P-phenylenediamine in Hair Dye: Why You Should Avoid It & How to Shop Safer

Hair coloring has been a staple in beauty routines for thousands of years, but now it’s more popular than ever. One study found that 75 percent of American women color their hair, and more and more men are dyeing their strands too.

What many of us never stop to consider are the ingredients within hair dyes and how they may impact our health. One of the biggest culprits? P-phenylenediamine, or PPD for short. This chemical is associated with numerous negative health impacts.

The good news? Going grey has never been trendier. And if you can’t or don’t want to give up on coloring, read on for MADE SAFE certified dyes and color restorers to get the look you want, without compromising on your health.

But first, check out more on PPD’s purpose in hair dye and the research on PPD’s impacts on human and environmental health below.

What Is PPD?

Have you ever wondered how your hair dye actually works? To achieve a permanent color, many hair dyes work using a system of ammonia (or ethanolamines in the case of some ammonia-free products), hydrogen peroxide, and p-phenylenediamine. The ammonia pulls apart layers of the hair’s proteins, so that the dye can access the hair shaft. Next, hydrogen peroxide bleaches the hair and helps p-phenylenediamine (PPD), one of the primary coloring agents, to become trapped in hair. All this complicated chemistry results in that color you may be coveting.

PPD is one of many coal-tar colors, which are – you guessed it – derived from petroleum. Unlike most color additives, coal-tar dyes are exempt from needing FDA approval, despite the numerous health effects associated with coal-tar dyes.

How Can PPD Affect My Health and the Health of the Environment?

We know many people are committed to their color, but knowing how your hair dye can impact you and the planet is important. Read on for the details – they just may make you jump on the natural hair bandwagon.

Short-term exposure of PPD can result in skin and eye irritation, and asthma – and more serious impacts like vertigo, convulsions, and coma.

P-phenylenediamine has demonstrated some endocrine-disrupting capabilities. Endocrine disruptors are substances that can tinker with hormones, and that can result in harmful health effects. In one laboratory study, rats exposed to levels of PPD congruent with those in hair dye exhibited sexual health impacts associated with reproductive toxicity. This outcome is worrisome, and more investigation by researchers is needed to understand just how much PPD can tinker with our hormones.

PPD is a strong potential skin sensitizer. Translation? Skin sensitizers are substances that pave the way for a future allergic response. As opposed to just skin irritation, skin sensitization is actually an immune response where the body builds up a “memory” of the substances upon first contact. When someone is exposed a second time, it can lead to an allergic response. So that rash along the hairline after a dye job could be more than just skin irritation.

As mentioned above, PPD is often mixed with hydrogen peroxide in hair color systems. When the two mix together, they can form a substance called Bandrowski’s base. This substance has exhibited mutagenic properties – the ability to alter genetic material, which can cause cancer. 

PPD may be a neurotoxin. More research is necessary to determine its potential impacts.

Finally, PPD is very toxic to aquatic life. In the dyeing process, hair color is washed down the drain. From there, it can end up in our waterways, where it can negatively impact aquatic life like fish and algae. Considering toxicity to aquatic life is more important than ever as the health of our oceans and waterways become increasingly compromised.

How to Avoid PPD:

MADE SAFE Certified Hair Color Products

  • Radico Colour Me Organic
    What we love about Radico is not only are their dyes made without harsh chemicals, but their organic hair dyes are made without the use of any synthetic chemicals at all. Instead, the brand uses herbs and plants grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. See our product listing for certified products. Check it out.

Go Grey! Skip Hair Color Completely

  • The best way to avoid PPD and other toxic chemicals in hair color? Ditch the dye! Celebrities are embracing the grey, whether its totally silver or salt-and-pepper. Spotted: Jamie Lee Curtis, Glenn Close, and George Clooney – all donning grey strands. And some celebrities are even dying their hair silver to get the look. Kim Kardashian, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lawrence have all embraced the trend. 
  • Need guidance in your journey to go grey? Read our Q&A with Ronnie Citron-Fink, the author of the brand new book True Roots: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me About Health and Beauty. To snag a copy for yourself, enter our Instagram giveaway. Giveaway ends Sunday, June 9th at 11:59 pm EST.

Other Tips to Avoid PPD and Color Safer

  • Look for and avoid p-phenylenediamine on hair color labels. It can also be listed as para-phenylenediamine, 4-aminoaniline, p-diaminobenzene, 1,4-benzediamine, and 1,4-phenyl diamine.
  • If you get your hair professionally colored, ask your hairdresser to see the hair dye’s list of ingredients. If the product contains PPD, ask if there are healthier alternatives.
  • If you like the look of professional color, but want to skip out on the toxic ingredients found in most conventional dyes, bring your own color to the salon. That way, you’ll get professional precision, without the toxic exposure.
  • Remember that hair dyes can contain other toxic substances besides PPD. And double check the ingredients of products that are labeled as “natural” and organic.” Some of them still contain PPD, and other toxic ingredients.
  • If you’re not ready to make the change to a MADE SAFE product, when applying your conventional dye, make sure to use nitrile gloves, apply in a well-ventilated area, and follow the directions carefully.
  • If you are a hairdresser, because you likely handle hair color often, you are at more risk of exposure to PPD and other toxic ingredients than the general public. Make sure to protect yourself during color sessions with proper gloves and proper ventilation. Get to know what’s in the products you use and consider making healthier swaps where you can. For more tips on how to protect yourself in the salon, check out this resource from Women’s Voices for the Earth.
  • Reduce your overall exposure to harmful ingredients by choosing MADE SAFE certified personal care.
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