Have you resisted replacing the anything-but-natural hair styling products you have in your bathroom cupboard with environmentally correct, medically safe alternatives—no matter how natural the rest of your life has become? After all, those miraculous goops and sprays ensure one good hair day after another, making them hard to give up. Luckily, thanks to ingredient and packaging innovations, you don’t have to. Natural-ingredients manufacturers are rolling out salon-quality products that work as well as their conventional cousins, minus the toxic stuff.
Alluring as they are sitting in their colorful jars and tubes on your shelf, conventional styling products contain a potent blend of noxious chemicals. Many of these chemicals are not only dangerous for your own health, they can poison the planet as well, ultimately ending up in our water systems and polluting streams and crops.
“Many of the chemicals commonly used in hair styling products are also the most dangerous,” says Kim Erickson, author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous (Contemporary Books, 2002). Erickson is referring to ingredients like diazolidinyl urea, a neurotoxin. “When it’s combined with DMDM hydantoin, it can degrade to form formaldehyde,” she says. Also common: synthetic preservatives of the paraben family—butyl-, ethyl-, methyl- and propylparabens, which mimic estrogen. Frequent exposure to them may damage reproductive organs and, possibly, cause birth defects, according to Erickson.
But before you ditch poof for ponytail, check out natural alternatives. “Natural styling products use aloe vera gel to moisturize and hold hair, plant waxes and gums to aid in styling, and a wide variety of plant oils to add sheen and moisture,” Erickson says. And you can say goodbye to parabens—natural formulas rely on vitamins and botanicals for preservatives.
You’ll also find lots of botanicals in these products: rosemary and henna to give your hair body, and horsetail and nettle to curl and strengthen it. Essential oils take the place of synthetic fragrance and have the added benefit of contributing to hair and scalp health. And, says Erickson, you may find the products less drying since most natural formulas don’t contain alcohol.
Okay, so natural alternatives get a clean bill of health, but do they work? According to stylist Kathleen Nugent, they do. At her salon in Minneapolis, the switch to vegan, chemical-free styling products thrills not only Nugent but her clients as well. “The products aren’t as heavy and work better on my clients’ hair,” she says. “I don’t get any more complaints from clients either about the styling products irritating their skin or making them cough.”
Ready to ditch the chemicals and give natural styling products a try? Read on for a sampling of alternative products on store shelves and expert tips on how to use them.
Stylist Frank Paganis, owner of Pagani hair salon in Oak Park, Illinois, swears by mousse and uses it with all his clients. “Mousse holds very well but is still light in weight and it slips through the hair easily, so you get even distribution,” he says. Jason Mousse offers a light hold without drying alcohol. For color-treated hair, try ShiKai Color Reflect Mousse, which protects hair from the sun with sunscreen.
Use: Put a dollop in your hand and apply with your fingertips to the scalp—volume and hold happen in the first 1/2-inch of the hair, that’s where all the support comes from, says Paganis
Then distribute the mousse throughout the hair.
Heavier than a mousse, gel gives texture and volume to fine hair and can create a “piecier” look, according to Nugent. Shaman Cucumber & Vitamin E Styling Gel contains more than 70 percent organic ingredients and is ideal for light coverage. Max Green Alchemy (MGA) Styling Gel holds with plant gum and conditions with a blend of more than 15 botanicals.
Use: Rub a small amount in the palms and distribute through wet hair. Most of the gel resides where it is first put, so make sure to distribute it well, Paganis says.
A bit more aggressive than other styling products, pomade “gives the hair added control and definition without the stiffness or greasiness,” Paganis explains. To avoid shine, try Giovanni Styling Glue, a rich pomade with a matte finish. John Masters Organics’ Bourbon, Vanilla & Tangerine Hair Texturizer gives extra-strength hold and smells as good as it sounds.
Use: Start with a pea-size amount to dry hair (half a pea for thin hair). The first application is a very delicate one for body, followed by a second more aggressive application to shape, Paginis says. For a messy bed-head look, apply a small amount to hair ends after blow-drying, says Joey Noufal, owner of Noufal Hair Studio in Vienna, Virginia.
Noufal likes pump hairspray for short or curly hair and mist spray to give a style hold. MOP (Modern Organic Products) Firm Finish holds with zero environmental impact and is scented with extracts of orange, mango, and grapefruit. Natural gums give Aubrey Organics’ Natural Missst Herbal Hairspray its holding power.
Use: Extend your arm out as far as possible and then spray from above the head to distribute evenly, Paganis says.
These handy products tame fly-aways with oils that condition as well as hold, Nugent says. Lamas Beauty’s Hold Me Thermal Styling Spray smoothes with silica-derived dimethicone instead of petroleum products. Aveda’s Light Elements Smoothing Fluid tames without a greasy look and conditions with botanical oils, great for thick hair.
Use: Apply a pea-size amount into palm, rub hands together, and work through hair. “I often see clients use too much frizz-control product,” Paganis says. “You need only the smallest amount.”
Tips for your Type
Make the most of what you’ve got with these styling tricks:
Thin/limp hair: Paganis uses spray styling gel to give volume and definition to fine hair. Apply the spray to the base and ends of wet hair (when hair is more malleable) and distribute with a comb. Use a light shine spray for conditioning and shine. “Fine-haired people are often afraid to use conditioners, fearing their hair will be limp, but they need moisture,” he says.
Thick/course hair: For styling course hair, Nugent likes straightening balm (a dime-size amount for short hair; a nickel for long). Distribute evenly and then clip hair up in sections and blow dry a section at a time using a vent brush. Thick or coarse hair often looks frizzy from lack of conditioning, Paganis says. “Leave conditioner on for at least three minutes.”
Curly hair: Towel-dry hair by blotting it to prevent damage from rubbing, Nugent advises. She likes mousse, which helps define curls. Distribute the mousse evenly and then scrunch the hair and run your fingers through it lightly and allow it to air dry. Men—skip the mousse and apply a dime-size dollop of pomade to dry curls.
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