Probably not. But if you’re dyeing your hair, you may be damaging your cuticles, burning your scalp, and pouring toxins into your pores.
There comes a time in your life when you wake up to a grey hair. You pluck it but more come to its funeral. You use hair crayons and brushes but the greys keep peeking out and waving. Pretty soon there’s a colony of grey wisps framing your face, and then they jump backwards onto your crown and start a new community. Some of us are fine with the grey. There’s even a grey trend. But a lot of us want our natural color back, and off we go to the salon.
Now we’re in the house of experts who know all kinds of magic tricks to to make our hair look splendid. We sit in a comfy chair and tell our hairdresser all our problems. We get a nice scalp massage and warm hair bath. And we walk out feeling younger and yummier. But do you realize that your head may have just seeped up a toxic cocktail? And you’ll probably be going back for more. What if this chemical assault and repeat exposures are impacting your hormones, your organs, your blood? What exactly is the collateral damage?
Glad you asked.
When I started getting my roots dyed—because even superheroes occasionally get gray hair, lol—I had a bad experience. My stylist painted the dye around my temples and upper neck, and all of a sudden my scalp was on fire. I figured I was allergic to something. Either that, or my body was just responding to a toxic chemical. Aaaaaaah! Flaming pain is no fun, but the larger question is: what seeped into my body?
There are over 5000 different chemicals in hair dyes. And many are toxic. Some are not toxic on their own but become carcinogens when combined with other chemicals. My stylist was using Redken, by L’Oreal, which contains all sorts of alarming things, according to the Environmental Working Group: retinyl acetate, isobutylparaben, oxybenzone, propylparaben, butane…..
The darkest colors of hair dye usually contain a dangerous chemical called Phenylenediamine (PPD). It penetrates your hair shaft and soaks into your skin. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, you may experience severe dermatitis, eye irritation and tearing, asthma, gastritis, renal failure, vertigo, tremors, convulsions, and a coma. None of that sounds fun—I especially don’t like being in a coma. PPD is a suspected carcinogen linked to bladder cancer. When combined with hydrogen peroxide (which is often present in hair dyes), PPD can become mutagenic, which means that it alters your DNA. If you swallow some, which you wouldn’t do deliberately, it might cause respiratory distress and renal failure. If it were me, I wouldn’t want it near my body. Learn more about PPD.
Most permanent dyes contain coal tar. According to the National Cancer Institute, coal tar is a by-product of the production of solid fuel. It contains many chemical compounds including carbon and coal gas and known carcinogens like benzene. Believe it or not, coal tar is even in some food. Exposure is correlated with skin, lung, bladder, and kidney cancer. Also digestive tract cancer. Never heard of that but don’t want it. Coal tar is called many different things, all basically the same: coal tar solution, tar, coal, carbo-cort, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, petroleum benzin. The Environmental Working Group awards it the highest rating for toxicity.
Used in commercial cleaning products and for manufacturing explosives, ammonia bleach is a staple of most salons. They use it to strip away dark color so that blond, blue or pink will show up. Ammonia opens up the hair shaft, or cuticle, and damages the protein in your hair that regulates the production of melanin. Ironically, this results in the hair’s inability to hold color. And it destroys the structural integrity of your hair. Ammonia depletes moisture, so over time your hair becomes brittle and vulnerable to breaking and tangling. Worse, exposure to ammonia fumes can trigger asthma and and allergies. Long term exposure can damage eyes, liver, kidneys, and lungs. Thanks but no thanks.
I use formaldehyde to preserve frogs in a glass jar for science experiments, but please keep it off my hair. The Occupational and Health Safety Administration (OSHA), which is part of the Labor Department, has issued warnings to salons and manufacturers for subjecting their employees to a dangerous work environment. OSHA claims that working with hair products that contain formaldehyde may result in breathing it in, getting it on your skin, and in your eyes or mouth. Formaldehyde is a known cancer-causing substance and exposure to it can cause eye irritation and damage, including blindness, bloody noses, skin sensitivity, rashes, itching, and breathing difficulties, such as coughing and wheezing. Symptoms typically worsen as formaldehyde levels go up. Studies abound on this toxic substance and it is listed on the the National Institutes of Health report on carcinogens. My grey hair is looking lovelier and sexier with each paragraph!
Toluene. This is produced in the process of making gasoline and other fuels from crude oil and in making coke from coal. It’s an effective solvent so is often found in paints, paint thinners, fingernail polish, lacquers, adhesives…and hair dyes. If in doubt follow your nose. Hopefully your nose will walk away from things that smell nauseating. Toluene is also added to gasoline, along with benzene and xylene, to improve octane ratings. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it can cause headaches, dizziness, unconsciousness, incoordination, cognitive impairment, and vision and hearing loss. Other things you don’t want are: kidney, liver, and reproductive harm.
Anyway, the list goes on and on: eugenol, pthalates, parabens and fragrance. Just slather it on. Kill me now.
How come this crap is allowed to be sold?
