Is Pretty Hair Possible without Plastic? Yes, with These Styling Secrets

Natural Hair Care

by guest blogger Leah Zerbe, online editor at

It’s only halfway through the month, and already’s Plastic-Free February challenge has been, well, challenging. Completely opting out of using oil- and natural gas–based materials is impossible. That’s why we’re focusing on making positive changes where we can, particularly when we’re talking single-use plastics. At, our editors and social media coordinator are each participating in the challenge for a week.

My week started on Sunday, so it included Valentine’s Day celebrations. And I have to admit I got a little nervous. While I don’t generally wear tons of makeup, I do like to get dressed up and go out sometimes. And I particularly like to have fun with different hairstyles, cuts, and colors. Would plastic-free week doom my tresses? Would I have to go to work looking like a bag lady with stringy, unkempt locks? When we booked a segment on NBC 10 in Philadelphia this Friday to talk about Plastic-Free February, I really panicked…. I can’t represent on TV with a rat’s nest atop my head!

But using hair products from plastic bottles seems to contradict the plastic-free ethos.

So for the weekend kickoff of my plastic-free week, I headed to Bella Salon in Pottsville, PA, and asked my friend and talented stylist Jess Adams-Peters to experiment on my mane. (We put her aspiring-photographer sister, Leigh Ann Adams, to the test trying to photograph the hour-long session.) My hair type is pretty boring and average. I’m not the lucky type who wakes up with silky-looking or playfully curly hair. Instead, my thinner tresses are kind of kinked and feathered at the start of the day. Sometimes, my Polish rooster even attacks me in the morning if I feed our farm’s chickens before combing my hair.

But Jess worked some nontoxic, plastic-free magic. And I now feel confident that limp locks can enjoy a burst of volume and soft curls by relying on simple treatments like heat, natural gel from an aloe vera plant, and a little sea salt whipped up in the kitchen. No plastic, petrochemicals, or synthetic fragrances or colors required.

Jess created three styles using absolutely no bottled products or sprays—and in one case, without using any electrical salon tools. The benefits of the experiment were twofold: We didn’t waste plastic (that’s extra-important where we live—natural gas drilling is taking over and polluting Pennsylvania, and a lot of that fossil fuel supply goes to making throwaway plastic). And we protected ourselves from the toxic chemicals found in many personal-care products. To me, it was living proof you can get pretty nice hair without reaching for the mousse, hairspray, gel, or even shampoo and conditioning bottles.

Style 1: Office Chic

The ground rules: No washing your hair upon arrival at the salon. (I hadn’t washed it for 1½ days.) No using blow-dryers or anything that you have to plug into a wall, and no using plastic.

Products used: A metal pick and four to five metal bobby pins.

The situation: “If you didn’t wash your hair for a few days, or you don’t have a lot of time in the morning, this is something really easy that you can do,” Jess explains. She put this style in place in just five minutes.

Get the do: With this style, a little natural oil pays dividends in volume, so try not to wash your hair for at least a day before trying this semi-updo. Part your hair as you normally do. Tease the hair at your crown using a comb or pick (think Snooki, but not that extreme), and then smooth out the flyaway hairs. Leaving your bangs in place, take the middle section that you’re going to pull back, twist it under once or twice, and pin it just below the crown of your head. Then pull back the side sections, twist, and pin. It’s so simple it’s ridiculous.

Style 2: Beachy Sexy

The ground rules: No plastic bottled or synthetic chemical styling products allowed. No washing the hair before the style. This time, some more advanced styling tools are allowed; they include plastic, but many women already own these tools and don’t have to go out and buy them.

Products used: 4 pinches of sea salt, mixed with about 1½ cups water; a curling iron, a blow-dryer.

The situation: Here’s another do that works best if you haven’t shampooed for a few day and have a little bit of natural oil in your roots (It’s best not to wash your hair every day as a general hair-health rule of thumb, by the way.) Beachy sexy is also a versatile look: “It’s great for going out or going to the office—this is basically anywhere hair,” Jess says.

