I have always had wavy curly hair that behaves differently from one day to the next. Once I figured out a routine in college, I stuck to it like a religion. But I hated going through those plastic shampoo, conditioner and styling gel bottles. I had switched to all natural, paraben- and sulfate-free products to be more Earth-friendly, but the packaging still felt excessive. When I started going zero waste in 2016, I started exploring to try to find low waste curl products that worked for my hair. What I didn't expect is to end up with happier, healthier hair.
This article was written in April 2019 but I updated it with some of my favorite new finds in July 2020!
It's definitely been a long journey. When I started experimenting, the first thing I did was to buy a salon size bottle of the curl styling gel I loved, to hold me over while I played around with other zero waste hair products. That was sort of the last thing I changed, and that sort of gave me the freedom to swap other things out one at a time. That said, it took me like three years to use up, but I finally found an alternative I love, just in time!
I started using the Lovely Rita shampoo bar from a company in Maine called Dulse & Rugosa that wild harvests all of their ingredients, and I really liked it. It gave me volume and didn't dry out my hair. It comes in paper, is packed with nutrients, and was an easy switch to make. It was cleansing without stripping my hair of its natural oils, and I started shampooing my hair less often.
Update: Now, a couple years into my zero waste curly hair routine, I actually don't shampoo my hair anymore! Every week or two, I brush it out to redistribute the oils and then do a vinegar rinse if I need to cleanse or balance my scalp. If for some reason my roots get a little oily like when I do an oil hair mask, I'll use a little dry shampoo but that's it! My curls seem to be happier with regular conditioning and no shampoo but do whatever works for you! My advice - if you do shampoo, try to limit it to once or twice a week and look for a gentle shampoo that's oil based.
Photo by Anya Nnenna for Eco Collective
The first swap I tried was a Lush conditioner bar, but it didn't really cut it for my hair type. I need a bit more hydration and moisture to keep my hair curly. However, we found a cocoa butter conditioner bar for Eco Collective that I love, especially for travel! It smells really good and it does seem to leave my hair soft and curly.
Somewhere along the way, I discovered a leave-in conditioner spray in bulk at the Soap Dispensary up in Vancouver. It was lightweight, and the perfect thing to tame flyaways and nourish my curls. This in combination with my conditioner bar and regular brushing has become my new routine.
Update: We found the dreamiest curly hair conditioner, in bulk! It's thick, creamy, and locks in the hydration which really helps shape and define my curls. I adore it. You can order it from our bulk section even if you don't live in Seattle and it's one of our most popular bulk products! Check it out.
I also finally found a leave-in conditioner spray for Eco Collective's bulk section! Great for detangling and just locking in your healthy natural oils. I also use a dollop of our curly hair conditioner as a leave-in conditioner after a shower. Sometimes if my hair seems a little dry, I'll put some argan oil in it at night, or put a little of our orange marmalade styler in a spray bottle with some warm water to refresh and rehydrate my curls in the mornings. If it's really dry, I do an oil hair mask.
Photo by Anya Nnenna for Eco Collective
I learned from Stevie Van Horn that if you brush your hair for at least 2-3 minutes every few days, it brings the oils that develop in your roots all the way to the ends, naturally conditioning your hair. It also exfoliates your scalp and increases blood flow, which promotes hair growth. Hello!
A wooden brush helps to reduce static and breakage, and lets your hair reap the most benefits from this biweekly brushing ritual. This helped my hair health quite a bit and simplified my routine, allowing me to go longer between washes because my scalp and my hair were more balanced. I never brush out my hair unless it's right before a shower, because no one needs to see that 😉
Volume and dry shampoo
Instead of relying on the volume I used to get from regular shampooing, I learned to dry my hair in a way that diffused my curls and lifted my roots. There are so many great videos about how to diffuse curly hair.
The other trick I love is using dry shampoo between washes! Aersol cans can be really damaging to the environment, so I was delighted when I learned Bea Johnson’s hack of using arrowroot powder for dry shampoo. It’s lightweight, soft instead of grainy, and so cheap! I get mine from our bulk section at Eco Collective.
My hair is dirty blonde, but for darker hair my friend Sedona Christina suggests applying dry shampoo the night before so it soaks up the oils overnight; by the time you wake up, voila, no white flecks!
Update: we now have a premixed dry shampoo in bulk! It's made with baking soda, cornstarch, aloe leaf powder and other hair healthy ingredients. I keep mine in a small mason jar with a shaker lid. I also wrote a blog about how to match your dry shampoo to your hair color!
Dry shampoo, $2.01/oz. at Eco Collective
I still have the quandary of styling gel. It's been on the back burner as I finish using up the styler I have, taking comfort in the fact that I've reduced the amount of packaging by quite a bit by buying the largest size I could find. Recently, I’ve been inspired to explore recipes for making your own curling gel... I’ve have found that ingredients like flax seeds, coconut and castor oil also have a wonderful effect on curls, so I’ll be experimenting with my own recipes soon.
Update! We found an amazing styling gel in bulk that has totally replaced my old favorite. It has a lot of hold, for defined curls, and you can layer how much you use. This, more than anything else, has made my hair so much happier and curlier. The best part - you can order it in a refillable mason jar if you're local or an infinitely recyclable aluminum bottle if you live farther away!
If you want less hold and more shine for your beach waves, or just a way to condition and style at the same time, I also really love our curl custard. For curlier hair than mine, our jello shot curl styler has a lot more hold.
On the go
When I travel, I put my shampoo bar in a soap tin and bring a little glass jar of conditioner and one of curl gel. If I’m going to the beach, I’ll throw my wooden brush in my bag as well because hello, tangles! And I never leave home without an organic cotton hair tie.
When I'm trying to pack light, I use a dry formula styling gel that you mix with hot water to make when you get to your destination. It comes in a little packet, which is absolutely brilliant. Pro tip: you can add more or less water to get the consistency you like. I do a little less water than instructed for a stronger hold. When I get to my destination, I'll just mix up enough for my trip and keep it in a little jar or cup in the bathroom.
Update on the styler: I refuse to travel without my orange marmalade now. What can I say, it works! :)
Metal soap tin, $4.99 at Eco Collective
It's an ongoing journey!
It took a long time to create the perfect zero waste routine for my hair, but it has been so worth it! My hair is the healthiest it's ever been. My advice is to go natural, take the time to learn about your hair type, and have fun trying new things from local brands you love.
If my curly hair journey has taught me anything, it’s that every one’s hair is unique. What works for your hair? What have been your favorite zero waste solutions? Tell us in the comments below!