Okay so I am 37 and without hair dye I could easily pass for a senior – I’m not talking about a glowing, soon to graduate and embark on life’s journey, high school senior. I’m talking free bus fares, discounted movie tickets and high balls with a side of dirty rocks senior. Easy livin and I could have it all. Trust me, my hair would be my big ticket in. For the past 18 years I have been dying my hair and recently it has gotten as frequent as every four weeks. I have been okay with dying my hair over the past few years as my one cheat. You know, live healthy, buy organic, clean with vinegar and brush with baking soda..all that jazz BUT my hair? Oh that’s only once a month and this girl needs her hair did so its been my one exception. So with this exception, I set out to find the cleanest hair dye that actually works because guess what, commercial hair dyes are so toxic that some people have used them to commit suicide; cheap, fast and deadly. And those deadly chemicals sit on your scalp for 45 minutes making their way to your bloodstream and making pit stops at all of your organs while you sit and read how J. Law connects to Kevin Bacon through six degrees of separation. Straight up criminal.
Obviously we are not choosing to drink our hair dye so it can’t be too bad right? Well lets start with the scalp. The scalp is one of the most absorbent parts of the body, its like a sponge that sops up whatever you put on it. As hair dye sits on your scalp, chemicals are absorbed through your skin and into your bloodstream. Some of these chemical toxins are peed out but some remain in the body for months, maybe longer. I will also discuss a list of ingredients to avoid in a minute or you can scroll down to the “Ingredients” heading for a quick peek.
How are companies allowed to put harmful toxic chemicals in a box and encourage people to essentially poison themselves? The ugly truth is no one is regulating hair dyes. In 1938 The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act passed which put an unregulated cosmetics industry under federal regulation. There were two exceptions to this act: soap and hair dye. This act has remained pretty much untouched which means no one is running the show and to this day, coal-tar dyes do not require FDA certification. Neither the FDA nor any other entity is telling these companies they are not allowed to use certain chemicals and no one is checking to see what is on shelves to make sure products meet certain standards. Chemicals and formulations are like the typical American criminal – innocent until proven guilty. And no one is dishing out the money to prove these chemicals are toxic because in big business who does that benefit? And where is the profit? This self-regulated industry is having an all out free-for-all with us as their lab rats and guess what, we are playing along. There is so little scientific based evidence about the effects of these chemicals in the human body because there is virtually an endless list of variables. A control group and a test group are impossible to isolate and no studies have lasted through entire lifespans. It’s like when the tobacco companies “proved” that smoking didn’t cause cancer because they set up a three month study and at the end of it the subjects did not have lung cancer. It’s dirty, it’s slimy and it’s at the expense of your health and mine. Even when the FDA tries to step in, this happens:
In 1979 the FDA tried to insist that hair-dye manufactures place the following label on their products: “Warning: Contains an ingredient that can penetrate your skin and has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” The ingredient referred to is 4-MMPD, 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine, a dye with a structure very similar to PPD that, according to the FDA, showed sufficient scientific evidence of being carcinogenic. Manufactures disagree and threatened to sue the FDA if they pressed for the label. The FDA backed down. A few years later, manufactures removed the carcinogenic compound from their formulas, while maintaining the 4-MMPD was safe.” – The Atlantic Magazine
Toxic hair dyes are happening, the government can’t stop it and consumers are perpetuating it because we keep buying and dying. So lets dig a little deeper.
[By the way, check out my favorite nontoxic shampoo – The only one I’ve found that actually cleans my hair!]
What makes hair dye work and can you really have an ORGANIC hair dye? It’s all about the active ingredients. Here are two heavy hitters but keep reading because of course there are more offenders. PPD is a coal-tar derivative which is allergenic, mutagenic and highly toxic. For more details about PPD you can read here. For 125 years PPD has been the extent of hair dye technology and beauty manufactures have yet to accept a permanent hair-color formula without PPD or its related compound, p-aminophenol. To permanently change the color of hair, a product must be able to penetrate the cuticle to deposit or remove color in the cortex and these chemicals do this. Bottom line, this means that if your organic hair dye is working it is employing these toxic chemicals.
