Don’t let plastic combs and brushes pollute your regimen. Try these four eco alternatives instead.

Jessica DeFino
Aug 20, 2020 @ 1:41 pm
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Credit: Unsplash

What is clean beauty? And—for that matter—green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In Clean, Green, And In Between, beauty expert Jessica DeFino explores the ins and outs of these buzzy terms, reports on the products and ingredients to look out for, and answers all of your most pressing questions.

The most unbelievable thing about The Little Mermaid? The fact that Ariel combs her hair with a fork.

“It's estimated the ocean contains around 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, with a staggering 99.9 percent of floating marine debris made from plastic,” Susan Stevens, the founder and CEO of Made With Respect, tells HelloGiggles. That equates to about 165 million tons of plastic polluting marine environments as we speak and an additional eight to 12 million tons being added each year. With the hairbrush market estimated to be worth $1.25 billion by 2022 in the United States alone—mostly made up of grooming tools with plastic bodies and nylon bristles—it stands to reason that Ariel probably could’ve had her pick of picks, combs, and brushes

These items weren’t always the pollutants that they are today. Early combs were carved from natural materials like bone, shell, and wood; they’ve been traced back to ancient Egyptian times and even found at Paleolithic dig sites. In 1777, the first modern hairbrush manufacturer, Kent Brushes, sold versions with wooden bodies and animal-hair bristles. Synthetics arrived on the scene in the 1800s via Mason Pearson’s still-iconic rubber-cushioned brush, and in 1898, African American inventor and hairdresser Lyda Newman patented a brush with synthetic bristles. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that plastic started to take over the world—and, eventually, the haircare industry.

Every single plastic pick, comb, or brush made since then still exists, since plastic doesn’t break down.

Instead, it breaks up into smaller pieces of plastic, ad infinitum, leaking methane and other hazardous chemicals, contributing to climate change, and polluting the earth’s soil, water, air—not to mention all of its living inhabitants—until the end of time. “Microplastics are in the water we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the air we breathe. [Since] plastic pollution can end up thousands of kilometers from the source, it's a global problem that affects everyone,” Stevens says. “We’re headed for an ecological disaster that will have an enormous effect on our economies, our health, and our well-being. We must stop putting our conveniences first for species, including ourselves, to survive and thrive.” 

One small way to reduce your plastic consumption? Don’t let plastic combs and brushes pollute your haircare regimen.

Thanks to a wave of eco-friendly beauty brands, it’s easier than ever to find plant-based, biodegradable, and compostable alternatives.

Before I get into all those, though, I want to answer the question that’s surely running through your mind right now: Can’t I just recycle my go-to plastic combs and brushes when I’m ready for an upgrade? Not exactly. “Hairbrushes aren’t often recyclable as they usually have other components and are made with sealants and glue,” Stevens says. “Most plain plastic combs made from one type of plastic can be recycled; however, it depends on the plastic it’s been made from.” Not all plastics are recyclable or even reusable. What’s more, only about nine percent of recycled plastic actually gets recycled; the rest is incinerated or sent to landfills, according to the UN Environment organization

“Even those plastics that are recyclable, we should still try to avoid them as much as possible and buy environmentally friendly alternative materials,” Stevens says. Ahead, four eco-minded options.

1. The Wooden Comb

“The root of all of our product decisions is how it authentically connects back to our Indian roots and what were and are the traditional, healthy practices that have existed for thousands of years that really nourish the body,” Shaz Rajashekar and Kiku Chaudhuri, the cofounders of Ayurvedic haircare brand Shaz & Kiks, tell HelloGiggles. “The fact that it's such an old culture, much of its traditional beauty tools and ingredients are natural and harness the power of plants. Plastics and synthetic ingredients didn't exist back in the day!” That’s partly why the brand’s Home-Combing Queen comb is carved from neem wood.

“There are a few reasons why our comb is wooden and comes from a very specific plant, the neem tree,” the cofounders say. “Neem is a well-known plant in South Asia that is commonly used for various medicinal purposes. There are many scientific studies proving neem's high amount of antibacterial and antifungal components.” Additionally, neem trees are fast growing and drought resistant, making production easy on the environment. “We are very aware that we don't want to be part of the over-consumption problem in this world,” Rajashekar and Chaudhuri add. “We want to make beneficial and sustainable products that do as little harm as possible to our planet but help individuals take care of themselves.”

eco-friendly brushes jessica defino haircare
Credit: Shaz & Kiks

Shop it! $20,

2. The Plant-Based Cellulose Comb

“Being mindful about what we put into the world is one of the most important parts of our mission,” says Dianna Cohen, the founder of the recently launched haircare brand Crown Affair. “The most sustainable option is to not have a brand at all, so when we do create products, it’s essential that we’re bringing something innovative to the market and we’re doing it in a holistically sustainable way.” 

Enter: Crown Affair’s The Comb No. 001 and The Comb No. 002, handcrafted in Switzerland from plant-based cellulose. “It’s a strong, durable, biodegradable cellulose made from plant tissues,” Cohen explains. “Our combs are biodegradable, and if you were to dispose of it, you could compost it.”

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Credit: Crown Affair

Shop it! $36,

3. The Repurposed Waste Comb

“Plastics can be formed in two ways” The one most common to us, which we know to have immense repercussions for the planet, is made from petroleum,” Neada Deters, founder of sustainable beauty brand Lesse, tells HelloGiggles. “Bioplastics are plastics made from renewable, organic materials. It's a new frontier in materials and a glimpse of what is possible if we begin to invest in and support more sustainable materials for all goods, across all categories.”

Deters naturally turned to bioplastics when conceptualizing Lesse’s Everyday Comb—but instead of going the typical bioplastic route and using material harvested from fast-growing trees, “we use cellulose acetate formed from recycled paper and wood pulp that would have otherwise been discarded,” the founder says. “We believe it's a more considered approach to creating this bioplastic.” She calls the comb “a sustainable self-care tool that won't ever need to be disposed [of],” but should you choose to, the material is biodegradable. “Since it's made of paper, it can also be recycled alongside your paper goods at home,” Deters adds. 

eco-friendly combs brushes hair care
Credit: LESSE

Shop it! $60,

4. The Compostable Brush

Prefer a brush to a comb? Consider Redecker’s Wooden Paddle Hair Brush. Instead of the typical plastic-and-rubber body and nylon bristles, this eco option is crafted from pear wood and features goat hair bristles. (Bonus: Goat hair helps manage frizz and redistribute the scalp’s natural oils throughout your strands.) If or when the brush runs its course, it’s easily compostable, either through a municipal composting program or your backyard setup. 

eco-friendly brushes redecker haircare jessica defino
Credit: Redecker

Shop it! $17,

Caring For Your Eco-Friendly Hair Brushes:

While reducing plastic consumption is certainly a good thing for the planet, reducing overall consumption is the goal. “By investing in fewer, better pieces, you will need to dispose of less product,” Cohen states. 

It also helps to care for your haircare tools. “To ensure cleanliness between the teeth [of the comb], we recommend washing under running water from time to time,” Deters suggests. “Since it is a bioplastic, there is no fear of petroleum or chemical runoff when doing this in your sink or shower.” Sustainable retailer Package Free even sells a comb and brush cleaner that looks like an adorable little rake and keeps your tools fresh and free from hair buildup. 

“Rather than throwing out and replacing a hairbrush or comb because it gets dirty or undesirable, we need to reconsider extending its lifespan to reduce the waste we create,” Stevens agrees. (Plastic combs repurposed by mermaids notwithstanding.)