the use of infinitely recyclable materials such as glass and aluminium.

What can consumers do to reduce their own footprint from using cosmetics and toiletries?

  • Use colder water 
  • Spend less time in the shower
  • Use products that only need one lather, e.g. 2-in-1 shampoos and conditioners
  • Use less of the product.

Carbon impact of shampoo

Denise Baden, Professor of Sustainable Business at the University of Southampton, explains how we can actually reduce our carbon footprint while caring for our hair.

Roughly 93% of the carbon footprint of shampoo, conditioner and other hair products is associated with heating water during use. The remaining 7% is mostly from the packaging.

Running hot water is typically our most energy-intensive activity in the home; so to cut back on your energy consumption, carbon footprint and bills, look for products that help you reduce hot water.

Use dry shampoo

For example a product that could cut your carbon footprint is dry shampoo. Use it once a week to extend the life of your shampoo, or while camping, at festivals, or if your children have hogged the bathroom and you’re late for work.

Dry shampoo saves on average 8 minutes running hot water + 5 minutes blow drying, which means that it:

  • Saves approx. 62 litres of water per shampoo
  • Saves 1.04 kg CO₂e (carbon emissions)
  • Saves 2.25 kWh energy .

It can also lead to cost and time savings. Using dry shampoo once a week over a year saves approx. £80 per household. And it takes less than a minute. It is also very convenient: it can be done anywhere, and is good when you have no access to water.

What’s more, it is good for hair as it doesn’t strip natural oils from the scalp, or make hair brittle through blow drying.

It makes hair easier to style and can give volume. Coloured versions can help to cover grey roots temporarily. It reduces colour-fade due to less rinsing and so has environmental, time, cost and health and safety benefits.

Use leave in conditioner

Another product that can help cut carbon is leave-in conditioner as it also saves water and electricity because the need to apply and rinse regular conditioner is eliminated.

Leave-in conditioner can be used in place of a regular conditioner. It can be especially great for those with fine hair as it provides extra body and makes it easier to style. It also reduces colour-fade due to less rinsing. Leave in conditioner:

  • Typically saves 2 minutes running hot water
  • Saves approx. 16 litres of water per shampoo
  • Saves 0.25 kg CO₂e (carbon emissions)
  • Cost savings: removing one rinse cycle each time over a year saves approx. £80 per household,
  • Time savings: Saves 1-5 minutes depending on length/type of hair.

Use less and cooler water

Another tip that is good for your hair, your bills and the planet is to wash in tepid water to promote healthier hair and skin. Most of us shampoo too often, using too much shampoo, and in water that is hotter than our skin and hair like. Overly hot water, especially if from a high pressure shower, opens up our pores and then, as well as removing dirt and bad germs, strips our skin of the natural bacteria we have that keep our skin healthy and help us fight bad bacteria. Shower gels and shampoos can be especially harsh on the skin.

Other great eco products are things like low flow showers heads and shower aerators where air is bubbled in with the water, reducing the amount of water used and creating a softer, bubbly shower. These can reduce water consumption by about 50%.

Carbon footprint of two people's hair care routine compared

High resource person: shampoos their hair every day, and with the following pattern – shampoo once, rinse, shampoo twice, rinse, condition, rinse, blow dry, straighten

  • Water use = 14,222 litres;
  • energy use = 1252kWh,
  • carbon footprint = 579kg CO₂e

Lower resource person: uses dry shampoo once a week, shampoos hair twice a week, and shampoos just once, uses leave-conditioner, lets hair dry to 80% dry before using hairdryer.

  • Water use = 613 litres;
  • energy use = 55 kWh,
  • carbon footprint = 25.4kg CO₂e

Free resources relating to sustainable hair-care can be found on set up by Denise Baden, Professor of Sustainable Business at the University of Southampton in association with the Hair and Beauty Industry Authority.

Salons can get certified as sustainable on the site at no cost if they do the free training provided on the virtual salon and you can find your nearest sustainable salon on their sustainable salon locator.

Further advice from Ethical Consumer

To reduce the environmental impact from hair care, Ethical Consumer first of all recommends reducing the amount of shampoo you use, the frequency of your hair washes and the length of your showers.

We also suggest avoiding ingredients linked to deforestation, such as palm oil, seeking out organic products or those with local ingredients, and ditching the packaging and opting for shampoo bars.

Our guide to ethical shampoo, lists a range of Best Buys, including brands with reduced packaging and shampoo bars.