[Don’t forget to switch out your hair spray too! This one holds like a boss and is squeaky clean!]
Companies who sell “organic” hair dyes do use organic ingredients but they are all the bells and whistles. The industry calls these “fairy dust” ingredients – they have no impact on color or outcome. They are used to draw the buyer in and let them believe that the product is safer when in reality these are all inactive ingredients and the product would perform the same with or without them. It’s another dirty greenwashing tactic. Let’s look at an example!
The Aveda line boasts a 99% natural hair dye. Let’s take a look at some of the ingredients listed on the box from the salon: m-Aminophenol, p-Aminophenol, 1-Naphthol, Resorcinol, TOXIC CITY! Read ahead to the “Ingredients” header to see why. Maybe this is just a fluke, lets look at another example.
Simply Organic: Organic Way or Oway lists ingredients on their website like: cotton, dates, wheat and jojoba harvested from their “chemical free” farms. Their “farm to chair” motto is really clever. Okay so lets look at some of the ingredients listed on the box that I bought: p-phenylelediamine (PPD), p-aminophenol, m-aminophenol, resorcinol, SLS, parfum…maybe it’s just two flukes in a row. Should we look at another one?
Naturcolor: A boxed, do-it-yourself brand you can buy at Whole Foods. Whole Foods has a strict vetting system so it must be nontoxic. Yeah, except for these active ingredients: ethanolamine, PPD, p-Aminophenol, m-aminophenol.
Maddison Reed: Coal tar, ethanolamine, p-Aminophenol, resorcinol, 1-Naphthol, SLS, parfum, phenols.
Eco Colors: Aminophenol, resorcinol, 1-Naphthol, Phenols.
Organic Color Systems: PEGs, phenol, p-Aminophenol, parfum/fragrance, ethanolamine, coal tar.
Oh and just for the heck of it lets look at the ingredients on a standard big name commercial boxed color. Clariol’s Colorblend Foam: Shade 8C Water, Ethoxydiglycol, Propylene Glycol, Isopropyl Alcohol, Ammonium Hydroxide, Sodium Chloride, Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate, Fragrance, Erythorbic Acid, Citric Acid, Toluene-2,5-Diamine Sulfate, Resorcinol, Sodium Sulfite, 2-Methylresorcinol (resorcinol), Phenyl Methyl Pyrazolone, EDTA, N,N-Bis(2-Hydroxyethyl)-P-Phenylenediamine (PPD) Sulfate, P-Aminophenol, MAminophenol, 4-Amino-2-Hydroxytoluene
Notice any similarities?
I could go on and on. I actually did go on and on. I contacted about 10 “organic” or “natural” hair color companies and asked for ingredient lists. Not the easiest thing in the world to get my hands on. Several didn’t respond to me. I had some companies refer me back to their website where they listed their “fairy dust” ingredients. One company even told me that I would have to go into a local salon (so I did) and ask to see the box because “every color has a different list.” Mmmmm, good one. Stall tactics.
The one point that I really want to drive home here is when a hair dye is labeled “organic” or claims to be “natural,” don’t be fooled into thinking you are getting a healthy alternative. I hear so many people say, I know it’s not perfect but at least it is a little better. It’s not really. It’s all the same active ingredients, just boxed and labeled differently. If these organic colors were packaged as a face cream, would you put it on your face? Your face and your scalp are essentially the same piece of skin and to boot, your scalp is one of the most absorbent and sensitive parts of the body.
