Even the most dyed-in-the-wool ecoistas meet their Waterloo over hair dye. Most don’t want to risk their telltale roots to a more natural dye that might not give as good coverage. But if you are among the 65 to 75 percent of women who experts estimate dye their hair—or the growing amount of men—it might be time to reconsider your options.
“With hair dye, there are two possible routes of exposure: absorbtion through the scalp and inhalation from the offgassing of chemicals,” says Stacy Malkan, communication director for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the author of Not Just a Pretty Face (New Society Publishers, 2007). Conventional dyes contain chemicals such as ammonia (to open the hair shaft and allow color to penetrate), peroxide (to lighten) and resorcinol (to adjust the tone). But the most problematic ingredient is p-Phenylenediamine, or PPD, a key agent in creating the color you see on the box. Not only is PPD a potent allergen, but dozens of studies link PPD with cancer.
There are more alarmingly good reasons to minimize your hair-dye risk:
- The National Cancer Institute suggests that 20 percent of all cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in women are caused by regular use of permanent hair coloring.
- The Harvard School of Public Health’s epidemiology department conducted research that shows that women who use hair coloring five times or more annually are twice as likely to develop ovarian cancer as women who never dye their hair.
- The International Cancer Journal published a study that found that women who use permanent hair coloring are twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those who do not.
- A study published by The American Journal of Epidemiology found that hairstylists who work with hair dyes for five or more years triple their risk of developing breast cancer.
Make the natural choice
“Hair dyes are one of the most toxic beauty products, and it’s a big challenge for the industry to come up with something safe and effective,” says Malkan. So how does a health-conscious woman get the gray out? Natural hair color has come a long way from its coal tar–checkered past. While Malkan says no truly effective organic hair dye exists there are certainly lesser evils.
“Hair dyes are getting better,” Malkan says. “The no-ammonia aspect is great.”
For Julie Ebner, owner of Juju salon of Philadelphia, one of the first organic hair salons in the country, ammonia in a dye is telltale evidence of its toxicity. “The smell of ammonia, feeling it in your lungs, your body, your eyes and skin, is ample evidence of its danger,” she says. “And it’s one thing for clients, but those in the hair industry working with it every day are at the front lines in terms of exposure levels.”
Ebner recommends looking for organic hair dyes that are ammonia and resorcinol free and contain low levels of PPD. “But while ammonia free is the new buzzword,” she says, “many of those claims are dubious.” Often, formulations that bill themselves as ammonia free use suspiciously ammonia-like substitutes, Ebner adds.
For those of you almost convinced to eschew synthetic dyes but worried that plant-based dyes won’t make the grade, try giving the more natural dyes a chance. “Healthier hair dyes work just as well and leave your hair in better condition,” Ebner says. “Plus, the price is on par with the more standard, conventional lines.”
Another strategy is to dye your hair less frequently, or only when the gray sets in. Needlessly dyeing you hair for fun or fashion isn’t worth the risk. “There is extreme pressure on very young girls to get their hair dyed,” Malkan says. “It’s hard to break the hair-dye habit once you start. With young girls, there is the added risk of repeated exposure at a vulnerable time in their development.
If dyeing is non-negotiable, you can also request that your salon start using safer dyes. “When you move your money to a nontoxic salon, you create a safer environment for everyone,” Ebner says.
For more information about the dangers of hair dye, visit this site.