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.