Where do we go from here? First let me say this is totally an individual decision and everyone has the right to color their hair without being judged. That’s not what this article is about. This is a super hard decision to make for some, myself included, because the consequence has such a visible outcome. I just want women to be aware and informed of the decision they are actually making. So, label reading guys! Don’t you hate it when people say that? Most of the time I read a label and I’m no better off than when I started. So, reading labels AND looking up ingredients. It’s time consuming but it is what it is. I love the book “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients” by Ruth Winter, M.S for ingredient breakdowns, EWG’s Skin Deep Database and the Think Dirty app as quick resources. Here is another thing to keep in mind when reading labels. Now this is true when buying anything from chicken to face products to hair dye. It’s what the company is NOT saying, that’s what buyers really need to know. For example some companies will boast that their product is “ammonia free” or “PPD free.” First of all, ammonia is an archaic ingredient. It is still used but it’s not a staple ingredient like it used to be. Parallel to buying chicken, when the label says “hormone free” -they are not used in chicken anyway. It’s an empty greenwashing claim that every company can make. It’s like saying there is no steak in your ice cream…yeah we know! Anyways, what they are using to replace ammonia are ingredients like ethanolamine and triethanolamine which are bad if not worse. And they are using chemicals like PTD (paratoluenediamine) or p-aminophenol as a substitute for PPD which can be just as toxic.
It’s probably true that if these materials (PPD and PTD) were invented today, their use in cosmetics would not be permitted but they remain in use…as no effective replacements have been found.” – Royal Society of Chemistry
I initially set out on this quest to find an organic hair dye with stellar performance. I intended to try out a dozen or so products and report on the front runners but at this point I feel like I am back at square one. This is really hard because I LOVE getting my hair colored. I feel confident, professional and put together when I am fresh out of the salon. Could I survive happily with uncolored hair? Is using these hair dyes a compromise I am willing to make? Do I live in the Twilight Zone because why do I have to choose safe and gray or toxic and brown? I mean I did see this 47 year-old woman the other day who was GORGEOUS and totally gray. I legit went up to her and got her number because she was so stunning and her confidence radiated . Her look stood for what felt like everything I believed in. We need more woman like her! If more of us chose her path this post would probably be moot but that is a topic for a different day. Okay so before I make my final decision I have a few more avenues to explore. I am not throwing caution to the wind and jumping back in the chair but I’m also not throwing in the towel and embracing my senior side – not yet.
What are some other options? Well there are a couple. Supplements, henna and HairPrint to name a few.
Okay I am game for trying organics and natural alternatives but the more I looked into henna I was seeing things like, leave it on for 4-5 hours or some recommended to leave it on overnight. Many reviewers said the color outcome was unpredictable and it didn’t last. Ruth Winter, author of A Consumers Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients says, “They are more difficult to apply, less reliable than manufactured dyes, and less predictable as far as color is concerned.” The reason for this is henna dyes only coat the hair temporarily they don’t alter the hair like permanent dyes. Now the ingredients look fabulous but lets be honest, (overnight?!) ain’t no one got time fodat.
Or maybe supplements? Some of my readers mentioned diatomaceous earth, Brahmi Amla or another herbal remedy like He Shou Wu. While these may work, I’m personally a fan of less when it comes to supplements. I am also a fan of instant gratification and I just don’t have the mojo to go down this path. But who knows, I may be singing a different tune if I run out of options! If you have and it worked please leave me a comment, I want to hear your story!
Next up? HairPrint. I am meeting with John Warner here in Massachusetts at the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. He invented the technology known as HairPrint – a non-toxic process that rejuvenates and restores gray hair to its natural color. Stay tuned, I am so excited to share results with you guys! Until then, read and research labels my friends. Listed below is a jump to get you started. Smooches.
9/2017 UPDATE: I’ve used Hairprint exclusively for 14 months. You can check out all of my before and after pics, application tips, pros and cons here:
- Hairprint: Nontoxic Hair Color and Product Review
- Hairprint Updates: A Nontoxic Hair Color
- Hairprint Dyeries: August 2016
- Hairprint Dyeries: December 2016
5/2017 UPDATE: I decided to stop dying my hair! I love using Hairprint and the decision to stop dying my hair is not a product related one. Come see how it’s going!
