Sustainable Cosmetics

What impact do the key ingredients of conventional, natural & organic and Do It Yourself (DIY) shampoos have on the environment and human health?

In many societies, hair care is considered as a necessary part of the hygiene routine. Shampooing is the most common hair care (Aziz et al., 2017). The purpose of shampooing is not only to maintain and improve the health of hair and scalp but also to beautify the appearance as well as to promote attractiveness. In order to fulfill this purpose, shampoo manufacturers have invented new complex formula shampoo that includes many ingredients, many of which cause a number of environmental impacts and harm human health in the long run (see Part 2). Due to this reason, there has been a sharp rise in demand for sustainable shampoo options amongst environmentally conscious customers. In recent years, we have seen alternative options such as natural shampoo and organic shampoo which have made their entry to the market. Some also make shampoo themselves. Are these new products going to reduce the impacts of hair care on the environment and human health?

In this article we are walking you through the different shampoo types there are and the main ingredients as well as what they do to your hair and scalp and the environment. We hope this article gets you thinking about shampoo ingredients and that you can make an informed decision when you go shampoo shopping next time.

The different types of shampoo

Before we dive into the details of ingredients and their uses and effects it is important to distinguish the three types of shampoos we will be considering in the article:

Shampoo generally is any product which, when used appropriately, will remove dirt, grease, and dead skin from the hair shaft, thus cleaning hair and scalp. It can have liquid, solid or powder form, can be jelly, lotion, or an aerosol foam (Preethi et al., 2013).

  • Conventional shampoo – The broad mass of any type of shampoo where no specific attention is given to organic, natural, or biologically sourced and thus more environmentally friendly ingredients within the production process. Conventional shampoos therefore typically include a number of synthetic compounds and non-sustainably sourced natural ingredients with harmful effects on the environment and potentially also human health (Bom et al., 2019).
  • Natural/Organic shampoo – Any type of shampoo where specific emphasis was put on environmentally friendly ingredients within the production process. Special attention is paid to gently cleaning surfactants. Natural refers to ingredients which were processed without chemical reaction into compounds which are already found in the original source material (Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists, 2011; Beerling, 2013). Organic implies that all the natural ingredients are sourced from organic agriculture as far as possible (Bom et al., 2019).
  • DIY shampoo – Any shampoo which has been made by the individual from basic ingredients. Most DIY recipes are based on sodium lauryl sulfoacetate powder and corn starch for shampoo bars and basic liquid soap or neutral soap bars for liquid shampoo. To this base many ingredients can be added, such as oils, honey, coconut milk and herbs for the fragrance. Some websites where you can find DIY shampoo recipes: Smarticular, Instructables, DIY Family and Blumenmädchen.

Labeling and certification

So far there is no standard set of criteria for natural and organic cosmetics on EU or international level. However, several private certification bodies have been established to certify cosmetic products such as shampoo as organic and environmentally friendly.

  • Key difference: Required percentage of natural, vegetable, or organic content
  • Most demanding standard: COSMOS

It is important to notice that ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘green’ refers to product ingredients, such as the agricultural method, the ingredient’s source, or absence of synthetic substances. ‘Sustainable’ on the other hand considers all possible impacts in the product life cycle – environmental impact as well as ethical, social, and economic dimensions, e.g. cruelty free or fair wages for workers along the production chain. Fair trade labels, eco-labels and sustainability and corporate sustainability responsibility indices together can be used to assess the sustainability of cosmetic products (Bom et al., 2019).

StandardTypeKey Features
BDIH – GermanyNatural

Natural sourced raw materials: of plant origin, preferably organically cultivated or from controlled wild collection; substances that are produced by animals (e.g. milk or honey) are allowed; inorganic and mineral salts, acids and bases (e.g. magnesium sulphate or sodium chloride) are generally allowed.

Only certain ‘mild’ chemical processes are allowed using prescribed types of natural feedstock.

Only certain synthetic preservatives are permitted
Min. level of natural content and max. level of derived natural materials specified by the product type.

No requirement to use a minimum level of organic ingredients.
Natural with Organic Portion
Min 15% of chemically unmodified natural substances and max. 15% of derived natural substances.

