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Chemicals in hair dye - is it safe to color your hair?

Is a Solution for:
Dry or Brittle Hair, Limp Hair, Dull Hair
July 29, 2009 Reviewed by Marta 5 Comments
Chemical-free hair dye sounds like henna to me. And that, along with patchouli and any item of clothing made from hemp, is to be avoided. Plus, my chemically-colored coiffe costs me a fortune so it must be a good thing. It seems that there are two reasons for rethinking my prejudices. First, conventional color treatments might not be such a good thing and, secondly, alternatives are getting with the 21st Century.

Although it probably won't surprise you to know that hair dyes contain harsh things like amonia, you might not have heard of p-Phenylenediamine. This is in widespread use and here is what the Environmental Protection Agency has to say about it: p-Phenylenediamine is primarily used as a dye intermediate and as a dye.  Acute (short-term) exposure to high levels of p-phenylenediamine may cause severe dermatitis, eye irritation and tearing, asthma, gastritis, renal failure, vertigo, tremors, convulsions, and coma in humans.  Eczematoid contact dermatitis may result from chronic (long-term) exposure in humans.  In rats and mice chronically exposed to p-phenylenediamine in their diet, depressed body weights, but no other clinical signs of toxicity, were observed in several studies.

p-Phenylenediamine gets a perfect score from the Environmental Working Group. Make no mistake, that is not something to brag about.

The EPA says it doesn't have the information to classify p-Phenylenediamine as a carcinogen. However, hair dyes have been linked to cancer. A 1994 National Cancer Institute report found that deep-colored dyes (like dark brown and black), when used over prolonged periods of time, seemed to increase the risk of cancers. Meanwhile a 2001 study by the International Journal of Cancer found that people who use permanent hair dye are twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those who go au naturel. I believe that the 2001 study was conducted on men and barbers and involved black or very dark dyes.

Silvio Berlusconi needs to watch out is all I can say.

Resorcinol is another hair color ingredient that is less than benign. And there are several others that perhaps should best be avoided, such as m-aminophenol, p-aminophenol, toluene- 2,5-diamine.There is a growing evidence that these ingredients or their combinations are also potential sensitizers.

Believe it or not, some henna products contain p-Phenylenediamine. Ha, I was right to despise the stuff. And be warned, so too do some of the so-called herbal and 'natural' hair colors, such as Herbatint, albeit in small doses. Anyhow, most of those veggie dyes last no more than a few washes.

So what are the mousy or graying amongst us to do? Advanced Cosmetic Technologies makes 100% plant-based dyes that come in 13 shades and claim to be long lasting. There is even a salon version that is supposed to last up to 40 washes. I am very tempted to give it a try with the connivance of my colorist. She's practically vegan, so she could be game.

In the meantime, the industry is thankfully actively looking for chemical-free alternatives. I just read about one university team in the UK that thinks it has found the ultimate hair dye in seaweed. There we go again, marine ingredients really are the new black.
  • September 14, 2011

    by Susan S.

    I used pure henna on my hair twice, admittedly years ago, and I didn't like the way it made my hair feel at all. I have a full head of fine stranded hair that's very silky and both times it left my hair feeling very coarse and quite dry. I'd love to find a natural product that covers gray, lasts, doesn't get all over my pillowcase, and doesn't change the texture of my hair.

  • August 8, 2009

    by JulieK

    Henna is all well and good for those who want warmth (eg red) in their hair, but my natural color is a medium brown ash, no hint of red. I don't think I have a choice but to go for the chemical treatment. I do my best to care for my hair at all times. One of my mainstays is Moroccan Oil which I began using after it was reviewed here several months ago. It's wonderful stuff! ~jk

  • August 7, 2009

    by irene harvey

    what's wrong with henna? there's only one kind to use: it's avigal. pure lawsonia plants, nothing added. have been using it for over 30 years. true, i use the red & don't know what's in the other colors. over the years, as some of my hair has gone gray, it looks better & better, naturally streaky.
    hairdressers always corner me in salons (we move a lot) when i'm getting a haircut to compliment me on the color & ask me what i'm using. i spend a total of $7.50 per year on hair coloring. that's right, per year! not bad for hair that is always shiny & full. also the color lasts basically forever & i only know it's time to redo when the new hair growth reveals too much grey.
    chemical hair coloring damages the hair shaft. i don't know why anyone uses it.
    i'm 62 & have long hair.

  • August 2, 2009

    by cheryl

    If you use pure henna it doesn't have p-Phenylenediamine. Just have to do some research to find a good supplier. I just used henna and my hair is a wonderful auburn and feels as if I just had a deep condition. The thing is pure henna is red when it dyes hair and to make the different colors companies add those unwanted chemicals. You can use some great combination of other natural products to get the desired results you want.

  • July 29, 2009

    by Julie Kay

    Have you decided what you're gonna do? Me, I have an appt on Friday to have my hair done; I intend to keep it. I'm not ready to go "salt-n-pepper." ~jk

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