Organic Hair Dye in 2021: The Good, Bad & Ugly

May 11, 2021

What does ‘organic’ hair dye really mean? Is there actually such a thing? This post breaks down the harmful chemicals found in most conventional and organic hair dyes in 2021, and what it actually means when you see the label “organic.”

Lisa is standing in front of a multi-colored abstract painting on an outdoor wall, hand on hip.

For 18 years, I dyed my hair and in 2016, I was dyeing it as frequently as every. four. weeks. I had been okay with dyeing my hair 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 it was my one exception.

Then, in January 2016, I ditched the conventional dye to try Hairprint, the cleanest hair dye on the block. I used it for 14 months (read my 7 month and 11 month updates for more) and then decided to GO GRAY. Like, totally gray.

What I found was a generous and welcoming community of women who also wanted to learn how to go gray, and share tips about their experience.

But this post is about organic hair dye, not going gray (even though they’re super related).

IN THIS POST:

RELATED: See my entire going gray journey, including Why I stopped dyeing my hair, 3 months, 8 months and one year of gray growth!


What’s actually in hair dye?

Before I went gray, I set out to find the cleanest hair dye that actually works because 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, let’s start with the scalp. The scalp is one of the most absorbent parts of the body—it’s 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.

So why 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 really 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.

The self-regulated industry is compounded by the minuscule amount of scientific-based evidence about the effects of hair dye chemicals in the human body because there’s a virtually 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.

And, 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 dyeing. So, since the FDA is putting us onus on consumer to be informed and follow the directions, let’s dive a little deeper together.

RELATED: The best all-natural purple shampoo for gray hair (and more)


Lisa with wavy gray hair past her shoulders, smiles and looks down.
After four years of growing out my gray hair.

Ingredients to consider when buying organic hair dye

What makes hair dye work and can you really have an ORGANIC hair dye?

It’s all about the active ingredients. There are two heavy hitters to consider when you’re reading hair dye labels (but don’t switch tabs YET, because there are more than two ingredients you need to know):

Bottom line, this means that if your organic hair dye is working, it is employing these toxic chemicals.

Companies who sell “organic” hair dyes do use organic ingredients, but those ingredients are just the extra bells and whistles. The industry calls these “fairy dust” ingredients—they have no impact on color or outcome. They’re used to draw the buyer in and let them believe that the product is safer, when in reality these are all inactive ingredients; the product would perform the same with or without them.

But, there are still more ingredients, which make an appearance in conventional and “organic” hair dyes, that we should put under the microscope:

RESORCINOL: Obtained from various resins. Irritating to the skin and mucous membranes. May cause allergic reactions particularly to the skin. The FDA issued a notice in 1992 that resorcinol has not been shown to be safe and effective, and the EU requires a warning label on products containing resorcinol. 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. 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.

Also here is a list of 22 hair dye chemicals banned by the EU:

  • 6-Methoxy-2,3-Pyridinediamine and its HCl salt
  • 2,3-Naphthalenediol
  • 2,4-Diaminodiphenylamine
  • 2,6-Bis(2-Hydroxyethoxy)-3,5-Pyridinediamine
  • 2-Methoxymethyl-p-Aminophenol
  • 4,5-Diamino-1-Methylpyrazole and its HCl salt
  • 4,5-Diamino-1-((4-Chlorophenyl)Methyl)-1H-Pyrazole Sulfate
  • 4-Chloro-2-Aminophenol
  • 4-Hydroxyindole
  • 4-Methoxytoluene-2,5-Diamine and its HCl salt
  • 5-Amino-4-Fluoro-2-Methylphenol Sulfate
  • N,N-Diethyl-m-Aminophenol
  • N,N-Dimethyl-2,6-Pyridinediamine and its HCl salt
  • N-Cyclopentyl-m-Aminophenol
  • N-(2-Methoxyethyl)-p-phenylenediamine and its HCl salt
  • 2,4-Diamino-5-methylphenetol and its HCl salt
  • 1,7-Naphthalenediol
  • 3,4-Diaminobenzoic acid
  • 2-Aminomethyl-p-aminophenol and its HCl salt
  • Solvent Red 1 (CI 12150)
  • Acid Orange 24 (CI 20170)
  • Acid Red 73 (CI 27290)

Lisa is reading the list of ingredients on a square package.

Is “organic” hair dye cleaner than conventional hair dye?

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. This is a super hard decision to make for some, myself included, because the outcome is so visual. Our goal is for you to be informed of all the information, so you can make the best information FOR YOU. Full stop.

The tipping point here is education and understanding the difference between marketing lingo vs. what’s actually in products.

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”—hormones are not used in chicken anyway.

It’s like saying there is no steak in your ice cream…yeah we know!

So, what are they using to replace ammonia? Is it ingredients like ethanolamine and triethanolamine? And are they also using chemicals like PTD (para-toluene diamine) or p-aminophenol as a substitute for PPD? If the answers are yes and yes, these formulas could be just as questionable as “conventional” hair dyes.

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’m not here to convince you to dye your hair or not. That’s is 100% up to you and to feel good about it either way. 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.

RELATED: 10 ways to go gray


A pink Hairprint box sits on a white table.

Other hair dye alternatives

What are some other options? Well there are a couple. Supplements, henna and HairPrint, to name a few.

I’m usually game for trying organics and natural alternatives, but the more I looked into henna, the more I was seeing things like, leave it on for 4-5 hours or OVERNIGHT (the ingredients look fabulous but lets be honest, overnight?! No thanks). 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.

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 a fan of instant gratification, though my going gray journey was NOT instantaneous (still, so worth it).

HairPrint was the closest I came to finding the golden ticket of organic hair dye. And even after that great experience, I chose to embrace my gray.

What’s your take on organic hair dye?

*This ingredient information was referenced from “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients,” by Ruth Winter, M.S. unless otherwise stated.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT ORGANIC HAIR DYE:

Is organic hair dye better?

It’s not really. It’s all the same active ingredients as conventional dye, just boxed and labeled differently. Read my full study on organic hair dyes here.

How can I color my gray hair naturally?

HairPrint was the closest I came to finding the golden ticket of organic hair dye. Other things to try are supplements like He Shou Wu, and henna hair tints.

What is the safest hair dye?

Organic and natural hair dye alternatives are the safest ones based on the ingredient list. We’ve found HairPrint, a dye alternative, to be the best for coloring hair.

By Lisa

Lisa is the founder of This Organic Girl. Passionate about clean beauty, organic eats and nontoxic lifestyle, Lisa writes to create awareness. Conscious consumerism and informed decisions will impact the marketplace, our health and THE WORLD!

79 Comments

  1. Reply

    Raylene

    I really enjoyed reading this article – especially your point about consumers perpetuating the problem by purchasing these hair products. I was however dismayed to see your page plastered with Advertisments that promote these very same products that are unhealthy for us . I was a bit disheartened to be honest 🙁

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Oh my gosh, that is such a sore spot for us. Ad revenue is one of the main revenue streams for the blog. It’s one of the reasons we are able to continue to create and publish free content that is valuable to our readers. We have some control over what TYPE of ads are shown but not complete control. I wish it was a viable option for us to turn off ads altogether but it would mean staff cutbacks, less resources and would really hurt our mission. Thank you for your feedback and understanding. We really appreciate your readership and support. xo, Lisa

  2. Reply

    Mandy

    I use henna and love it!!! It makes my grey look like a natural highlight and leaves my hair shiny and thick!! Will never use hair dye again❤️

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Love that you found what works for you! xo, Lisa

  3. Reply

    Komal

    Good and very nice information

  4. Reply

    Aspen R Marino

    Hello! Are used to love hair print back in the day, but the last few times I’ve used it it has only lasted about a week, and it’s really dried out my hair. I know you talk about henna , and supplements, but are there any other hair dyes you could recommend? Besides hair print?

    1. Reply

      Lisa

      Hi Aspen! Gosh that is such a bummer. I haven’t used HP in years so I can’t speak to the formula now but I know they are always working to improve it. That being said, I don’t know of any comparative safer hair dyes. BUT if you are looking to dye your hair, I would say OWAY or Organic Color Systems is the best way to go. I have heard from some hair dressers (although I have not officially confirmed this) that even though OWAY use the same ingredients that other conventional dyes use, it’s in a less percentage—and that would make an impact for sure. I used OWAY for about a year after I stopped using HairPrint and before I stopped dying my hair all together so that was my personal choice of a brand to use. Many salons carry it. xo, Lisa

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