Toxic Chemicals in Hair Dye and Safer Options


The Problem

Conventional hair dye is made with harmful chemicals that are put directly on the scalp each time hair is dyed, either at home or in the salon. Salon workers are even more exposed to these chemicals – potentially to carcinogenic levels of harm – as they may perform multiple hair dying sessions in a day.

When you purchase hair dye at the store, the ingredients are required to be listed on the label. Whether you can make sense of those labels may be another story altogether, as ingredients listed can be complex and hard to decode. However, salon products do not even have to list ingredients, because of loose language in federal legislation. The FDA does not require “For Professional Use Only” products, which include some dyes sold directly to stylists, to list the ingredients on packaging. This means your stylist might not even know themselves what ingredients are in your salon hair color.

The Health Concern

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, one of the primary coloring agents, to become trapped in the hair.

These common dye chemicals are associated with negative health effects. Ammonia is a respiratory and asthma irritant, a potential endocrine disruptor, and is persistent in the environment, meaning it sticks around. P-phenylenediamine is associated with birth defects, skin irritation, liver and blood toxicity, and allergic reaction. It is restricted for use in the European Union.

P-phenylenediamine is one of many coal-tar colors, which are derived from petroleum. Coal-tar dyes have been associated with a number of health effects like eye injury and allergic reactions. Coal tars themselves have been associated with multiple forms of cancer, and some coal-tar dyes have been found to cause cancer in animals. Despite these problems, unlike most color additives, coal-tar dyes do not need approval from the FDA.

Many dyes can also contain toluene, a well-established neurotoxin, linked to birth defects, pregnancy loss, and allergic reaction. They can also contain resorcinol, a chemical linked to endocrine disruption, meaning it impacts our body’s normal hormonal functioning and signaling. Lead acetate, another common ingredient, is linked to neurotoxicity. Conventional dyes can contain many other harmful chemicals like DMDM hydantoin, methylisothiazolinone, and fragrance.

One study of over 25,000 women found that the use of hair dye was associated with increased breast cancer incidence.

Because of issues in salon product ingredient transparency, it’s often difficult to know what you might be exposed to. Without this information, it is impossible to know how those mystery ingredients might impact health.

How to Avoid It

  • Make the swap to a MADE SAFE certified hair color:
    • Radico’s colors are made not only without harsh chemicals, but their organic dyes are tested for heavy metals, made from natural ingredients, and without the use of any synthetic chemicals at all.
  • Double check the ingredients of products that are labeled “natural” and “organic.” Some of them still contain ingredients like p-phenylenediamine, ethanolamine, resorcinol, and other ingredients associated with negative health effects.
  • Bring your own color to the salon. If you want the precision of a salon dyed ‘do, but want to upgrade your color, ask your stylist if she’ll apply your own color.
  • 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 and apply in a well-ventilated area.
  • Embrace the grey! So many women and men are embracing this au naturel look.
  • Reduce your overall exposure to harmful ingredients by choosing MADE SAFE certified hair care products.


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