- Going Gray: Why I Stopped Dying My Hair
- Going Gray: 3 Months And Counting
- Going Gray: 5 Months and Counting
- Going Gray: (at 40!) 8 Months and Counting
- Going Gray: It’s Been A Year!
This is a short list of toxic ingredients and their effects found in hair dyes. There are more but these are a few of the big guns that I referenced in the products above.
RESORCINOL: Obtained from various resins. Irritating to the skin and mucous membranes. May cause allergic reactions particulary to the skin. May be absorbed into the skin, application to wounds may cause methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder in children. The FDA issued a notice in 1992 that resorcinol has not been shown to be safe and effective. The EU requires a warning label on products containing resorcinol. Listed as an 8 on the EWG’s Skin Deep Database. Also listed as but not limited to: 1,3-BENZENEDIOL; 1,3BENZENEDIOL; 3-HYDROXYPHENOL; CI DEVELOPER 4; M-DIHYDROXYBENZENE; M-HYDROQUINONE; M-PHENYLENEDIOL; OXIDATION BASE 31; RESORCIN; 1,3-BENZENEDIOL; 1,3-DIHYDROXYBENZENE
AMINOPHENOL: Derived from phenols. Can cause a lack of oxygen in the blood. Solutions on the skin have produced restlessness and convulsions in humans as well as skin irritations. May also cause rashes, sensitization and inhalation may cause asthma. Mutagenic in lab tests. Metabolized similarly to Tylenol and can effect the liver. Listed as a 5/6 on EWG’s Skin Deep Database. Also listed as but not limited to:m-AMINOPHENOL, 3-AMINO- PHENOL; 3-AMINOPHENOL; 3-HYDROXYANILINE; 3-HYDROXYBENZENAMINE; CI 76545; M-HYDROXYAMINOBENZENE; M-HYDROXYPHENYLAMINE; PHENOL, 3-AMINO-; PHENOL, 3AMINO; 3-AMINO-1-HYDROXYBENZENE; 3-AMINOPHENOL; p-AMINOPHENOL, 4-AMINO- PHENOL; 4-AMINO-1-HYDROXYBENZENE; 4-AMINOPHENOL; 4-HYDROXYANILINE; 4-HYDROXYBENZENAMINE; 4-HYDROXYPHENYLAMINE; CI 76550; P-AMINO- PHENOL; PHENOL, 4-AMINO-; PHENOL, 4AMINO; PHENOL, P-AMINO-
PHENOLS: A disinfectant and anesthetic for the skin. Ingestion of even a small amount may cause nausea, vomiting and circulatory collapse, paralysis, convulsions, coma and green urine. Death from respiratory failure. Fatalities have been reported from ingestion of as little as 1.5 grams. Fatal poisoning can occur through skin absorption. Scores a 7 on EWG’s Skin Deep Database. Also listed as but not limited to: BENZENOL; CARBOLIC ACID; HYDROXYBENZENE; LIQUID PHENOL; OXYBENZENE; PHENOL,; PHENYL ALCOHOL; ACIDE CARBOLIQUE (FRENCH) ; BENZENOL; CARBOLIC ACID; CARBOLSAURE (GERMAN)
