Introduction: Eco-friendly, Low-cost Hair Conditioner and Gel

Picture of Eco-friendly, Low-cost Hair Conditioner and Gel

If you buy conditioner at a drug store, you get a plastic bottle, mostly full of water. Just like bottled water, that's wasteful of energy shipping the water around, and wasteful of plastic. In addition, it usually has a bunch of possibly harmful chemicals in it. I figured that if I made my own conditioner, I could re-use a bottle hundreds of times, ship less weight around the country, and know what ingredients I am using. And at the same time, save money--my formula can make 16 oz. for only 12 cents!

If you want to check out the safety of the conditioner you are using, you can look it up at the Skin Deep cosmetics safety database. You can also search for low-toxicity conditioners. When I tried to do that, I found stuff that looked really benign, but cost $20 a bottle, plus shipping, and I wouldn't be doing anything to avoid buying bottles and shipping water around the planet.

So I looked for conditioner or hair gel recipes on the web. There are some out there, but a lot of them use the same chemicals that I'd prefer to avoid. There was one that worked great -- boiling flax seeds in water to make an amazing gel --but the result goes bad in less than a week and ends up smelling like rotten eggs. It's worth considering doing that and keeping it in the fridge to prevent spoilage, but I wanted to see if I could make something more convenient.

It turns out that this formula also has something of the same problem--it spoils eventually if it's not refrigerated--so unless you want to add preservatives, you need to make small batches, or keep most of it in the fridge.  But it works well--as you see in the comments, some people swear by this formula.   

Several comments also suggested aloe vera juice.  You can buy that in a bottle or grow your own.  That's also likely to have the problem of needing preservatives to last without refrigeration, but it seems to do a little better in my limited experimentation as far as keeping at room temperature.

Step 1: Obtain the Ingredients

Picture of Obtain the Ingredients

My recipe is
2/3 cup water.
xanthan gum and guar gum: 1/4 tsp each for gel; 1/8 tsp each for conditioner
1 tsp canola oil

I got the xanthan gum and guar gum from the bulk section of my local coop grocery store. They get it from frontier ; you can use their store locator to find a local source. You can also order direct from Frontier (both gums are in the cooking and baking ingredients section ), but you'll need to buy a 1-lb bag which is probably a lifetime supply for your entire neighborhood. You can order smaller quantities from Organic Creations , one of the few sources of soapmaking supplies that has mostly nontoxic stuff. Update: here's a source of really cheap guar gum but you need so little of it that a local bulk bin is the best option if that's available to you.

You don't really need both--they serve the same function (thickening, emulsifiying, lubricating), but they are supposed to work best in combination.  If you want a vegan option, you might want to go with guar gum only.  Xanthan gum is sometimes (particularly in the US) made from whey.  I personally feel OK about utilizing whey which would otherwise likely go to waste, but if you want to be sure to have nothing animal based, you can simply go with guar gum, which is plant-based.

I don't have any scents in this--I prefer it that way--but you can add whatever scent you like. Experimenting with different scents can be fun. Soapmaking supply places have lots of wonderful scents available.

This is a pretty small quantity. One reason for that is that it doesn't have any preservative in it, and it's all food ingredients, so it will probably go bad in time. I haven't had trouble with that, but I haven't left any sitting around for more than 2-3 weeks. You could make larger batches, and keep most in the fridge. But you may want to start with small batches anyway so you can tweak the recipe for your hair.

You can read more at the end about how I picked these ingredients, other options to consider, and how to adjust the recipe according to what you want it to do.

Step 2: Mix the Gum and Water

Picture of Mix the Gum and Water

I like to mix this in a clear jar, so you can see how the mixing process is going, and can put the lid on and shake. A glass bottle is pictured here, but a plastic juice bottle also works well and is safer to use in the shower. You can transfer it to an old plastic shampoo or conditioner bottle to dispense it from later--or if you have a clear plastic dispenser bottle you can mix it directly in that.

First measure 2/3 cup water into your mixing container.

It works best to add the xanthan gum and guar gum to the water very slowly, so you don't get as many clumps. So first measure the amount needed (1/4 tsp of each for gel; 1/8 tsp each for conditioner), and temporarily put them somewhere, like in a spoon or a saucer. Sprinkle a small pinch on the surface of the water, and mix it in by capping and shaking the bottle vigorously. Repeat this process (dust the surface with a pinch, then cap and shake) until all the gum is mixed in. If you get some clumps that don't mix in, don't sweat it too much--if you don't get them mixed in today, they'll be easier to mix in after they soak overnight.

The mixture becomes amazingly thick considering how little is in it other than water.

