A Wise Guide to More Sustainable Shampoo

When we think of more sustainable showers, we might first think of cutting those bad boys shorter… and for good reason. Showers typically account for about 20 percent of the water used indoors… but how about the impact of the products we use to get clean? Shampoo might be one of those weekly shower time essentials that we might not think of when making more sustainable choices. Let’s take a look at how we can make this sudsy activity less environmentally impactful. 

What to Be Wise On: 

The first, modern shampoo was made from surfactants in the 1930s… and some of the ingredients used in that original formula are still being used to this day. Keep in mind that ingredients that make our shampoos lather and foam can also have other, unintended effects, like harming certain forms of aquatic life or posing health risks to the people making our shampoos. When it comes to getting our hair clean while keeping the planet in mind, we have to consider how our shampoos are made and by whom, the way they impact our bodies, and the way they impact other ecosystems when they (ultimately) get washed down the drain. 


Here are some of our favorite shampoos based on ingredients and certifications. 

The Factors to Consider: 


Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

Sodium lauryl sulfate, also known as SLS, is an emulsifying cleaning agent sometimes found in shampoo. It’s used to break down and wash away the dirt and grime that water can’t get rid of on its own. It also happens to be a highly toxic threat to aquatic life, from algae, to frogs, to fish. A study in which mussels were exposed to SLS showed limited filtration capacity and stunted physiological development (including growth and reproduction). While studies have disproved the idea that SLS is a menace to human health, they still concede that it can harm certain forms of aquatic life when we wash it down the drain. Moderate doses of SLS can be less toxic to marine life, but it’s probably best to avoid it altogether if you can. 

Sulfates and Phosphates

Sulfates are a kind of surfactant, which is used to clean bodies and create the foam we know and love. Unfortunately, sulfates can also cause irritation and roughness, which is not what we want for our sensitive scalps. When we wash our hair with a shampoo that contains sulfates, we’re potentially causing that irritation and some unintended consequences on marine life. No, thanks!

Phosphates, like trisodium phosphate, are ingredients that create that luscious lathering effect in our shampoos. Phosphates can also cause eutrophication, which is the mineral over-enrichment of bodies of water. This can be a natural process that develops aquatic ecosystems, but it can also be an indication of nutrient imbalances as a result of pollution. While it might sound beautiful, algal bloom – a result of eutrophication – can be harmful to aquatic life and can contaminate drinking sources. 

Synthetic Fragrances and Dyes

Certain shampoos contain synthetic dyes and fragrances. If your shampoo is an eerie blue color or scented like the rainforest, it’s safe to bet it contains synthetic ingredients. The manufacturing of such dyes and fragrances uses significant amounts of water and creates wastewater pollution that can be harmful to fish and other aquatic plants and wildlife. 


Leaping Bunny Certification

Leaping Bunny and PETA Cruelty-Free Certified

To keep animal welfare in your hair care, look for the Leaping Bunny certification and/or the PETA cruelty-free certification. The Leaping Bunny certification is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted on any ingredients in a product. PETA’s Cruelty-Free denotes that a company does not conduct or commission tests on animals.

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade Certified

The Fair Trade certification ​​works on the ground with suppliers to ensure that people making Fair Trade-Certified products work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and earn additional money to empower their communities. This certification has intersectional impacts, including an emphasis on safe working conditions, environmental protection, sustainable livelihoods, and Community Development Funds. Look for shampoos with the Fair Trade seal of approval and logo so you know that what you’re washing with has met these standards. 

EWG Verified Certification

EWG Verified

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has created a database that aims to be the gold standard in rating personal care products based on their ingredients, ensuring products are free from the chemicals of concern to human health that are outlined in their unacceptable list. Look for the EWG logo to make sure you’re avoiding those pesky ingredients. 


Plastic-free shampoo bars are becoming more and more popular, and for good reason. These bad boys are concentrated into waterless blocks and are usually packaged in cardboard boxes. Their waterless formula means that they weigh a whole lot less than those bottles of shampoo that contain 90% water (which means less fuel required for shipping!), and their cardboard packaging creates less waste compared to bulky plastic bottles. 

A Few Takeaways: 

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater – finding a more sustainable shampoo doesn’t mean going the no-poo route. It just means looking for a shampoo that meets both planetary and human safety standards. Avoid ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate (and other sulfates), as well as phosphates and synthetic fragrances and dyes. Instead, look for products certified by Leaping Bunny and PETA Cruelty-Free certifications, the Fair Trade certification, and those that are EWG verified. If you can, reach for a plastic-free shampoo bar. This type of packaging is a whole lot better for the environment compared to plastic bottles.

Common Questions: 

“What is sustainable shampoo?”

Here at Finch, for something to be “sustainable”, it must balance how it meets human needs with its ability to continue to do so for the foreseeable future, without degrading the natural environment. So, fully sustainable shampoo (ones that completely fulfill that definition) don’t actually exist…yet. 

“Is there biodegradable shampoo?”

Biodegradable is a very, very broad term, and it’s not federally regulated either. So, brands can slap the B-word on their label even if it’s not accurate. Before trusting that your product or packaging is biodegradable or compostable, check to see if the claim is substantiated or regulated, and if so, by what agency.

“Is shampoo bad for the environment?”

“Bad” is subjective! However, there are certain shampoo brands that contain ingredients that can cause planetary harm, like sulfates, phosphates, and synthetic fragrances and dyes.

Make wiser choices when you shop shampoo: