Hair Do or Dye: Toxic Hair Color

Despite endless hours spent in salon chairs, hundreds of dollars shelled out, and repeated exposure to hazardous chemicals, millions of women dye their hair–even those who live otherwise natural lifestyles. Some experts estimate 75 percent of women over 40 color their manes, which means consistent contact with harsh irritants and carcinogens, such as ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, and coal tar–derived p-Phenylenediamine.

“Society puts a lot of pressure on women to dye their hair, especially to get rid of gray,” says Stacy Malkan, cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society Publishers, 2007). And once they start tinting their tresses, many women struggle to halt the habit. “You just go in for a few highlights, then for your roots every three months until it’s too hard to stop,” Malkan explains. “It’s a slippery slope.”

But women wanting to disguise roots and downplay gray aren’t the only people who frequent salons and buy at-home color kits. “Girls are starting to get their hair done at 10 or 11, rather than 16 or 17,” says Malkan. “They’re being exposed to hazardous chemicals during or right before puberty, setting them up for a lifetime of exposure.” And since there’s no government-mandated minimum age to go under the foil, young consumers have few deterrents from these chemical brews.

So why do hair dyes still teem with toxins while safe, natural cosmetics and skincare options are now widespread? Because the process of permanently changing hair hue requires major chemical power. For instance, to get lighter color that won’t wash out, the outer layer of hair–the cuticle–must be opened in order to strip the current shade and let the new color set in. This operation requires an alkaline chemical, usually ammonia, to open the hair shaft and another ingredient, such as hydrogen peroxide, to strip hair’s natural melanin, or pigment. All this interference literally breaks down the hair’s structure; in fact, part of dye’s familiar smell is actually sulfur released from damaged hair. The dye deposited in the hair shaft is often harsh as well, formulated with scads of chemicals to ensure the exact color desired.

Hair coloring’s cocktail of super-strong chemicals can trigger a number of negative reactions, especially in those who handle dye daily. Susan Henry, owner of Shades Salon in Beverly Hills, California, suffered ammonia poisoning from years of working with dye every day. After overcoming rashes, eye infections, and chronic bronchitis, she worked to develop an ammonia-free dye that she now uses in her salon.

Henry’s innovation is exactly what the hair-dye industry needs, argues Malkan. Although she encourages women to forgo coloring altogether, she believes it’s a personal choice–and one that shouldn’t pose health risks. “It’s up to companies to make safer alternatives, and they need to be more aggressive about it,” she says. “This is one of the last industries in which a widely available, totally nontoxic solution hasn’t been figured out.”

While mainstream manufacturers may be far from developing truly safe methods, healthier options do exist–and, yes, they really work.

Lightening up?

Old hair-bleaching standbys like lemon juice and chamomile tea can lighten your natural color. “Will they turn brown hair blond? No, but they’ll lighten hair over time,” says John Masters, owner of the eponymous salon and haircare line. You can use straight lemon juice or dilute it with one part water to three parts juice, or steep one part tea to two parts water for at least 20 minutes. “Put some in a spray bottle, and spritz onto dry hair in the mornings to let sunlight speed up the process,” he instructs. Results can take a few days or even weeks, so be patient and persistent. Your lighter shade should remain until hair starts growing out.

Because lightening hair significantly requires chemicals to strip strands of pigment, consider highlights rather than all-around color. Less dye comes in contact with your scalp, where the chemicals can cause irritation and even leach into the bloodstream and create complications: One study found that women who regularly use hair dye have twice the risk of bladder cancer.

Better off red?

If you like your head red, you’re in luck: Henna, a tropical plant and the only 100 percent natural hair dye available, creates bold auburn or reddish-brown locks. But be wary of henna-based products promising other hues–they’re not the real deal. “Any other color of henna has likely been modified with metallic salts, which coat and damage your hair,” says Masters. If you do use henna made from metallic salts, avoid other dyes: The salts can mix with the ammonia and yield unwanted colors, like seaweed green.

Covering up gray?

Coloring gray without chemicals can be challenging for several reasons. First, because gray hair has no natural melanin, heavy saturations of dye are needed to make color look natural. Second, some stylists say gray hairs’ cuticles are tougher or more “slippery” than those of brown, blond, or red hairs, so dye doesn’t adhere to gray shafts as well.

Back to natural?

Don’t want to quit dyeing cold turkey and expose your roots? If your natural color is darker or grayer than your current hue, Masters suggests getting lowlights, which break up harsh lines between colors by dyeing some strands of hair darker. Lowlights can also work well for pregnant women or people with cancer who don’t want to give up color altogether (as doctors often recommend) but want protection from dye’s dangers, says Masters. With lowlights, no dye touches the scalp, so your skin doesn’t come in contact with the myriad irritants. With few natural products for lowlights on the market, leave this job to the professionals at your closest ammonia-free salon.

Rainbow of Chemicals

When choosing salon dyes and DIY color kits, try to avoid these toxic ingredients:

p-Phenylenediamine (PPD). Even box dyes found at health-food stores contain this ingredient made from coal tar. PPD ranks a toxic 10 out of 10 on Skin Deep (, the Environmental Working Group’s ingredient database, for its links to cancer, developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, and allergies. The darker the dye color, the higher the PPD concentration.

Resorcinol. This oxidative chemical stabilizes color so hair hue doesn’t fade after washing. Resorcinol also ranks high on Skin Deep, listed as toxic to the skin and the immune system.

Ammonia. Used to open up cuticles for dye deposits, this compound can irritate eyes and the respiratory system. Ammonia also produces that all-too-familiar chemical scent that overpowers salons.

Hydrogen peroxide. While it strips away melanin to lighten hair, hydrogen peroxide dries out and damages tresses over time. OSHA classifies this acid as an eye, skin, and mucous-membrane irritant, and inhaling high concentrations can cause lung irritation, dizziness, and vomiting.

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