Why Are Hair Brands So Late to the Clean Product Game?
Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.
Head over to the clean beauty website Credo.com and click on the "skin" tab. You'll get 12 pages packed with toners, moisturizers, serums, and pretty much any other skincare option you'd want — but click "hair," and your selection brings you down to two pages. It’s not Credo’s fault: You can’t stock products that don’t exist.
Compared to skincare, there's a noticeable, undeniable shortage of clean or naturally derived haircare options. Just ask anyone trying to find a sulfate-free and color-safe shampoo that's also void of parabens, fragrances, and silicones.
So why are haircare brands so late to jump on the green-beauty bandwagon?
One theory is that consumers aren't willing to compromise their expectations of how a haircare product "should" perform. Frederic Fekkai, renowned hairstylist and co-founder and CEO of Bastide, a French naturally-focused beauty line, explained that when a product doesn't have sulfates, it doesn't foam up like a typical shampoo. Even though this doesn't impact efficacy, it can feel like it does when you're scrubbing up in the shower.
"We saw this when we created our natural body wash at Bastide — consumers were used to the thick foam and lather that is created using harsh, drying sulfates," he says. Once customers saw how well the body wash cleansed and hydrated without the sulfates, however, they were much more on-board with the change.
Fekkai says that coming around to the concept of cleaner products does require some patience. Silicones, for example, give hair the appearance of shininess after one use. Without them, it may take a longer-term commitment to a hair product to achieve that same shine. That's not a bad thing, though: While silicones make the hair look shinier, they don't actually do anything to condition it. Still, brands trying to change that perception in the eye of the consumer have faced an uphill battle. (Surprise, surprise: We all want instant results.)
Tara Foley, founder and CEO of clean beauty site Follain, thinks brands look into cleaner formulations for skincare before hair because people think it's more intuitive that you'd absorb ingredients through your skin. However, she also says that logic is flawed. "Clean hair care is actually equally important, as your scalp and hair absorb ingredients as well, and whatever you use on your hair goes down the drain and impacts the environment in a big way," she says.
While the type of packaging used and how ingredients are sourced are huge players, Foley is specifically referring to how the products we wash out of our hair impact the water supply. "Most of the ingredients that are bad for us, are also bad for the environment, and when these ingredients wash into the water supply, it becomes a bigger environmental health problem for the entire population," she says.
Foley points to the 1,4-dioxane as her example. It's a potentially dangerous chemical byproduct that the EWG claims is in 46 percent of personal care products, and last year, it was reportedly found in 71 percent of Long Island water suppliers tested.
"The issue with dangerous chemicals like 1,4-dioxane going down the drain is that there is no way to ensure that they won't end up in our drinking water supply," Foley says. "What's worse is that 1,4-dioxane does not break down easily, so it can be very difficult to remove once it has contaminated the water."
Foley is also sure to mention that not all synthetics are bad for you or the environment.
There's also the matter of formulation. Categorically, clean beauty products are harder to develop. Traditional processes, which involve heat, can destabilize natural ingredients and render them ineffective.
"There’s no shortage of botanical and natural elements that can be beneficial for hair, many of which we are seeing being used in the transition to natural skincare," Fekkai notes. "However, if heat is added to botanical oils during product formulation, it can degrade the quality of the oil and then you’re not necessarily getting as good results as synthetic products. It really requires deep expertise to get the formulations just right."
And that's part of why it can cost more to make clean beauty products, according to Nancy Twine, the founder of clean haircare brand Briogeo — so anyone shopping for botanical shampoos, creams, and conditioners has to being willing to pay a higher price. Despite the success Twine has seen with Briogeo, she's aware that cost is a big factor, particularly when you're trying to sell clean haircare products on a mass-market scale.
"When the market has been so heavily dominated by the mass players, their costs prohibit them from using higher quality ingredients or non-synthetic substitutes, because it would just drive the cost up," Twine says. Inevitably, that means you'd have to pay more for your go-to $4 drugstore shampoo. "Obviously, when you’re playing in mass haircare, keeping the cost down is really important because people who are shopping haircare at a CVS aren’t willing to pay the same prices for haircare as they would at Sephora," she notes.
That's not to say that mass-market brands haven't made moves. Every shampoo and conditioner in the Herbal Essences Bio:Renew line is 90 percent naturally derived, while the Garnier Whole Blends line is free of parabens.
And it looks like even more change is on the way. On top of celebrities including Kourtney Kardashian visiting Capital Hill to call for cosmetics safety, the Personal Care Products Safety Act was reintroduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins in 2017, and is now backed by major and famously green beauty brands such as Beautycounter, Estee Lauder, Juice Beauty, and more. The bill calls for more regulation within the entire cosmetics industry, including recalling a cosmetic product that could cause health consequences, and instituting annual safety reviews of ingredients. FYI: The last cosmetics regulation hasn't been updated since the 1930s.
While you don't have to wait for bigger brands to figure out their formulations or the passing of this bill to shop for clean hair products, you might just have to spend more tha $4 on your shampoo. A few of note: Briogio has offerings to address different hair types and needs — the Superfoods Shampoo and Conditioner are best-sellers at Sephora right now. Innersense Beauty is a Gwyneth Paltrow-approved clean haircare line with an impressive lineup of color-safe care and styling products. If you need hydration, Rodin by Recine Hair Oil gets Madonna's stamp of approval, is made up of a blend of eight powerful oils, and is free of parabens, phthalates, silicones, sulfates, and it's cruelty free.
And the market is growing. Sephora's CLEAN at Sephora program includes a section dedicated to hair, and small indie brands like Captain Blankenship and Playa Beauty, both known for their clean powder dry shampoos, are growing in popularity and in skews.
"Clean beauty is finally reaching a mass audience, with shoppers across the country thinking more about the ingredients that are in their products and demanding more transparency from the brands and retailers they shop with," Tara Foley, of Follain, says. "This increased awareness and larger audience will only encourage greater innovation in the clean-hair category, to bring women more of the safe and effective products they are looking for. We have already noticed a dramatic increase in the number of clean options available over the past couple years, and that will continue to grow."
A cleaner hair day is clearly on the way.