Step 3: Add the Oil

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Next add the oil (1/2 tsp) and mix it in. You want it mixed in well enough that you don't see a layer of oil sitting on the top. If you see some small drops that haven't fully mixed that's OK.

Step 4: Use It!

Picture of Use It!

You can use the conditioner or gel however you like: leave it in or rinse it out. You may find it works a little differently from what you are used to, so you might need to experiment with how much you use, or even adjust the formula (see the next page). I like the results better than with what I was using before.

Depending on how much you make and how fast you use it, you might want to keep most of it in the fridge, and just a little bit in the bathroom--since all the ingredients are food, it will spoil.  Depending on the temperature and other factors, it can last from a few days to a week.  It will smell bad when it spoils.  Filling lots of little bottles when you make it can be more convenient than refilling a little bottle every few days.

If you want to reduce the environmental impact of your shower in other ways, check out my Cozy Low-Energy Shower Instructable .

Step 5: Adjust the Formula to Your Liking

Picture of Adjust the Formula to Your Liking

One of the nice things about making your own is that you can adjust it to your liking:

To make it thicker and more of a gel with more holding power, use more gum.

Adjust the oil content--less if you find the original formula too oily; more if you have dry hair. If you add a lot more oil, it won't mix in and will just float to the top.

That's the end of the instructions--but you can also read on to learn more about other possible ingredients, how I chose these, etc.

Step 6: Why These Ingredients

Picture of Why These Ingredients

We naturally have oil in our hair, but we wash it away with shampoo. Hence the need for conditioner to re-coat hair with something smooth and slippery.

You could just use oil as a conditioner. You can buy oil sold for that, and you can find recommendations to use olive or other food oil as a conditioner. But it's hard to avoid ending up with very heavily greased hair, unless you oil it first and then wash the oil out.

With a small amount of oil diluted in a larger amount of water, it becomes easier to distribute a small amount of oil through your hair. But you need a way to get the oil and water to mix. The xanthan gum and guar gum make that possible, but they have other functions as well:

The xanthan gum and guar gum:
1) Make it possible to mix the oil and water. I don't know how much of that is just a result of their thickening effect slowing the rise of oil to the top, and how much is a true emulsification effect, but in any case it seems to work.
2) Their thickening effect is also useful in creating a thick gel that can help get your hair to go where you want it to.
3) A thicker liquid is easier to apply--it will stick to a comb, and less of it runs between your fingers and down the drain when you try to use it in the shower.
4) In addition to making liquids thick, they also make them super slippery, to make combing easier.

You can read more about xanthan gum and about guar gum in Wikipedia .

I tried both olive oil and canola oil. The canola oil seemed to give a lighter feel, which I preferred, but the olive oil smells good and might tame your hair a little more if that's what you want. I think canola oil will last longer before it goes rancid. Jojoba oil is a vegetable oil that is mainly used in cosmetics. It might be a better choice, both because it works well and because it doesn't go bad. But I thought it was more convenient to use something I have on hand anyway and can get in the grocery store.

Step 7: Other Ingredients to Consider

Picture of Other Ingredients to Consider

Instead of the gums, some recipes for hair gel I saw use gelatin. I prefer to avoid putting extracts of dead animals in my hair, but it should work fine if you are into that sort of thing.

The usual vegetarian gelatin substitutes are agar and arrowroot . I expect that agar would would well to make a gel with stronger holding power. From what I've read, arrowroot gels aren't stable for as long, so my guess is that agar is better for that purpose.

You can get other ideas for good conditioner ingredients either by going to online stores that sell ingredients for making soap, lotion, etc., or by going to to the Skin Deep cosmetics database and sorting the list of conditioners by safety.

Most contain some kind of emulsifying wax--a wax that can be mixed with water, serving much the same function as the oil in our recipe, but easier to mix with water, and leaving behind a solid wax coating instead of an oily coating, so that the hair doesn't feel as oily. That's great, but if you go shop for an emulsifying wax, and look up its ingredients in the Skin Deep cosmetics database , you'll quickly find weird chemicals with serious safety concerns listed. The ones I found that don't have serious concerns are the emulsifying wax from Lotioncrafter comprising Behentrimonium Methosulfate and Cetearyl Alcohol, and the the "vegetable based" emulsifying wax from Organic Creations , which doesn't list ingredients, but the friendly folks there told me it comprises Cetearyl alcohol and polysorbate 60. If you look those up in the Skin Deep cosmetics database , you find them listed as low concern, but mostly because there is almost no information available about them. I suspect that stuff would work to make a better conditioner, but I prefer using my recipe that I'm more confident is benign.