Min. 70% of the natural substances of plant and animal origin must be organic.

Specific levels of required natural and “derived natural” substances quoted by product type.

Most products – min 20 % of natural and max. 15% of derived natural substances.

Min. 95% of the natural substances of plant and animal origin must be organic.
Ecocert GreenlifeNatural (Eco)

Min. 95% ingredients natural or derived from natural sources.

Min. 50% of vegetable ingredients are produced by organic farming.

At least 5% of entire product contents are produced by organic farming.
Organic (Bio)

Min. 95% ingredients natural or derived from natural sources.

Min. 95% of vegetable ingredients are produced by organic farming.

At least 10% of entire product contents (including water) are produced by organic farming.

100% natural/naturally derived ingredients (except approved synthetic preservatives & petrochemical moieties).

No requirement to use a minimum level of organic ingredients.

Min. 20% organic content (exception: rinse-off products, non-emulsified aqueous products, and products with at least 80% minerals or ingredients of mineral origin, at least 10% of the total product must be organic)

At least 95% of physically processed agro-ingredients must be organic.

Only permitted Chemically Processed Agro Ingredients (CPAI).
Certification standards for Natural and Organic cosmetics from S. Bom et al. (2019)

Ingredients’ impacts on environment and health

Most shampoos, no matter if they are conventional, organic or DIY, have a detergent (the substance that actually cleans the hair), certain additives (e.g. for smell, color and preserving the shampoo) and conditioning agents for making the hair look healthier.


Detergents are substances that have a chemical affinity towards water and oil, which means they are soluble in a liquid shampoo and can get attached to grease and dirt in hair. Washing the shampoo out, the grease and dirt is removed from the hair along with the detergent. Other names for detergents are tensides, emulsifiers or surfactants. They all refer to the same class of chemical compounds. The most widely used detergent in shampoos is sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), more correctly called sodium dodecyl sulfate.

Most conventional detergents are petrol-based which means they come from a non-renewable resource. SLS is made from coconut or palm oil. Since palm oil is one of the major drivers of deforestation, it is considered an environmentally harmful ingredient. For more info: (link)

Biodegradability is another issue of detergents: They accumulate in the environment (for instance in soils or in groundwater), because biogeochemical cycles are not prepared to deal with them. Although detergents are generally not toxic for humans, they pose a threat to aquatic organisms (Muhamad, Ahmad & Yasid, 2017). 

In terms of health hazards, SLS dries the skin because oil is removed, which might cause allergies. In case shampoo enters the eye, SLS causes irritation and red eyes (Kloß, 2018).

DIY shampoos often use soap as a detergent. Soap is usually made from vegetable oils and has a better environmental performance than liquid shampoos (Gubitosa et al., 2019).


Additives play an important role on the “performance, stability and aesthetic appeal” of shampoo products (Mainkar & Jolly, 2001, p. 60). They add an extra component to the cleansing ingredients as they are meant to preserve the shampoos (preservatives) or add a nice odor to them (fragrances) (Mainkar & Jolly, 2001).


Most commonly, conventional shampoos use parabens as preservatives. Parabens refer to a class of preservatives widely used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals since the 1920s. Regarding their chemical structure, they are a series of esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid. In synthetic shampoos, they are used to prevent the formation of bacteria and mold and increase their shelf life (Cline et al., 2018). Among the vast number of parabens, methyl paraben (MP) and propyl paraben (PP) are the most highly used ones (Petca et al., 2019).

Health effects:
In our showering routine, we get exposed to parabens in shampoos for instance through dermal contact with the scalp when using the product on our hair. This could be a potential risk as the impacts of parabens on our health is still not fully researched (Cline et al., 2018).

Some studies link parabens to imitating the female hormone estrogen and enhancing the hormone level in the human body. This can for instance cause breast cancer (Petca et al., 2019). They also found interlinkages between an exposure to parabens and decreased fertility. In young children, an early exposure to methyl paraben is assumed to cause an earlier onset of puberty, meaning a premature first menstrual cycle as well as early growth of pubic hair and breasts (Cline et al., 2018). 

