‘Clean’ hair care is on the rise, but why? We take a look at how far it’s come, how much further it has to go and whose hair care routine could benefit most from it

Any products in this article have been selected editorially however if you buy something we mention, we may earn commission

When it comes to the buzzwords currently gracing the labels of today’s biggest hair care launches, ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ are two of the most common. The world of free-from beauty is booming, with the category making the leap from niche to mainstream thanks to a bevy of brands expanding their offering to better cater for their increasingly ingredient savvy consumers.

Why is the demand growing?

It seems to be down to four main reasons - the first being the increased use of organic skincare and food. Peaking in popularity in recent years, it seemed only a matter of time before the same shopping habits extended to the world of hair care too. “People are increasingly trying to cut down on their chemical or toxic load and a great place to start is with their shampoo or hair care as these tend to be products we use on a daily basis,” says Abi Weeds, director of organic beauty brand Odylique . With more people increasingly interested in what’s in their beauty products, not just what they claim to do, it's a natural next step.

Secondly, is the greater level of awareness surrounding scalp health. “People often don't consider the scalp as skin,” notes natural beauty expert and founder of Content Beauty & Wellbeing , Imelda Burke . “The scalp can be highly sensitive and, if you are a fan of styling your hair daily,
 it’s probably one of the areas that gets the most products thrown at it - shampoo, conditioner, styling serum, finishing treatments, hair spray and oils, and that’s after you've coloured your hair and before it’s dried, styled and straightened.”

Interestingly, making the switch haircare-wise could reap rewards skincare-wise too. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen contact dermatitis or eczema appear around the eyes or even on the hands at the very time someone has changed their hair care to the latest formula,” says Imelda. “Often someone will think they want an eye cream to ease the irritation, but really switching their shampoo may do the trick. It makes sense that when talking about hair we also talk about the skin on the surrounding areas.”

The third reason is the impact certain synthetic ingredients may be having on our environment. “There’s much better environmental awareness of what we’re sending down the plughole, so that may be driving an interest in more eco-friendly wash products too,” highlights Abi Weeds. With climate change being one of the world’s most pressing issues, it’s little surprise that qualities such as biodegradability are at the forefront of consumers’ minds.

Lastly, the perception that organic and natural products are less harsh for our hair has also helped thrust them into the public's consciousness. “As damage concerns are still a top issue around the world, this has led to people seeking out gentler products,” notes global beauty & personal care analyst Andrew McDougall in a recent Mintel  article on the subject. “Products that are free-from surfactants, such as sulfates, are viewed as gentler, boding well for brands that boast sulfate-free claims.”

What's the difference between natural and organic hair products?

Due to how often both terms are bandied around at the moment, their meanings seem to have gotten a bit lost over time. While similar, there are some key differences, the main being the greater number of hoops that a product has to jump through in order to be classed as organic. “Although they may appear the same, organic and natural are quite different,” highlights Laura Bartley, Health and Beauty Manager at organic certification body, the Soil Association . “In the simplest of terms, organic refers to any produce from an organic farm, produced without the use of synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and genetically modified ingredients. In certified organic cosmetics, there are strict standards that guarantee that organic ingredients are used where possible, and that those ingredients that cannot be organic are made using green chemistry principles.”

With regards to what constitutes as 'natural,' there can be a wider degree of interpretation involved. “In practice, the values behind natural are very similar to organic. However, the term varies depending on who you ask – some companies believe that artificial ‘nature identical’ ingredients made in a lab are natural,” says Laura. “There are also some natural ingredients such as water, salt or clay that are not products of farming and so cannot be organic. Products that use these ingredients in significant quantities may not reach the minimum composition requirements for organic certification, so natural certification is the next best option.”

MORE GLOSS: Organic beauty buys under £25 

How far has natural and organic hair care come?

Much further than many think. With the exception of hair colour, developments in hair care products are making the days of greasy roots and lank ends a thing of the past. “We’re seeing innovative ingredient manufacturers such as Dr Straetmans or INOLEX develop fantastic naturally derived alternatives to synthetic ingredients - natural conditioning agents, natural silicone alternatives and natural styling agents,” says Lorraine Dallmeier, director at Organic Cosmetic Science School, Formula Botanica . “Through Formula Botanica's intensive research in the lab, we’ve created natural versions of different types of shampoos, conditioners and styling agents, ranging from clarifying shampoos to cleansing conditioners to styling putties.”

With strides in science being made, a greater level of choice is on the horizon. “Nature has for centuries provided fantastic hair care ingredients and with the understandable trend towards natural products, scientific studies are now validating the benefits of botanicals from all over the world, so there’s something out there for every hair type,” says Abi. Hair care solutions of old can still have their place too. “Coconut oil for example has been shown to be the only oil – natural or synthetic - to properly penetrate the hair shaft,” highlights Abi.