Be careful of other emulsifying waxes. For example, this vegetable based emulsifying wax elsewhere contains PEG-150 which is rated as a "moderate hazard" with a 78% information gap on the Skin Deep cosmetics database .

Another common ingredient that sounds safe and helpful is "DL-Panthenol", also known as vitamin B5. It's "plant-derived" and acts as a humectant, attracting moisture and helping keep your hair and scalp from drying out.

You can also, of course, add whatever scent you like.


dkk1 (author)2012-09-15

I've got baby fine hair, and not a whole lot of it. I tried the recipe for gel as written (but using jojoba oil instead of canola) and it was too much oil for my hair. Weighed it down. Looked greasy.

So I tried it again, using just 1/8 teaspoon of oil. Works great! After blow drying, my hair is soft, but fuller than without any products. It doesn't feel dry, nor does it feel greasy. Just right.

The original batch? I'm using it to shave my legs, which it does a fabulous job of. Legs end up nice and smooth and well moisturized.

Thanks for the recipe!


alphaleea (author)dkk12016-05-20


Are you using the gel or conditioner recipe to blow dry your hair? Do you have any problems with the gel flaking by reducing the oils? By the way very nice review! I have fine hair too. This helps a lot!

LowEnergy (author)dkk12012-09-16

Thanks for posting your variation on the recipe--I hope that will work for other as well.

nfidler (author)2011-06-22

Thank you so much for this recipe! I'm just about to make up about my 6th batch. I have rather Celtic hair...... red , frizzy, ringlets and lots of it heehee........ Sooo fussy with my product but this works just as well as the one I was already using, possibly even better, and the cost, well........... that's great too :-) THANKS!!!

BDMama (author)2011-03-01

This has been the first winter my hair has not been frizzy and dried out. I stopped using shampoo 10 years ago and have only been using conditioner on my curly, and therefore, dry hair. I have been using your conditioner recipe for about 2 months and my hair is soft and curly, even in January! I also had to take a trip in February and all I took with me for haircare was 1/2 tsp of xantham gum and 1/2 tsp of guar gum for a double batch. When I got to my destination I found a container, added 1-1/3 cups of water and 1 tsp of oil and voila! No hassles with airport security and my hair has the same stuff it is used to at home.

goldenoak (author)2010-07-16

This is great - thank you for posting it. :)

I have dry, curly hair, and thought for a long time that I was going to have to use commercial products if I wanted my hair to set in soft curls rather than frizzy or stiff and chunky (the results of earlier all-natural experiments). This is the first recipe I've tried that results in consistent "good hair days". And as a bonus, after 5 months off of commercial products, my hair is much healthier, bouncier, with almost no split ends.

For shampoo, I use a squirt of unscented liquid castille soap in about a cup of water. After rinsing it out, I follow with a dollop of lemon juice diluted in another cup of water, which restores the pH and adds "slip" and shine. Then a dab of your recipe as conditioner, which I rinse out too. I put a bit more in as leave-in gel, depending on the humidity of the day, and let it air dry.

I brought in some of the gel to my hairdresser to use when I asked her not to use commercial products when washing out my hair. She thought it was fantastic, and loved the way it set when dry. She shared it with her boss, who also thinks it's great and wants to play with the recipe someday when she opens her dream salon with a freshly-made-hair-product "buffet". :)

LowEnergy (author)goldenoak2010-07-16

Thanks so much for the feedback! This was very much an experiment, and I wan't sure whether anyone else would find it useful. The thing I've found the most difficult is simply that it has such a short shelf life. My solution to that is to divide a batch into tiny travel-size bottles and freeze all but one. Have you had that problems with that? I also appreciate the tip on following liquid castille soap with lemon. Maybe adding the lemon to this solution would increase the shelf life, and save you a step. More to experiment with!

goldenoak (author)LowEnergy2010-07-20

Thanks for your reply! :)

Regarding the shelf life, I keep a container in my fridge, fetch it each morning before I shower, and pop it back into the fridge when I'm done. The ratio I use is 1 cup water, 1 teaspoon canola oil, and either 1 or 2 teaspoons guar gum. (I couldn't get the xanthan gum easily, and this works pretty well without.).  I mix it up in the blender, gum added last, which ends up smoother than when I tried it by hand. 

I found that the thicker gel stays good a little longer than the thinner, so I can take it with me unrefrigerated for short vacations and it stays good. When I'm traveling with the thicker stuff, I use a little less and rub it between my hands to de-clump it before I put it in my hair. Your freezing idea is clever - I haven't tried that yet!

