green herbs for washing hair

Have you noticed your drugstore aisles are now filled with beauty products touting plant-based extracts on their packaging, using neutral, earth tone colors, and featuring marketing lingo like organic, natural and green? Then you (the informed consumer that you are) turn over the packaging to find that plant-based extract at the very bottom of the ingredients list, and a slew of unnatural chemical ingredients at the top. These are symptoms of a trend happening right now called greenwashing. The act of greenwashing is when cosmetic product companies use traditional formulating procedures and ingredients (the same ones they have always used), yet market and package the products to appear more natural.

According to Perry Romanowski, experienced cosmetic chemist, author and creator of Chemists Corner, there are three categories that a company can fall under when formulating natural products, listed here in order from least clean to cleanest.

  • Level 3 - Greenwashing
  • Level 2 - Formulating to a standard
  • Level 1 - Formulating from nature


The most popular of the three levels is greenwashing. As the trend of living a cleaner, greener life, the major beauty brands have caught on and tailored their products to speak our language. Many of the major product companies fall into this category and with good reason. It is cheaper to make products with synthetic ingredients and as we know some of the silicones and surfactants are really good at managing our hair for the short-term, thus consumers purchase more product and the cycle continues.

Formulating to a standard

Formulating to a standard means that companies or organizations have elected to set a standard for what they consider to be natural that they will abide by. Formulating to a standard produces minimally processed products that can nourish and protect your hair in the long run. There are fewer major companies in this category, but Whole Foods, Burt's Bees, and Yes to Carrots are some of them. All of these companies have worked hard to create their own high standards of formulating.

Not only does popular retailer Whole Foods create their own formulas, they are also very selective about the products they sell in their stores. Their company proudly describes their selective process, “Currently, there are 50 ingredients common in conventional body care products that are not allowed in any body care products we sell. That includes phthalates, micro beads, triclosan, BHT, BHA, aluminum chlorohydrate, and many more. However, creating a product with no unacceptable ingredients does not guarantee that Whole Foods Market will sell it. Our buyers are passionate about seeking out the freshest, most healthful, minimally processed products available.” Yes to Carrots says yes to natural ingredients and recycled materials, producing 95% natural products and says no to “parabens, petroleum, phthalates and SLS.”

Formulating from nature

One of the greatest challenges of formulating natural cosmetic products is finding natural ways to preserve the product and keep it from spoiling on store shelves. Unfortunately, the cosmetic industry has yet to find an all-natural preservative for products so they have to find creative ways to make their products last. That is not to say that it is impossible, however, we have yet to find a natural preservative solution for water-based products like shampoos and conditioners.

Emollient or oil-based products stand a better chance. One major company that bounces between this category and level two is Burt’s Bees, which claims 50 % of their products are 100% natural and the other 50 % are 99% natural! How do they do it? A Burt’s Bees representative explains, “To ensure the safety, efficacy, and aesthetic of our formulas, we use the synthetic preservative phenoxyethanol at 1% or below in some of our water-containing products. We chose it because it is a non-paraben, non-formaldehyde-releasing preservative and is used broadly in natural personal care products. Yet we know we can do more. And in our pursuit of being 100% natural 100% of the time, we're always looking for natural preservatives that will work as well, or better, than their synthetic counterparts.”

Why is this so important?

It varies for general consumers, depending on your level of concern over ingredients, but in the curly hair community it is very important. Textured hair tends to be on the dryer or potentially fragile side, so many curly consumers are increasingly more concerned with the ingredients they put on their hair. Knowing and understanding these three levels helps the curly consumer to make informed decisions when making purchase decisions.

For example, if you find that synthetic ingredients (beyond preservatives) are damaging to your hair, then you may want to choose a higher level of formulating such as level one or even level two. This may require extra research in making choices, but the difference will show in your hair health. If you are pretty carefree with ingredients you can feel free to make selections from all three levels of formulating.

Do you go out of your way to buy products formulated from nature?