But will your hair miss silicones?

There’s still debate around whether certain ingredients can be bettered by nature. For example, particular silicones in hair care  have been noted by trichologists as being particularly hard to beat in terms of their short-term cosmetic benefits. However, if you have fine hair, natural alternatives could prove useful if your hair gets weighed down easily. It's all about challenging conventional hair care notions, explains Odylique’s Abi Weeds. “We have to think outside the box a little as to why for example there’s a need for a natural alternative to silicones,” she says. “By using gentler plant-based detergents rather than the harsh synthetic ones known to damage the hair shaft, you’ve eliminated the need for the cosmetic cover-up and build-up that silicones provide - many people using Odylique shampoo find they don’t need to use a separate conditioner.” Often selling out when back in stock, the shampoo’s cult following says a lot.

Going silicone-free can be a particularly hard sell though for those who find smoothness and frizz control difficult to achieve, (especially if like me, your hair is thick and wayward). However, there could be potentials that are worth giving a try. “Without silicones, it’s difficult to get that smooth finish without an oiliness,” says Imelda. “However, look for crambe abyssinica oil which has a unique molecular structure that gives hair a smooth finish without being overly oily.”

Going organic or natural with your hair care does take some time to get used to. In particular, the lack of lather when it comes to shampoos is a bit strange to begin with. If you’re keen to power through though, Imelda recommends a change in technique to match your change in products. “Most people will notice that the foaming element isn’t quite the same, but using naturals can be as effective,” says Imelda Burke. “I find with all natural shampoos, using half the usual amount but doing it twice usually gives a cleaner finish and a greater foam effect,” she says. “Wash and repeat. Concentrate on thoroughly massaging your shampoo into the scalp. When you rinse, work the shampoo gently through the ends before washing it out. Repeating with a second shampoo on a thoroughly wet scalp will result in more lather – most of us are used to double cleansing our face, so think of this as a double cleanse for the scalp. This makes a massive difference to the effectiveness of the products when making the switch.”

MORE GLOSS: Double cleansing - should you be doing it?

What actually qualifies as organic and natural though?

The area is particularly murky, with the language surrounding organic and natural products proving confusing and in some cases, misleading. Interestingly also, recent Mintel stats reveal that product selection is mainly led by wording rather than accreditation. “For all consumers, free-from claims are a higher indicator of natural/organic,” comments analyst Andrew McDougall. “Additionally, for buyers of natural and organic products, the presence of essential oils is more important than being certified organic or featuring the word ‘natural’.” The market intelligence company highlights the lack of an industry standard when it comes to organic certifications as a possible reason for why certifications are beginning to lose their value in the sector. Natural beauty products are also facing similar challenges. According to Mintel’s latest Women’s Hair Care UK 2017 report, “When it comes to the word ‘natural’, there may also be an increased awareness that ‘natural’ has too broad a definition in the sector.”

The lack of clarity therefore leaves it pretty open for brands to make questionable claims regarding the roots of their natural and organic beauty products. “Unfortunately, the terms 'organic' and 'natural' are not regulated for cosmetics in the same way that 'organic' is for food,” says the Soil Association’s Lauren Bartley. “Terms such as ‘naturally derived’ or ‘contains organic ingredients’ are often used for products that may also contain ingredients that would not be permitted in a certified product.” What’s a good rule of thumb? “It’s always worth checking the label for an independent certification symbol such as Soil Association or COSMOS.” With regards to natural hair care, she also recommends looking for independent certification such as COSMOS Natural for a greater likelihood that your product has been checked throughout the whole supply chain.

If you want to inject a bit of DIY into your organic hair care routine though, Formula Botanica has recently unveiled its very own Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation to provide aspiring entrepreneurs with the tech needed to up their organic hair care tool kits. “Although organic skincare is still the big player in the clean beauty industry, we kept receiving requests from all around the world to teach our thousands of students how to make effective organic hair care using natural ingredients,” says the company’s director, Lorraine Dallmeier. “There are currently very few indie hair care brands on the market and we know there is huge market demand for organic shampoos, conditioners and styling products. Therefore, it was a logical next step to create our new organic hair care course for our global community of organic beauty entrepreneurs.” She hopes that the Diploma will help push beauty boundaries. "We want to see indie hair care brands challenge the norms in society about what makes a good hair care product."

Providing a more hands-on approach, the course provides an interesting option to explore. For further information about it and details about how to sign up, visit the Formula Botanica website here .

Follow Ayesha on  Twitter  and  Instagram .