Shampoo Bars Are the Travel-Ready, Eco-Conscious Essential of the Moment

Posted by Jimmy Gould on

Ready to join the plastic-free, waterless revolution? Here are the shampoo bars that hairstylists and sustainability experts recommend.


As I write, I’m listening to the first ear-splitting flights of Chicago’s pandemic-modified Air and Water Show. Since 1959, the city’s “second most popular” festival (versus 2021’s nauseating summertime swell of 400,000-ish Lollapalooza attendees) has offered Lake Michigan’s beachside onlookers aerial military plane maneuvers above parades of boats. When it began, phrases like “emissions” and “carbon offset fee” had yet to enter the layperson’s dialect. After this month's earth-shaking United Nations climate assessment (“code red for humanity”), I wonder how much longer we’ll want to use traditional fossil-fuel consumption as entertainment—or matters of routine. 

How should we go about reconfiguring life in order to step into the future? Or, better yet, the present?

Let’s consider the everyday basics. Shampoo, for instance, is one of those universal, genderless products that many restock again and again throughout a single year. There have been meaningful strides in reducing waste when it comes to packaging: bottles made from post-consumer-recycled plastic or reusable aluminum, along with refill systems. But perhaps it’s time to consider a package-free—and water-free—version. “Most shampoo is around 80%—to upwards of 95%—water,” says Jaclyn Tracy, the Ohio-based founder of Sistain, a digital marketplace for products geared toward sustainability. She points out the irony that water is the number one ingredient in the $500 billion beauty and personal care industry, all while eight million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans each year. “It is not surprising that this category is going through its own ‘clean’ transformation,” says Tracy. One such evolution arrives in a familiar format: A shampoo bar fit for your palm—or a hand-polished Binu Binu blue marble soap dish. 

Insiders cite multiple reasons they’ve already made the switch: “I like to cut off a little piece of my shampoo bar off rather than bring the entire thing with me on trips. A tiny square is all I need for multiple washes,” shares Amy Chang, who educates her million-plus TikTok followers about the beauty products she vets in real-time from her home in Santa Monica. She talks about research published in the University of Washington’s Conservation Magazine, which found that, compared to bar cleansers, liquid shampoos require five times more energy for raw-material production, and almost twenty times more for packaging production. “They are a little tricky to get the hang of at first,” she admits of hitting her groove lathering the solid cleansers through her strands. Still, she insists they “produce silky, shiny, clean hair just as a liquid shampoo would.” 

That’s what Brooklyn-based hairstylist Dhairius Thomas has found, to say the least. “My experience with shampoo bars has been life-changing,” says Thomas, who jets to shoots with artists and models (including Jazmine Sullivan and Winnie Harlow) “always” with waterless cleansers in his kit. Growing up, Thomas remembers reaching for regular bar soap when he ran out of liquid shampoo—something he no longer advises, given the harsher surfactants often used—but he now plans to “get rid of the bottle forever” thanks to updated formulas suitable for all hair types. “I usually use bar shampoo when I have to wash a client’s hair on set,” he says. “What’s great is that they can take it home.” Sharing fruits of the waterless revolution makes sense when products are “easy to store without spilling or exploding while in transit,” he adds, echoing a concern that lots of travelers share at this tail end of summer vacation. Here, a dozen options to further lighten 2021’s environmental load.