Where Are All The "Clean" Hair Care Brands?

Why isn't the clean beauty space booming with hair care the same way it is with skin care and cosmetics?

So, one morning I was having breakfast with Gwyneth Paltrow.

Okay, fine, it wasn't a one-on-one breakfast (though one can dream), but I was sitting at a large breakfast table with a slew of other beauty editors and a handful of Goop-ers to celebrate Paltrow's latest collagen powder launch. That's when I overheard her talking to a fellow colleague about how there is a serious lack of truly "clean" (meaning, environmentally friendly and free of potentially damaging ingredients) hair care brands that exist. And, well, she was absolutely right.

While, yes, a number of big names in conventional hair care are beginning to exclude the ingredients such as sulfates (preservatives, potential irritants, and the chemicals responsible for making your shampoo sudsy) and parabens (also preservatives, and potential endocrine disruptors) that lurk in your typical shampoo and conditioner bottles, the number of transparent hair care brands is a far cry from the amount of likeminded cosmetic and skin-care brands on the market today.

So, I turned to the experts in clean hair care, from the brains behind some of the most trusted clean beauty retailers to the founders ofclean and ingredient-transparent brands on the market today, to find out why this aspect of the industry is still lacking—and why that's something we should care about.

First things first, what's the problem with many conventional hair care products? Roman Gaillard, founder of Detox Market, explains: "There is an expectation for instant gratification in hair care, so a lot of conventional products are loaded with silicones, propylene glycol, and PEGs [petroleum-based compounds] for instant softness—though hair isn't actually any more moisturized—harsh sulfates for a squeaky-clean feeling, and strong synthetic scents. These make it feel like a product is working, but it's not really going to give results long-term."

And when it comes to these questionable ingredients, it's also not just a matter of rinsing them right out of your hair—the products you use on your hair are still absorbed through the scalp. "Hair health starts with scalp health, and your scalp is your skin," says Paul Michaux, co-founder and VP of product for customizable and transparent hair care brand Prose. "It's important to be conscious of the ingredients going onto it."

So, if the conventional hair brands are lacking in clean ingredients that are good for your scalp (and, thus, you), why is there still such a gap in the market when you compare it to the amount of, let's say, fully organic and natural facial oils available at a range of price points?

"In short, I think, it's because of a lot of confusion and conflicting customer demands," says Mia David, Credo Beauty's director of mission:

Natural, clean-focused consumers are often looking for "sulfate-free" and "silicone-free" products. Those classes of ingredients are really big, though—there are dozens of silicones, and most people are hard-pressed to actually categorize or list "sulfates" beyond sodium lauryl [or laureth] sulfate. It seems many folks are using two terms interchangeably—"surfactant," which is an ingredient used to create lather or foam, and "sulfates." The consumer concerns include that "sulfates" can strip the hair, or, in the case of ethoxylated surfactants like sodium laureth sulfate, might be contaminated with trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane, which is a carcinogen. Concerns with silicones are that they can weigh the hair down, or that they are bad for the environment because they can sneak past water treatment facilities and get into waterways.
I think that the truth here is somewhere in the middle. Chemicals have different functions, benefits, and risks, and some chemical makers are more responsible than others—and therefore, might have a better, cleaner, safer material. And, of course, not every user is the same—some people are sensitive to certain "sulfates" but most are not. This makes it hard for consumers to know what is what and hard for companies to decide which path to take when formulating products.

Michelle Connelly, director of merchandising and planning at Credo, adds that, in some ways, consumers have (up until recently) given less thought to hair care when it comes to going clean. "I think consumers have de-prioritized hair care because it's a rinse-off product and not sitting on their skin all day, so there may have been a perception that it's less important versus skin care or makeup. Lower demand from consumers would lead to slower innovation by manufacturers."

And let's not forget that, for brands—from emerging to massive and established, and across all beauty categories—the cost of producing a product is always a huge factor. "The hair care industry makes a lot of money from conventional products that are made with chemicals and synthetics," says Mordechai Alvow, founder of clean hair care brand Yarok Hair. "They can last on the shelf up to four years, and they are low-cost to produce."

In addition to higher costs, what it comes down to is that these clean hair care brands really have to get it right in order to be successful. As Gaillard explained, that conventional products give instant gratification without long-term results, naturals will, simply put, actually have to work in both the instant and long-term. "You can't cut corners with natural ingredients," he says. "You can't hide behind any synthetics. So these clean hair formulas have to be very thoughtful to go up against conventional."

But, as Connelly explains, the future of clean hair care is looking bright, and the demand for products that are free of potentially harmful ingredients and are transparent, sustainably produced, and overall eco-friendly is rapidly growing.

And the doors for brands to launch and thrive are wide open. "There is a huge opportunity in the clean hair care market," says Connelly. "We're seeing many new brands launching that are free of sulfates and/or silicones, but very few that actually completely meet Credo's Clean Standard [a list of ingredients to omit that many clean beauty brands follow]. The clean hair care market is underdeveloped compared to skin care, makeup, and even fragrance. I am sure that we will see more new and clean brands come to market in the next couple of years, and see some of the cleaner brands that currently exist push to remove common ingredients like PEGs."

However, it's not just the brands out there that need to held accountable for what they put into their products, and the consumers (finally) beginning to demand clean hair care—there needs to be support from the major retailers carrying these products, too. "It's one thing for brands to create clean products and hold themselves accountable, but without support of retailers it would do us no good," says Shane Wolf, founder of Seed Phytonutrients. "Partnerships like Sephora and the remarkable work they're doing by implementing the Clean at Sephora program is a huge step in the right direction."

So, will we soon see the market for clean, natural hair care—including accessible price points—thriving as much as skin care and cosmetics? As long as consumers continue to demand it, brands continue to innovate, and retailers show support, it's only a matter of time.