I hit on the diluted-lemon-juice rinse after trying the often-touted diluted-vinegar rinse and finding that even in very dilute solutions, my hair would smell vinegary if it was a rainy day. I looked into the reasoning behind the vinegar rinse (pH balancing back to acidic, because soap is more basic than the natural scalp pH), and figured that lemon juice might work just as well. It does! And even when it rains, my hair doesn't smell lemony, although if it did, it'd still be better than vinegar. Lemon juice is even more acidic than vinegar, so I make sure not to use it undiluted. Also, lemon juice can have a lightening effect over time if it's not well rinsed out. This doesn't bother me, but it's worth noting.

The following information has been unscientifically gathered from The Internet:

- The pH of healthy hair ranges between 4.5 and 5.5.
- Soap can range from "pH balanced" neutral (7) to alkaline (8-11).
- Rinsing with diluted vinegar (3) or lemon juice (2) supposedly neutralizes the alkalinity and shifts the balance back towards the acidic.

Part of me wonders why rinsing it all out doesn't get the hair's pH back to water's neutral 7, but rinsing out soap with all the water in the world doesn't seem to take away the tangly "squeaky clean" texture that comes from too much alkalinity. And after I've done the lemon juice rinse, that grippy texture is replaced with a more natural-feeling "slip" that doesn't go away, even when I rinse really well. So although I don't quite understand how, it does seem to work.

You're right that lemon juice on its own has a pretty long unrefrigerated shelf life, I think because it's so acidic. I think that anything that increasing the acidity of the conditioner to the level where it stopped going bad would probably be too acidic to leave on your hair without rinsing it out thoroughly. But, if you're using it only as a rinse-out conditioner and not as a leave-in, it could definitely be worth a try! What if you used just lemon juice as a base, and added the oil and powders to that?

I haven't experimented with grape seed oil, but I know it's a popular natural preservative that could probably be used in a leave-in formula.

I'm also intrigued by the pure-aloe-vera that hoopajoo and rimar2000 suggested. Have you tried it? How would you say it compares with your formula in terms of how your hair feels?

rimar2000 (author)2008-05-10

I use aloe vera leaves cutting them along side, by the middle. A leaf lasts one week to me. The result on the conservation and recovery of the hair is remarkable. It's FREE, and very easy of use it. Nevertheless, this instructable is very good.

LowEnergy (author)rimar20002008-05-12

Thanks. I love the idea of using aloe vera leaves that you grow yourself!

PhilG27 (author)2016-04-15

This will go bad microbiologically overnight. Can only hope this isn't being used on kids or anybody at risk.

purelightbotanics (author)2015-09-17

Homemade natural hair conditioner is the best path to make our hair strong.

shanaaz.samsodien (author)2014-06-21

Hi there. You can make your life easier by adding enough glycerin or honey to the gums make a paste. Then you can add it all at once without clumping. Also glycerin and honey are both humectants, drawing water to the skin and hair, and honey feeds the hair with amino acids, vitamins, minerals, etc, and is antibacterial, antimicrobial, and a natural antibiotic.( honey is awesome)

sathanere (author)2014-02-10

Amazing article. I have collect more ideas about hair conditioners make at home. This article is really amazing and will be helpful for our readers.

soblue (author)2012-09-30

Thank you immensely for this recipe. I will def give it a try. Also....

Tocopheryl Acetate is Vit E. You can get this anywhere. You may even already have it in your medicine cabinet. Just grab a small capsule, poke a hole into it and squeeze out a couple of drops into whatever you're making. This is a great addition and can prolong shelf life of shampoos, conditioners, creams, etc. A little goes a long way- i.e. 1-2 drops per batch of conditioner above. Vit E. is an antioxidant and prevents rancidity in oils. It's also beneficial to the skin in blocking UV rays and moisturizing.

So, if you're looking for a natural preservative- this is a great place to start but because there's water in this recipe, spoilage will eventually occur.

Drielle (author)soblue2012-11-03

Great tip on using the Vit E, I was just about to post a comment mentioning it too!

lmueller-strickler (author)2012-09-22

I'm so glad I stumbled on this page. I have very fine, oil hair, as do my daughters, & I've been working on a homemade conditioner recipe that uses coconut oil & some other essential oils. The problem is that coconut oil doesn't rinse clean, but after reading all of your posts, I believe adding citric adic, decreasing the amount of coconut oil, & adding the guar/xantham gum will solve the problem. I'm headed down to the kitchen to give it a whirl!