However, not all parabens are considered as dangerous. The Scientific Community on Consumer Safety confirmed the safety of propylparaben, butylparaben as well as methylparaben and ethylparaben (European Commission, 2014). Also, the dosage of the parabens used in the shampoo formulation and their conjunction with other ingredients alter their impacts on the human body.             

Environmental impact:
As parabens can be excreted in the urine (Cline et al., 2018), it has been found in urban streams where treated and untreated effluents from wastewater plants flow. As a consequence, chemical compounds of parabens can be detected in drinking water and in rivers. Through irrigation or fertilization practices, it can also find its way to agricultural soils (Kirchhof et al., 2013).


Fragrance is the smell of the shampoo which is often labeled as “parfum” or “aroma” on the ingredient lists (Bom et al., 2019, p.33). Since fragrances are referred to in the label by the word “parfum” or “aroma”, rather than having their ingredients labeled individually, there is no complete disclosure on their composition. This makes it impossible for consumers to avoid problematic ingredients or to know their origin. (Bom et al., 2019, p.33)

Regardless of its source, fragrances have been associated with various health problems, as skin irritation and allergic reactions (Bom et al., 2019)

Environmental impact:
If a fragrance ingredient can be extracted from a vegetable source, it can be considered renewable, but that does not mean it is sustainable. Massive deforestation has resulted from the production of sandalwood and rosewood; natural musk requires extraction from deer. (Bom et al., 2019)


The EU Ecolabel defines microplastics as solid plastic particles with a diameter of under 5 mm. They might be designed to be that small, for instance for the use in shampoos. Another source of microplastics are bigger plastic particles in the environment that become smaller over time, much like stones that turn into sand with time, weather, and water. In sewage treatment plants, filtering these tiny plastic particles is almost impossible. Microplastics in shampoos are used for their peeling effect.

Health effect:
The main effects on humans occur indirectly through our nutrition. What effects the consumption of microplastics might have on our body is a highly controversial issue. According to the European Commission, this is a knowledge gap where no assessment has given a final answer yet. (Wheeler, 2017)

Environmental impact:
The majority of microplastics is not biodegradable, which means that particles accumulate in the environment, mostly in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. They act as a magnet for harmful substances, so aquatic organisms are harmed in different ways when they confound microplastics with food: reduced nutrition due to high fraction of microplastics in diet, increased weight loss, structural damage, and inflammations. (Wheeler, 2017)

Conditioning agents

Conditioning agents are not a mandatory part of shampoos, although they are a common component. Conventional liquid shampoos often contain liquid polymers such as silicones, which are better to be avoided because they are generally not biodegradable. Threads posed to human health have not been scientifically proven yet (Angelina, 2018). Natural shampoos use aloe vera gel and other plant extracts to provide the conditioning effect (Mainkar & Jolly, 2001). DIY shampoos may contain aloe vera gel or broccoli seed oil.

Local suggestions and practical advice

In the introduction of the article, you’ve been informed about the reasons we use shampoo in the first place. As we are facing several sustainability challenges, we cannot keep on doing the same thing but need to be cautious and find more sustainable options.

Therefore, the first solution might start from reconsidering your purpose of using shampoo. Ask yourself a question: why are you using shampoo? Is it to keep your hair and scalp clean and healthy? Or is it to modify your hair structure? Or to add more brightness to your hair? 

When you have answered these questions, you can now decide what shampoo components you need to fulfill that purpose. Maybe through your new defined purpose of using shampoo, you find out that shampoo additive such as fragrances is not a necessary component in your shampoo anymore. With this acknowledgment, you can avoid using many substances that are used as fragrances in your shampoo. For the shampoo components that you want to have in your shampoo, for example detergents, you can choose those ingredients that are more sustainable and still provide you the same service. This is the reason why knowing the ingredients and their effects is important to be able to make a sustainable, conscious decision, properly weighing the benefits of ingredients in your shampoo against their negative impacts on the environment.

Here is a step by step decision process that you can apply when you buy your next shampoo:

Step 1: Rethink your purpose of using shampoo

Step 2: Eliminate shampoo components that do not fulfill your new purpose

Step 3: Choose a more sustainable ingredient between those that provide the same service by considering the health benefits and their negative impacts

We hope this process can help you find the shampoo that fits your individual needs and to be a sustainable consumer at the same time.

Having worked on this topic as a group for over a weekend, it’s got us to rethink our personal purpose of why we use shampoo. It turned out that our current shampoos have more ingredients than necessary for us. So, our personal choice will be DIY products from now on as they give us the freedom to just use what we need for our individual shampoo. Yet, if we need it to meet a higher hair hygiene goal, organic shampoo will be our choice. However, this is a personal opinion.

In this section, we would like to give you some recommendations on the additional steps you could take towards more sustainable options regarding your shampoo consumption in Lüneburg.

Here is a list of stores where you can find a lot of options for sustainable shampoos and ingredients for DIY shampoos (see recipe links in “Different types of shampoo” section above):

  • Plietsch (Edeka)
  • Pure Schönheit
  • Ollis Seifenkiste
  • Denns supermarket
  • DM

And don’t forget to look for the trustworthy labels we mentioned in part 1 when shopping for natural cosmetics.

If you are into self-made shampoo, and even better, if you can harvest the natural ingredients yourself, look for herbal ingredients around Lüneburg here!

For some of you that are satisfied with your current shampoo choices and want to find out more about sustainable consumption options in Lüneburg, such as second hand stores, repair stores, etc., here is a map that shows where everything is.


  • Angelina. (2018, June 24). Plastik im Shampoo.
  • Aziz, A. A., Taher, Z. M., Muda, R., & Aziz, R. (2017). Cosmeceuticals and natural cosmetics. Recent trends in research into Malaysian medicinal plants research. Penerbit UTM Press, Malaysia, 126-175.
  • Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists. (2011). Natural.
  • Beerling, J. (2013). Green Formulations and Ingredients. In A. Sahota (Ed.), Sustainability: How the Cosmetics Industry is Greening Up (pp. 197–215). John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  • Bom, S., Jorge, J., Ribeiro, H. M., & Marto, J. (2019). A step forward on sustainability in the cosmetics industry: A review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 225, 270–290.
  • Cline, A., Uwakwe, L. N., McMichael, A. (2018). No Sulfates, No Parabens, and the “No-Poo” Method: A New Patient Perspective on Common Shampoo Ingredients. Cutis, 101(1), 22-26.
  • European Commission (2014). Verbraucher: Kommission verbessert Sicherheit von Kosmetika. Pressinformation of the EU-Commission from 26 September 2014.
  • Gubitosa, J., Rizzi, V., Fini, P., & Cosma, P. (2019). Hair Care  Cosmetics: From Traditional Shampoo to Solid Clay and Herbal Shampoo, A  Review. Cosmetics, 6(1), 13.
  • Kirchhof, M. G., de Gannes, G. C. (2013). The Health Controversies of Parabens. Skin Therapy Letter 18(2),
  • Kloß, J., Kategorien, & Kosmetik. (2018, September 12). Schädliche Sulfate im Shampoo: So wirken sie auf Haut und Haare.
  • Mainkar, A. R., & Jolly, C. I. (2001). Formulation of natural shampoos. International journal of cosmetic science, 23(1), 59-62.
  • Muhamad, F. H., Ahmad, S. A., & Yasid, N. A. (2017). Biodegradation of Sodium Dodecyl Sulfate: A Mini review. Journal of Environmental Microbiology and Toxicology, 5(2), 7-13.
  • Petca, A., Bot, M., Petca, R.C., Mehedintu, C., Barac, Ilisecu, M., Maru, N., Mastalier, B. (2019). Chemicals in Personal Care Products Tied to Early Puberty in Girls. Revista de Chimie, 70(9), 3206-3209.
  • Preethi P. Jaya, Padmini K., Srikanth J., Lohita M., Swetha K., Rao P. Vengal (2013). A Review on Herbal Shampoo and Its Evaluation. Asian Journal of Pharmaceutical Analysis(4), 153–156. Wheeler, A. F. (2017). Intentionally added microplastics in products. Final report. Report.

Picture Attributions