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Cosmetic colors and dyes- which ones are safe

December 6, 2009 Reviewed by Marta 10 Comments

When we ran our post on Naturtint hair dye and its potentially harmful chemical colorants, we also noted that there are safer dyes such as Surya Henna on the market. This prompted some of you to point out that Surya contains dyes such as HR red 3. It seemed to be time to try to round up the various dyes and pigments in makeup and hair dyes and determine which are safe to use.

The most common synthetic colors used in cosmetics and hair dyes are called FD&C colors and they are derived from coal tar, which in turn is a by-product of petroleum. Because some coal tar dyes have been known to cause cancer, they are are regulated by the FDA as to the amount of lead or arsenic they contain, limiting these elements to 10 parts per million. In the USA, the following artificial colorings are permitted by the FDA:

FD&C Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue FCF, E133), Approved for external use in soaps and lotions and Blue No.4. FD&C Black No.2 and No.3. FD&C Brown No.1. FD&C Green No. 3 (Fast Green FCF, E143 not to be used for eyes, lips, mucous membranes, and Green 5 ,6 and 8). FD&C Orange No. 4, 5, 10 and 11. FD&C Red 4, 6, 7, 17, 21, 22, 27, 28, 30, 31, 33, 34, 36, FD&C Red No. 40 (Allura Red AC, E129). FD&C Violet No.2. FD&C Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine, E102). FD&C Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow FCF, E110) and F&G Yellow No: 7, 8, 10, 11.

Although I found a 1984 study on mice that concluded that coal tar dyes were not toxic, there has been recent evidence suggesting that they are potentially carcinogenic. "Women using permanent hair dye at least once a month for a period more than one year more than double their risk of bladder cancer” (USC School of Medicine, Gago-Dominguez et al. 2001). This paper also stated that women who are genetically vulnerable to bladder cancer (so-called “slow acetylators” who are exposed to some carcinogens for longer periods of time) using permanent hair dye at least once a month for a period of 10 years or more had more than 4 times more risk for bladder cancer.

Coal tar dyes associated with cancer include 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine (which we spotted in the Naturtint hair color the other day), 2,4-diaminoanisole, 4-chloro-m-phenylenediamine, 2,4-toluenediamine, 2-nitro-p-phenylenediamine, 4-amino-2-nitrophenol.

The term lake dyes refers to water insoluble colors. Lake colors can also be derived from coal tar and can trigger allergic reactions. Studies have shown brilliant lake red R to be one of the worst offenders. It should be noted that coal tar is also used as a dandruff therapy in shampoos.

In addition to coal tar, cosmetic colors can also be made from chromium oxide and aluminum powder. Chromium oxide is usually called chrome green and the Material Safety Data Sheet describes it as a "cancer hazard". It is used in Sephora's Pure range. Aluminum powder is an irritant.

Some synthetic lake colors seem to be perfectly safe. For example, disperse black 9 (used in the Surya Henna hair dye) has been deemed by researchers to be safe. HC yellow 2 is regarded as a low hazard by the EWG and the Cosmetic Ingredients Review (an industry body) says it is safe at concentrations up to 3%. Surya Henna also has HC Yellow 4, although this broadly seems to be safe, apart from concerns about reproductive toxicity that have led the CIR to impose a limitation on dose of 3%. Incidently, Surya lists HR red 3, about which I haven't been able to find any information.

Safe colors are made from mica flakes and iron oxides - see, for example, RMS Beauty Lip2Cheek. The latter are graded safe for cosmetic use as they are produced synthetically in order to avoid the inclusion of ferrous or ferric oxides, and impurities normally found in naturally occurring iron oxides.

Other pigments and dyes, such as beet powder, come from plants. Makeup brands such as 100% Pureuse only plant-derived pigments. The only one to avoid is carmine, a crimson pigment made from the ground-up, dried bodies of a cacti-eating bug called the cochineal insect. As well as not being appealing to strict vegans, carmine is an irritant.

As someone who has blonde highlights, I am now going to have to email my colorist for the name of the brand she uses and brace myself for any unpleasant discoveries about what I've been putting on my head all these years.

  • March 25, 2019

    by Jan

    I want more information on lipstick colors. Red7lake for instance.
    Jane Iredale claims pure products but is this true?

    Is Hour Glass a pure makeup line?

    I have been using Surya Brazil powder, Golden Brown and it’s not ideal but does cover gray. I think it is chemical free.

  • October 19, 2017

    by Megan

    I am currently in the process of doing as much research as I possibly can about the variety of genuinely natural (yet safe) natural ingredients available to be included in my soap formulations. One of the first - and really quite disappointing - things that I learnt was that coloured mica powders are in fact coloured using FD&C colourings, which coat the mica pigment (which is natural). So while the core might be a natural material, it's still using the thing we are all trying to avoid by using it in the first place.

  • May 23, 2017

    by Allison

    There is more than one form of Chromium Oxide. You provided the MSDS for Chromium IV Oxide (CrO2) which seems to be a bit nastier than the Chromium III Oxide (Cr2O3) that is used in cosmetics.
    I agree that we need to try and avoid all of them, but thought you would like to know.

  • May 15, 2017

    by Donna

    What about the other disperse dyes contained in Surya cream henna, for example violet, yellow? Are they ok?
    Why a product labelled as "natural" or "henna" can contain syhthetic dye?

  • March 5, 2016

    by john

    i used dial face soap on my face. it contains yellow 5 and 6 and red 4 dyes. i am allegeric to propylene glycol. my face is on the left side has broke out. it is red and scaley. could this be caused be the dyes?

  • July 7, 2012

    by Abbie

    In regards to Avril's comment above not being able to find the ingredients on the Dark Brown Surya Henna box, they are, indeed listed there on the box I recently purchased and there one sees the HC Blue 2, HC Yellow 4, HC Red 1, and HC Red 3 listed. Unfortunately, these were tested on rats and determined to be safe in certain amounts by certification laboratories (not Surya Henna's labs, but nevertheless, were tested on animals).

  • August 8, 2011

    by Jeanne1010

    Thanks, Marta! Will check it out!

  • August 8, 2011

    by Marta

    Hi Jeanne - I just came across Subtil Botanics by Phyto that claims to be with low levels of ammonia and no PPD or resorcin. Mostly botanical dyes. Plus there is this review of Surya:

  • August 5, 2011

    by Jeanne1010

    This is great information. Would love to hear what you think is the safest hair dye on the market. I have had an initial conversation with my hair salon about using Aveda products as I understand they are possibly the most natural option.

  • August 3, 2011

    by avril

    Thank you for this information. I was on and they listed all these ingredents under, may contain in the Surya products. May Contain: HC Yellow 2, HC Yellow 4, HC Yellow 5, Diperse Blue 3, Diperse Blue7, HC Red 1, HC Red 3, Diperse Black 9, Diperse Violet 1, HC Blue 2.
    They do not say these on the box of dark brown how do you know if they have them in. I emailed the company, but have not got information back from them. Thank you once again for the information very helpful!

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