Chemical hair colour seems to be one toxin that people really struggle to let go of. I know many natural mamas who eat organic food, use organic skin care and personal care products, but still insist that they really do need their regular infusion of hair colour. For many it’s like a guilty pleasure that helps them to feel alive and express themselves. Luckily, there are natural alternatives available, although they are often less effective and a bit more messy than their toxic counterparts. Understanding the real dangers of chemical hair colours can help us to take the leap into the wild terrain of natural hair colouring or simply letting our true colours shine!
For many years I coloured my hair every few weeks. My hair was really, really short, so each time I had a haircut, all the hair colour was cut out, and I could start afresh. I plied all sorts of colours onto my naturally light-brown hair, including a disastrous liaison with blonde which had hideous orange consequences! As I began to become more aware of the chemicals all around us, I switched my chemist store bottles of poison for health food store bottles of slightly less poison – yes, these “natural” ones may be free of ammonia, but the permanent ones still do contain many toxic chemicals, as their strong smell suggests!
I did notice side-effects with both versions, but chose to ignore them – the skin on my back and face would break out horribly (from the hair colour washing over me as I washed it out in the shower), my scalp would become itchy, my hair would be really dry and take a couple of weeks to get back to normal. My organic shampoo and conditioner just didn’t cut it for a week or two after fresh colouring, as so much moisture had been stripped from my hair. The chemical smell seemed to linger for days, and my slapdash methods of colour application generally left stain marks around my hairline.
Early last year I decided enough was enough, and simply stopped colouring my hair. Funnily enough, it was very similar to the colour I had been using most recently, however with the unexpected addition of grey speckled throughout! My organic hair products now work beautifully as they no longer have a chemical cocktail to contend with. I am now at peace with my natural colour, although starting to yearn for a change and contemplating experimenting with henna sometime soon.
Chemical hair colour has become a staple in households around the world. For many people, not colouring their hair is quite simply not an option. Whether we go grey earlier than we’d like or we’re just not happy with the colour nature gave us, or perhaps we just like to be a bit different, chemical hair colour is just a way of life for many. Unfortunately, this can be an unhealthy and dangerous habit, as these permanent colours are a truly toxic chemical cocktail!
Phenylenediamines: The dye para-phenylenediamine (PPD) is present in almost all permanent and semi-permanent hair colouring products, including many of those labelled “natural”. It has been linked to breast cancer once it has been oxidized with hydrogen peroxide (a common ingredient/process in hair coloring).
PPD belongs to a class of chemicals known as arylamines, which are a known risk factor for bladder cancer and have been found to cause cancer in experimental animals. Phenylenediamines as a group are implicated in cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, allergies/immunotoxicity, organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), ecotoxicology, and irritation of skin, eyes, or lungs.
Resorcinol: Linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, allergies/immunotoxicity, organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), ecotoxicology, and irritation of skin, eyes, or lungs.
Aminophenols: Linked to cancer, allergies/immunotoxicity, organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), and ecotoxicology.
Ethanolamine: Linked to allergies/immunotoxicity, organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), and irritation of skin, eyes, or lungs.
Toluen-2,5-Diamine: Linked to cancer, allergies/immunotoxicity, and ecotoxicology.
Bladder cancer, and
Birth defects and childhood cancer, when the mother coloured her hair while pregnant
The most common topical reaction to chemical hair colours is dermatitis of the eyes, ears, mouth and face, which manifests as:
Extreme swelling , and
Severe burning sensation on the scalp.
More severe, systemic reactions include:
Cross-sensitization, causing sensitivity to PPD as well as all of its chemical cousins. This includes most textile dyes, pen ink, gasoline, oil, food dyes, medication dyes, preservatives like parabens, and some medications,
Breathing difficulties, and even
You only have to look at the packaging of a chemical hair colour to realise just how toxic it is – they do tell you on the packet! As an example I looked up Clairol Nice ‘n’ Easy Permanent Hair Colour in the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database . Here’s what I found, which is typical of all permanent home hair colours:
Clairol Nice ‘n’ Easy Permanent Hair Colour
Click the link to see the complete listing of ingredients – basically a long list of chemicals and a natural-sounding “aloe” and “coconut oil” tagged onto the end. One look at this list should send you running! It gets a score of 8, meaning high toxicity.
What do all these long-winded chemical names mean? Well, all hair dye containing phenylenediamines, resorcinol and/or 1-naphthol must carry a warning: “Can cause an allergic reaction. Do not use to colour eyelashes or eyebrows.” Other hair dye ingredients – including coal tar dyes, 4-chloro-m-phenylenediamine, 2,4-toluenediamine, 2-nitro-p-phenylenediamine and 4-amino-2-nitrophenol – have proven carcinogenic in at least one animal species. In humans, intensive longer-term use of permanent hair dye is associated with breast, ovarian and bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple meyeloma and rheumatoid arthritis.
Just for fun, I decided to check out Herbatint, the “natural” hair colouring I had been using up until a year ago, free of ammonia, but… I was very surprised at the results!! The EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database rates this product with a 7-8 – the exact same rating given to Clairol – indicating a HIGH RISK of health concerns! Click here to see the full list of ingredients and warnings:
Herbatint Permanent Hair Colour Gel
Sure the ingredients include some nice thyme and rosemary and walnut, but the rest of them read pretty similar to the list for Clairol! As does the warning section on the label. As I mentioned before, I had noticed side effects myself with this product, but I honestly thought it was due to my high sensitivity to all chemicals, not to the specific ingredients in this natural product.
Yes, there is! There are many hair dyes made from vegetable-based products. They work quite well to produce shiny, soft and healthy hair. The downside is that the effects are short-lived, lasting only a couple of weeks. It is the chemicals that allow the permanent colours to be permanent.
Henna hair colour is also an option for many, however it does usually leave a red tint, regardless of the intended colour, and may not be for everyone.
These recommendations – and products to avoid! – are based on products readily available here in Australia, both online and in your local health food store. I’m sure there are many more that I am not aware of, so if you have a hair colouring product that you would like my opinion on, please comment below with the product name and I will check it out for you and add it to the list.
“Natural” permanent hair colour free of the most harmful chemicals (but still containing toxins). These are your best bet when you really want the permanent option and can handle the chemicals that are present. Not recommended for those who are highly sensitive to chemical toxins: Tints of Nature .
“Natural” semi-permanent hair colour free of the most harmful chemicals (but still containing toxins): Surya Henna Cream .
“Natural” permanent hair colours to avoid due to high chemical content and high toxicity. Unfortunately these are very popular in health food stores: Herbatint , NaturStyle.
Today I challenge you to let go your dependence on toxic chemical hair colours and dare to let your true colours shine! This may mean ditching the colours all together, or simply switching your current chemical brand for one of the safer, less toxic versions or the truly natural henna. Wherever you’re at in your journey towards a toxin-free life, make a commitment to reduce your chemical load in this one way. Beauty is important; it’s part of our culture, and our appearance can help to define who we are. However, it’s not worth risking your health for.
EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database : This is a fantastic resource. You can type in the name of a product and bring up the EWG report, including a list of all the ingredients and any health concerns for each toxin, any warnings on the label, and the rating of the product based on its total toxicity level. If your products isn’t in the database, you can create your own report by typing the ingredients and other package text into the “Build your own report” tool.
I hope this post has convinced you to let go of your attachment to chemical hair colours and take a walk on the wild side with some safe and natural alternatives! Please do comment below with your experiments in natural hair colouring. I would also love to hear if you have previously experienced a reaction to chemical hair colours and how it affected you. Thanks for sharing!
To your health,