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Hair dye ingredients are positively hair raising. Some of them, especially those that go into making dyes for dark hair, can be very harmful. I frequently am asked to recommend safe hair dyes and so when my colleague, Maura, was at the office with a new, rich mocha-colored coif, I was immediately curious — especially when she said the brand, Madison Reed, made a big deal about safe ingredients.

I’ve heard that before. For example, a few years ago, when a friend asked me to look at Naturtint, a hair dye brand that implies it lives up to its name. It does not. Naturtint had many dubious ingredients, with p-phenylenediamine being a particularly egregious offender. This is a common active in dyes for dark hair and its effects can run the gamut from tearing to coma. So I went to check out Madison Reed with caution.

Since dark dyes are typically amongst the worst offenders, I looked up “Positano Black”. Thankfully, there was no p-phenylenediamine and, I was delighted to see many good things. Nonetheless, this hair dye isn’t completely free of nasties. For a start there’s ethanolamine is also known as acetamide MEA and the European Union classifies it as corrosive and harmful if in contact with the skin. However, the industry body, Cosmetic Ingredient Review, proclaims it is safe in concentrations up to 7.5%.

Although Madison Reed claims to be free of resorcinol (a known irritant), there are a couple of variations such as 4-chlororesorcinol. However, this has been determined to be safe in normal use in hair dyes (source). P-aminophenol can be toxic and an irritant, according to many animal studies, but has been deemed safe at the concentrations used in hair dyes (source).  

Other ingredients, such as 2-amino-3-hydroxypyridine have been deemed safe, even by those picky scientists over in the EU (source). Furthermore, Madison Reed have included some good things such as argan oil, panax ginseng and vitamin C

Overall, Madison Reed has avoided the worst offenders and can be recommended to all but those who want a completely natural, safe product. But pure veggie dyes don’t really do the job of a permanent dye. And this is the perfect segue for Maura to tell us how Madison Reed has performed for her.

by Maura Guyote

I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that I discovered Madison Reed by clicking on a Facebook ad; but it lead me to a gentle, low-toxicity hair color system that’s a pleasure to use so I can’t complain too much. They caught my eye with the phrase “ammonia-free.” I had recently read in an article (so sorry I can’t source this) that salon hair color has 2% ammonia while most drugstore box color has something like 99%, a frightening number that curbed my penchant for grabbing a box of Garnier Chocolate Cherry on a whim to add some pizazz to my naturally mid-toned, nondescript brown hair.  (Editor's Note: According to this article, the percentage of ammonia in drugstore hair color is much less than 99%.)

A bit of my hair history: my hair has never given me much trouble, but I’ve also never been thrilled by it. Hairdressers comment that it’s “fine, but you have a lot of it” and it grows in a casual wave that’s prone to frizz in humid weather. I’m lucky that it holds a style well and aside from a few cowlicks at the crown of my head, I don’t struggle too much to make it look the way I like when I put in the effort. Growing up in the suburbs of Boston in the early 2000’s, all of the cool kids at my school got blonde highlights, à la Jennifer Aniston in the final seasons of Friends. In retrospect, I’m glad my mother didn’t give into my pleas that I be allowed to participate in this trend, but the result of our arguments was a pressing sense of the expense and commitment of a visit to the salon for hair color. So, when as an art student in New York City a friend asked me to help her dye her hair from a box, it was an “aha” moment: “Oh that’s right! People actually do this themselves in their own bathrooms, and for $10!”

In the handful of times I used drugstore hair color, the major adverse effects were a strong chemical smell that could last until my next hair wash and a stiff, crunchy feel that could last through a few shampoo sessions. But once I learned how packed with nasty stuff they were, I took a break from dying until seeing the fateful Facebook ad. I missed the polish a richer hair color gave to my style and ordered a box of Madison Reed’s auburn-hued Portofino Red - 6NRR.

I still remember receiving my first box from Madison Reed and feeling so impressed and pampered by the thoughtful packaging. With your order, you receive everything you could need to dye: the color & activator, with a pointy-tipped spout for easy application of the color; 2 pairs of gloves, one for application and one for rinsing; a barrier cream to apply to your hairline and ears to avoid telltale “I just dyed by my hair” stains; a gentle wet wipe in case you get color on your neck or hands anyway; sample bottles of their shampoo and conditioner (which I also love); and a cap to wear as the color sinks in.

The first thing I noticed when dying my hair was how pleasant and non-chemical the smell was. It’s a gentle botanical aroma that made the experience of dying my hair so much more pleasant. Of course, since this is still an at-home dye kit, there's still the somewhat annoying process of slowly and deliberately ensuring that the color reaches each and every strand, but at less than $30 per order (even less if you choose the auto-delivery option), it's worth the extra effort. After rinsing the hair color, using their shampoo and standout conditioner, there’s no crunchy feel or chemically smell lingering for days. Just shiny, healthy color that lasts.