As a journalist covering health and the environment, Ronnie Citron-Fink knew something wasn’t right with all of the unpronounceable chemical names on the back of her box of hair dye. So she started asking questions and digging into the answers. And after 25 years of coloring, Ronnie gave up hair dye.
Her new book, True Roots: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me about Health and Beauty, follows Ronnie on her journey from dark dyes to simply silver. Along the way, readers learn about the risks of coloring, safer alternatives, and the cultural expectations and fear associated with aging and beauty.
To learn more about her journey, we connected with Ronnie, author of True Roots, and Editorial Director of Moms Clean Air Force, a community of parents united to protect children (and all of us) from air pollution and climate change on national and local levels.
MADE SAFE: We think gray is beautiful. These days, gray hair is increasingly in the news as celebrities and others choose not to dye and go naturally silver instead. But we know it’s ‘growing against the grain.’ And Ronnie, we love the bold choice you made when you decided to go grey. Tell us, how does True Roots fit into this conversation?
Ronnie: True Roots considers the beauty aspects of going gray, and goes beyond the cultural moment to ask important questions about hair dye: Why do we color? Are the chemicals in hair dye toxic? Which ingredients are harmful? Who is most at risk? Who regulates what manufacturers can put into formulas? Do safer alternatives exist? And ultimately, where does hair dye go once it’s dumped down the drain?
MADE SAFE: But let’s ask the question everyone really wants to know: Why did you decide to go gray? And what does that mean for the rest of us?
Ronnie: I had three reasons to go gray: the upkeep, the cost, and the toxic chemicals. I started coloring my hair in my early 30’s to cover gray strands that seemed to multiply daily. I dyed my hair dark —dark brown, almost black. This was the color closest to my original hair color, but over the years, the gray hairs took over. I needed to color more and more often to cover the skunk stripe that would line my part. Coloring had become both labor intensive and expensive! Nevertheless, I kept up with it because I worried about my vanity. I didn’t want to “look old” with gray hair.
When I began to work deeply in the environmental health field, I started to question the health impact of personal care products and couldn’t avoid my hair dye. It was unnerving to learn that most of my products were untested and unregulated.
I made a number of changes and hair dye was the last step in cleaning up my beauty routine. I found the more knowledge I amassed about the potential risks from the ingredients in hair dye, and how those chemicals were untested and unregulated, my resolve was boosted and that helped me through the difficult grow-out phase. My health concerns settled any lingering thoughts about going back to coloring.
MADE SAFE: What did you learn along the journey that you would say to someone else considering going gray?
Ronnie: As mentioned, I thought I would look older, like I had given up on beauty. I learned this was a myth that the $70 billion hair and beauty business perpetuates because they need to sell products. Over and over again, I talked with women who went gray and said they felt healthier and freer when they stopped coloring. My 20-something son told me to keep it real and authentic. He was right. I feel more real and I don’t think it makes me look older.
My colorist had repeatedly told me the hair in the back of my head was still dark, and it would look weird. She also said my hair would change, and the gray would wash out my complexion. None of those things happened. I have a full head of silver hair. The texture feels softer than dyed hair. Also, the harshness of the dark hair against my skin was not as forgiving as the shiny silver, which seems to compliment my complexion.
I will say that gray hair needs special maintenance because it seems more porous than dyed hair. Chlorine, pollution, smoke, certain shampoos, hair products – and the mother of all gray hair enemies, hard water – can affect the look and feel of gray hair.
MADE SAFE: For women especially, is there power in going gray?
Ronnie: I think it’s powerful to feel comfortable in your own skin. If that means letting your hair go gray, then do it. If not, it won’t seem like much of a power move to feel self-conscious. For me, it’s been immensely freeing, and it’s made me feel stronger to know that I’m also protecting my health by lessening my body burden, or body pollution, from known and unknown harmful ingredients in hair dye.
MADE SAFE: At MADE SAFE we talk a lot about the known risks of hair dye. What did you find that might surprise people to know about hair dye and human health?
Ronnie: The health and beauty aspects of hair coloring fascinated me, as I am somewhat obsessed with hair. I assumed, like many other women, that since hair dye is such an integral part of women’s beauty culture that there must have been years of safety testing. Unfortunately, the chemicals in hair dye, and how they interact in our bodies with other chemicals, have not been adequately tested.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program classifies some chemicals in hair dye as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.”
The U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the National Institutes of Health, cites hair dye as a major risk factor for certain types of cancer.
What alarmed me was that women who used permanent hair dyes at least once a month had twice the risk of certain types of cancers compared to non-dyers.
In my research I also found that the risks associated with hair products are not just about the dye, but also other hair treatments including straightening treatments and relaxers used primarily by African-American women.
We have a right to know that the hair products we pour over our heads and massage into our scalps are safe. It’s a shame some industry players don’t seem to care whether or not they expose women to health dangers, deploying lobbyists in opposition to health-protecting legislation.
Manufacturers should be required to have their products tested before they hit drugstore shelves and salons, and ingredients linked to cancer, hormone disruption and reproductive harm must be clearly labeled. For consumers of hair products to make informed choices, transparency is key.
MADE SAFE: Ultimately there’s a little good news for those who just don’t want to go gray, right? At MADE SAFE we’ve certified Hairprint Color Restorer and Radico hair colors containing natural coloring agents, like henna. What products have you found that look promising?
Ronnie: If you’re not ready to break up with your hair color, there are some promising alternative hair coloring methods, but it’s still important to read the labels carefully. Some brands may mix natural dyes with chemical preservatives and other chemical dyes.
MADE SAFE: Thank you for sharing your insights on going gray and all the research you found to get to your True Roots! Any last thoughts?
Ronnie: Thank you, MADE SAFE! It does seem like a transformational moment, as the deeply ingrained beauty ideal about gray hair is shifting. It’s my hope that knowing the impact hair dyes may have on overall health will make women ponder the possibility of beauty after coloring. It did for me.