Good question. Many of these chemicals are banned or heavily restricted in countries where the government puts the well being of its citizens over corporate interests and profits. In the United States, chemicals are deemed safe unless proven otherwise, and it can take decades to show incontrovertible proof of harm. Europe see things differently. According to the European Commission, “Substances for which there is no proof that they are safe will disappear from the market. Our high safety standards do not only protect E.U. consumers, they also give legal certainty to European cosmetics industry.” Over 22 hair dye chemicals have been prohibited from use in Europe.
In contrast, our FDA has limited power and regulations are weak. Often, salon products aren’t even labeled with ingredients because they don’t have to be. Anything marked For Professional Use Only can legally eliminate ingredient lists, even if it’s sold directly to stylists. Companies are supposed to regulate themselves, lol, but your own stylist might not even know what’s in the hair color they’re using.
So, as with food, you are on your own deciphering labels, wondering what’s safe, forced to do your own research.
A little history
It turns out that humans have been using hair dye since the Paleolithic era. The first known substance was iron oxide, which gave hunters and gatherers a nice red head. Ancient Egyptians cut their hair, dyed it (mostly black) and then made wigs to go back on their heads. Funny, huh? Apparently, ancient Greeks and Romans tried saffron, indigo, and alfalfa but realized that these yielded only temporary color. They then turned to lead oxide and calcium hydroxide, but later abandoned them because of the obvious toxicity. Later, a famous physician had the great idea to ferment leeches in a lead vessel and this created a permanent black dye. That’s what I use today. I have a whole pantry full of lead jars with fermenting leeches, so come on by if you want some.
Kidding. But not about the practices of our forefathers. All that is really true, according to this article in the Atlantic.
And since we’re having fun, which naturally occurring substance was NOT traditionally used as a hair color?
- a) pig vomit
- b) horse urine
- c) gold flakes
- d) goat fat
Find the answer here.
What to do?
Glad you asked, because I’m here to redirect you!
1. Take advantage of a great online tool called skindeep.org. It’s also an app. Enter any product or ingredient name into the search field and you’ll get a rating which evaluates overall hazard, cancer risk, and organ toxicity. Let’s see how they rated formaldehyde….
2. Toxic times call for organic solutions, and they are starting to crop up in the marketplace. Organic Color Systems is currently the biggest name in non-toxic hair dyes. They use a 100% ammonia-free coconut acid extract to lighten hair. Many but not all of the ingredients are from natural and organic sources but others—namely the pigments—are not organic. There is also some concern that ammonia has been replaced with another problematic ingredient—ethanolamine—so it’s not a magic bullet and we need to remain ever vigilant and continue doing research. Seeing the word “organic” on a product is not enough. Carbon monoxide is organic.
Color Systems has a full range of colors. And it’s not just like massaging spit into your hair—it actually covers the grey. You won’t be breathing in unpleasant fumes and your scalp won’t sting. Hopefully you will have happy hair.
Other hair color systems are available, but I haven’t tried them. Some are meant for home use, and others, for professional salons. I will keep adding to this list so check back: Organic & Mineral, Sante, Tints of Nature, Naturigin.
Want to kick the industry to the curb?
3. Do it yourself at home. Henna endures as the time tested DIY color agent of choice. It’s a little messy—you may accidentally dye your cat and your couch. Also, it won’t last as long. But it’ll be cheaper and healthier. It’s what your mother used, and her mother, too. Maybe even Australopithecus (the ancestors of homo sapiens). Here’s a good primer on how to use it. The article recommends a product made by Lush but feel free to try out different brands.
What else is there? Hairprint. Interestingly, they call themselves the Hair Healing Company. Their website says their product is the only one “in the world that restores hair to its true color. Hairprint Patented Technology creates the exact pigment molecule that is already in your hair”. If you want to try it yourself and you don’t mind some trial and error and mess, read this first.
Ingredients: amla fruit extract, aloe vera leaf juice, arginine, bamboo ferment, brassicyl isoleucinate esylate, coconut oil, decyl glucoside, disodium EDTA, eldberberry extract, evening primrose oil, fermented coconut and radish root, gotu kola extract, green coffee extract, hibiscus petals, Japanese bloodgrass, eye of newt. Okay, it doesn’t really have eye of newt, but this is the first list that looks truly natural—almost all ingredients come from nature instead of from a lab. The company has a fan base of purist customers.
Is all- natural better? If a hair dye makes the claim “natural” or “no ammonia”, will it be a better choice? Not necessarily. Here’s a really good article on what to look for. Basically, when manufacturers eliminate something toxic, they may be replacing it with something just as toxic but less known.
Other fun things to try. There are many time-honored methods still in use. Here are seven alternatives to permanent hair dye that include vegetable extracts, tea, herbs and coffee. Have a hair-dyeing party!
Nope, I need a salon. What to look for in your hood:
Ask if your neighborhood salon is willing to try Hairprint or a less toxic alternative to the big name brands like Organic Color Systems or the others listed above. In Austin, we’ve got The Room: an Organic Salon on the East side. I’ve gone to Brittany a bunch of times and I love her. They book about a month out so if you’d like to try it out, hop to it.
When you call salons, ask what lines they are using and then pull up Skin Deep to evaluate the products; if you can’t find the product, input the ingredients one by one onto the site. The EWG’s Skin Deep vets all the major brands. Hopefully, smaller lines and startups will be included in their results soon.
If all else fails
Wear a wig!