PHENYLENEDIAMINE (PPD): May produce eczema, bronchial asthma, gastritis, skin rash and DEATH. Can cross react with many other chemicals including azo dyes used in temporary color. It has caused cancer in some animal experiments. The FDA tried to ban and require labeling for this ingredient in hair dyes but the industry won out citing the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938 exempting hair dye from the FDA’s jurisdiction. Banned from cosmetic use in EU and Canada. Listed as a 7/8 on EWG’s Skin Deep Database. Also listed as but not limited to: m-PHENYLENEDIAMINE, 1,3-BENZENEDIAMINE; 1,3-DIAMINOBENZENE; 1,3-PHENYLENEDIAMINE; 1,3BENZENEDIAMINE, DIHYDROCHLORIDE; CI 76025; DEVELOPER 11; M-AMINOANILINE; 1,3-BENZENEDIAMINE HYDROCHLORIDE; 1,3-DIAMINOBENZENE DIHYDROCHLORIDE; 1,3-PHENYLENEDIAMINE DIHYDROCHLORIDE; 3-AMINOANILINE DIHYDROCHLORIDE; p-PHENYLENEDIAMINE, 1,4-BENZENEDIAMINE; 1,4-PHENYLENEDIAMINE; 1,4BENZENEDIAMINE; CI 76060; OXIDATION BASE 10; P-AMINOANILINE; P-DIAMINOBENZENE; 1,4-BENZENEDIAMINE (9CI) ; 1,4-DIAMINOBENZENE; 1,4-PHENYLENEDIAMINE; 4-AMINOANILINE
1-NAPHTHOL: Used as an antiseptic. Causes severe eye and skin irritation. Toxic by ingestion and skin absorption. When applied to the skin in hair dyes it is not teratogenic or carcinogenic. Listed as a 7/8 on EWG’s Skin Deep Database. Also listed as but not limited to: 1-HYDROXYNAPHTHALENE; 1-HYDROXYNAPTHALENE; 1-NAPHTHALENOL; 1-NAPHTHYL ALCOHOL; 1NAPHTHALENOL; ALPHA-NAPHTHOL; CI 76605; OXIDATION BASE 33; 1-HYDROXYNAPHTHALENE; 1-NAPHTHALENOL; ALPHA-HYDROXYNAPHTHALENE
ETHANOLAMINES: Strong bases. Used as a substitute for ammonia. Very large quantities are required for lethal oral doses in mice. Rates a 5/6 on the EWG’s Skin Deep Database. Also listed as but not limited to: 2-AMINO- ETHANOL; 2-AMINOETHANOL; 2-HYDROXYETHYLAMINE; ETHANOL, 2-AMINO-; ETHANOL, 2AMINO; MEA; MONOETHANOLAMINE; 2-AMINOAETHANOL (GERMAN) ; 2-AMINOETANOLO (ITALIAN) ; 2-AMINOETHANOL (OSHA) ; 2-HYDROXYETHYLAMINE
COAL TAR: This ingredient causes cancer in animals. Not recommended for use in any product that sits on the skin for over 20 minutes. Contains many constituents including benzene, xylenes, naphthalene, pyridine, quinoline, phenol and creosol. Rates a 10 on EWG’s Skin Deep Database as a known carcinogen. Also listed as but not limited to: COAL TAR SOLUTION; TAR, COAL; CARBO-CORT; COAL TAR SOLUTION USP; COAL TAR, AEROSOL; CRUDE COAL TAR; ESTAR (SKIN TREATMENT) ; IMPERVOTAR; KC 261; LAVATAR; PICIS CARBONIS
This ingredient information was referenced from “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients” by Ruth Winter, M.S. unless otherwise stated.
Also here is a list of 22 hair dye chemicals banned by the EU:
6-Methoxy-2,3-Pyridinediamine and its HCl salt
4,5-Diamino-1-Methylpyrazole and its HCl salt
4-Methoxytoluene-2,5-Diamine and its HCl salt
N,N-Dimethyl-2,6-Pyridinediamine and its HCl salt
N-(2-Methoxyethyl)-p-phenylenediamine and its HCl salt
2,4-Diamino-5-methylphenetol and its HCl salt
2-Aminomethyl-p-aminophenol and its HCl salt
Solvent Red 1 (CI 12150)
Acid Orange 24 (CI 20170)
Acid Red 73 (CI 27290)
To compare, here is a list of hair dye chemicals banned by the US: