Not all hair products are created equal — get the good, the bad, and the ugly facts about the dye used to transform your locks.
Whether it’s bleaching, balayaging, ombreing, highlighting, single processing or double processing, roughly 85 percent of women color their hair in some form, either going DIY with inexpensive drugstore dyes or by spending hours having it professionally colored by a stylist. The reason, beyond covering gray hair, is usually unanimous: to look and feel more attractive. Long ago, the Romans used a variety of ingredients and hair dying methods such as henna (a plant-based reddish dye) as well as berries, crushed nut shells, and even leeches mixed with vinegar to turn hair black, and pigeon poop to turn hair blonde. Given these alternatives, we say yes to modern day hair dye.
Or, maybe not.
Turns out, most hair dye products contain more than 5,000 chemicals with some acting as potent carcinogens. Chronic exposure to these toxins can be linked to certain cancers (especially bladder and lymphoma), neurotoxicity and immune issues, as well as allergies and irritations to the skin, eyes and lungs. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, 400 out of the 456 hair colors listed rank as “high hazard.” One might assume that dyes with bleach would rank the worst; however, the opposite is true as darker colors contain lead acetate, the active ingredient producing the coloring effect. Also, in general, the more permanent the color, the higher the degree of toxicity.
Still, most drugstore and hair salon dyes still use chemicals. If you’re making a conscious effort to keep pesticides, toxic substances and genetically modified ingredients out of your daily life, and want to start reaching for safer, non-toxic hair color options too, here are some of the safest, most earth-friendly DIY and salon options.
Do It Yourself
A relative newcomer to the natural hair color market, Madison Reed, a company created by San Francisco resident Amy Errett, cleans up the at-home permanent hair dye experience by offering products free of ammonia, parabens, resorcinol, PPD, phthalates and gluten. Errett started her journey by first researching ingredients. “I realized that if you dropped the ammonia found in hair color on a floor tile, it would burn a hole in it,” she says. “So why are companies using ammonia as an ingredient? Because it is super cheap and has about 10 years of shelf life.” Errett hired a crew of “rock star technologists,” as she describes them, to help improve the messy and daunting experience of coloring hair at home with the intent to appeal to women looking for a product with ingredients they can feel good about and without the potentially harmful chemicals.
In addition to Madison Reed (available online), there are several other safer options on the market:
- Tints of Nature: This product is made with 75 percent certified organic ingredients and is cruelty-free. These vegan-friendly hair dyes contain no resorcinol, nonoxynol, parabens, napthol or ammonia, and the average percentage of PPD is just .42 percent. Available online at Amazon and in the Bay Area at Pharmaca, Good Earth and Whole Foods.
- Naturtint: Plant-based, and ammonia and paraben free, Naturtint works without the harsh chemicals that can irritate and damage hair. Available online at Amazon and in the Bay Area at Pharmaca and Whole Foods.
- Light Mountain: This product uses no PPD, ammonia, peroxide or other chemicals — only pure premium henna and other botanicals. Each batch of the premium-grade henna is tested to ensure no contaminants such as heavy metals or pesticides are present. Available online at Amazon and in the Bay Area at Pharmaca, Good Earth and Whole Foods.
For the safety conscious who color at home, the FDA offers these tips:
- Follow all package directions.
- Do a patch test on your skin before using. Rub a small amount of dye on your skin, let it dry for 48 hours and if a rash develops, avoid the dye.
- Wear gloves during application.
- Do not dye your eyebrows or eyelashes.
- Do not leave the product on longer than directed.
- Rinse your scalp well with water after using hair dye.
- Keep hair dyes out of the reach of children.
Safer, Salon-Based Color
Not into DIY, especially when it comes to tending your tresses? These Bay Area salons offer natural hair color services:
Madison Reed Color Bar, San Francisco, madison-reed.com/colorbar
EDO Salon, San Francisco, Edosalon.com
The Plum Organic Beauty, San Francisco, plumorganicbeauty.com
Blondie’s Organic Hair Salon, Corte Madera, 415-924-2152
Kier Holmes is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and landscape designer who contributes to Marin Magazine, Sunset Magazine and Gardenista, combining her devotion to plants and to writing. Kier is also a garden educator at the Mill Valley Public Library in Marin, where she nurtures children’s innate curiosity of all living things through nature crafts and books. When not gardening, writing or teaching, you can find her at Stinson Beach hunting for shells or picking up ocean debris with her 12-year-old son. Follow her on Instagram.