Get the do: Focus first on applying the saltwater solution to the oilier parts of your hair, and then work it throughout your tresses. Blow-dry for about five minutes, messing it around with your free hand as you dry. (Jess urges people to use a diffusing attachment on the end of the blow-dryer so you don’t singe your hair—it’s a standard attachment that comes with most blow-dryers.)

Once the hair’s dried, take the sections and, holding the curling iron vertically, curl each one loosely. Let the ends of your hair extend out of the curling iron barrel for an even beachier look. After you have all of your sections curled, mess it up and break up the waves and curls with your hands. It takes about 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of your hair. (Note: If your hair gets drier than you’d like from the sea salt solution, skip a few days before using the solution again.)


Style # 3: Nontoxic Blowout

The ground rules: You must wash your hair before styling, but you can’t use shampoo from a plastic bottle.

Products used: A quarter-size amount of aloe from a houseplant, a metal round brush, a blow-dryer.

The situation: This style works well for a quick smoothing out after you wash your hair. (I washed with a bar of Dr. Bronner’s Baby Mild castile soap, and it really lathered up nicely!)

Get the do: After washing your hair with a nontoxic, plant-based bar soap (avoid artificial fragrances), comb it out and part it as you normally do. Squeeze out a quarter-size amount of aloe vera gel from an aloe plant, rub it between your hands, and work it into your roots and through your ends. It will act as a natural detangler as you continue to comb through your hair.

Blow-dry your hair, tussling it around with your free hand until it’s about 90 percent dry. Separate your hair so you can start blow-drying the underlayers first. For extra volume, as you curl your hair around the top of the round brush, lift up and hit the roots underneath with some heat (again, remember to use the blow-dryer attachment so you don’t singe your hair.)  Continue to round-brush the other sections, remembering to pull the brush up and in the opposite direction while drying, to get that added lift.

See, you don’t need mousse! “I was surprised at how well it turned out without using tons of products,” Jess said. “It’s doable.”

Leah_2014_Head_Shot_5Leah Zerbe is online editor for Prior to working at Rodale, she was the senior online editor at, where she headed up the station’s online “Going Green” initiative, wrote about center-city crime and traffic jams, and blogged about her beloved Philadelphia Phillies. She and her husband run a sustainable organic farm in Schuylkill County, where they grow vegetables, strawberries, herbs, and flowers and raise heritage-breed chickens.


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7 Responses to Is Pretty Hair Possible without Plastic? Yes, with These Styling Secrets

  1. Norma Hair February 15, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    I like the Beachy Sexy look on Leah best. I have found Dr Bronner’s Organic Shikakai Lemongrass Lime Body Soap works great for my thick, dry hair. I have to dilute most shampoos with 2 parts water just to work it through my hair, and then it over-strips the oils. Only problem with the Shikakai soap is it comes in a plastic bottle.

  2. Cara February 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    I have fine, curly hair and I make a hair gel for myself out of flax seeds and water. It’s the best gel I’ve ever used on my hair!

  3. zora February 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    You look wonderful and much younger on these photos than on your introductory on the left top corner.
    I stumbled upon your site and like it very much.

  4. Amanda February 16, 2011 at 12:21 am #

    Been trying the no-shampoo route (gasp!). Just a box of baking soda and a bottle of vinegar required. And I’ve been incredibly surprised at how clean my hair is!

  5. Dana from Maria's Kitchen February 16, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    Such a cool project, thanks for doing this, Leah! 🙂

  6. Suzanne February 16, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

    What a fantastic article. It certainly isn’t your normal Eco article-thank you Leah! Thank you to Cara for the post about natural hair gel! Go Beach sexy!

  7. Elspeth April 10, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    The beach sexy hair is WOW! I’m keeping record of that recipe.

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