Also, if you're interested in a longer shelf life for your conditioner without refrigerating it, try adding a few drops of Vitamin E oil. Other great options for this are rosemary antioxidant (extract) (can be found from, vegetable glycerin (which is also a great humectant & available in organic, also from Citric acid (available in bulk powder form, yay!!) is also great for extending shelf life:) Oh, & you can try potassium sorbate, though some people prefer to avoid it. It's considered safe & used in some organic products, but can have some unpleasant side effects if used frequently (more likely if ingested frequently).

angeladesouza (author)2012-04-07

I am running a series of experiments on natural health and beauty and would love your feedback

LowEnergy (author)angeladesouza2012-09-16

I missed this comment before, and haven't looked at all of your site, but you've got a great collection of lots of conditioner recipes at

And it's also interesting that you note that among commercial products, conditioner is particularly problematic as far as containing ingredients you might want to avoid.

Thanks for adding this link here.

kaypgirl (author)2011-10-31

Why canola oil? Has anyone experimented with jojoba or sunflower oil? Or any other oils?

fatallysincere (author)2011-07-05

This sounds really cool but are the results any different if you use hair gels, heat products, etc.?

LowEnergy (author)fatallysincere2011-07-06

I tend to be pretty minimal in using anything like that, so I'm afraid you'd need to experiment--or you might try sending a message to one of the other people who have commented here. Sorry I'm not more help.

ebbstarr (author)2011-05-05

Do you happen to know if the gums are a vegan ingredient?

LowEnergy (author)ebbstarr2011-05-06

Guar gum is directly from guar beans, so that's vegan; xanthan gum is made by bacteria feeding on glucose or on whey (cheese bi-product), so it might not be vegan, depending on the supplier. So to keep it vegan I'd suggest using only the guar gum.

Good question!

bluuiyed (author)2010-05-11

hey do you know if this is safe of color treated hair? i think it is but iam not quite doesnt  have any sulfates and thats what makes me think it is but i am not sure because i dont what the gum and/or aloe reacts to it.
so is it or isnt it? 

guy90 (author)2009-02-11

interesting instructable, I'll give the recipe a go. Thanks for the info

gloflyer (author)2008-12-04

I FINALLY got all of the ingredients. Ebay only had guar gum. My local coop only had xanthum gum. I can testify that you can make a very stiff hair glue with just the xanthum gum.

Hoopajoo (author)2008-05-10

I use simple Aloe Vera gel for this. Nice hold, great conditioning properties, moisturizes and has a natural UV blocker. It's also super cheap too and non toxic.

LowEnergy (author)Hoopajoo2008-05-12

Nice idea! Do you have any suggestions on sources for aloe gel without additives, or with safe additives? I looked at one that said it was 100% aloe gel, and then the ingredients say 99.5% aloe gel, so I wonder what the other 0.5% is. Here's one that says 100% aloe vera gel but has also "Triethanolamine, Tocopheryl Acetate, Carbomer 940, Tetrasodium EDTA, DMDM Hydantoin, and Diazolidinyl Urea" in it. Perhaps aloe needs some preservatives if you bottle it and sell it? That makes me inclined to follow rimar2000's suggestion and grow aloe myself.

I don't mean to be totally paranoid about additives, and I understand the need for preservatives, but when there's a choice, I'd rather not.

Hoopajoo (author)LowEnergy2008-05-12

I usually buy a brand called Lilly of the Desert. It's crystal clear and is true 100% aloe. I've even used some cheap aloe gel used in treatment of sunburns, just don't get the ones with benzocaine (a numbing agent). Most of that they have is a preservative and perhaps a spf agent as well (pretty much harmless). What I buy usually is from WalMart and costs about $1.99 and lasts me a little over a year.

LowEnergy (author)Hoopajoo2008-05-12

Thanks!!--I think I'll get some and try it while I wait for my plant to grow.

It seems that Lily of the Desert sells it both with and without preservatives, but both look pretty safe compared to some cosmetics--the preservatives are citric acid and potassium sorbate, both of which are considered safe in food.

They also sell "whole leaf" and "fillet juice" versions, and they sell it as "juice" or "gel", the gel having less than 1% carrageenan as a thickener.

I also noticed on Lily of the Desert's web site that they have their own conditioner. It's got a long list of ingredients so I won't look them up tonight, but it would be interesting to see what they are, how safe they are, and try to figure out why they added all that instead of just telling people to use the juice or gel.

Your solution of just using aloe gel looks more promising than anything else commercially available, and Lily of the Desert looks like a great company. I'm going to try it, but I'm pretty happy with the formula in the instructable, and it's hard to beat the cost.

Browncoat (author)2008-05-12

I can't wait to try to find these ingredients & give it a try!

LinuxH4x0r (author)2008-05-10

Very interesting. I never knew it was so easy

shooby (author)2008-05-10

Very cool. Setting a great example for people to not waste energy, good job.

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