Each winter, the pages of fashion and beauty magazines are filled with dark-haired beauties. The golden glows of summer have been miraculously transformed into deep brunettes and rich auburns, thanks to the marvels of hair dye. And although changing one's hair color is no longer something that needs to be kept secret, it's a decision that deserves careful consideration, not only because there are loads of colors to choose from, but also because some research suggests that a number of conventional hair color ingredients may be health hazards. Fortunately, there is now a host of safe, natural hair coloring products on the market that use herbs, botanicals and other natural ingredients to impart beautiful color and radiant shine.
In the late 1970s, a number of animal studies revealed that certain coal-tar derived ingredients found in conventional hair coloring products were not only absorbed through the skin but were associated with increased cancer risk. As a result of these findings, the Food and Drug Administration proposed that a warning label be run on products containing these compounds. Although legal action on the part of hair dye manufacturers kept the mandatory warning from being implemented, the majority of makers eventually removed these compounds, replacing them with some similar, and it seems still questionable, chemicals.
"I am not real comfortable with some of the ingredients found in conventional hair colorants," says Melissa Hertzler, owner of the Leesport, Pa.-based Honeybee Gardens, makers of herbal hair rinses. "Anything you put on your hair is going to leach into your scalp and eventually circulate throughout your system. No one really knows what kind of impact that can have over time," she says.
In actuality, some studies have indicated that time is a considerable issue when it comes to hair color safety. A trial published in the February 1994 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that women who use deep-colored dyes, such as black, for a prolonged period of time may have an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma. In addition, a February 2001 study published in the International Journal of Cancer suggests that women who use permanent hair dye are at 2.1 times greater risk of bladder cancer compared with nonusers.
"Cancer is an especially powerful word to women reaching hair-coloring age," says Michael Wrightson, president of Logona Kosmetik, of Asheville, N.C., a company that makes completely chemical-free hair colorants. "These women are already moving into a higher-risk category for certain cancers; they don't need their hair coloring product to worsen their chances."
The truth is, since none of the studies of hair dye have been randomized or controlled, and none contain detailed information about the specific products used or their ingredients, there is insufficient evidence to state with certainty whether there is a link between using hair dye and cancer. There are, however, other concerns above and beyond the potential carcinogenic effects of conventional hair colorants. Most of these products contain a hefty dose of synthetic preservatives, fragrances and developers, which frequently bring about skin sensitivities and allergic reactions. For this reason, a number of companies have worked to create hair color products that are gentle on the body yet deliver salon-quality results.
By leaving out the heavy scents and preservatives and adding only minor amounts of developers, products like Naturcolor provide a safer option. "We have scrutinized the research and are convinced that all of our ingredients are safe," says Tricia Grose, managing director for Napa, Calif.-based Herbaceuticals, the maker of Naturcolor. "But consumers should be careful, because some products might look like ours on the outside but contain a completely different formula."
It is important to realize that there are plenty of hair colors on the market that claim to be natural but are really packed full of potentially carcinogenic products. "A lot of the stuff you see in the health food store is really just Clairol in a green box," says Wrightson. "The key is to read the label carefully and educate yourself on what those words actually mean."
Regardless of whether they have been deemed safe, the idea of applying chemically derived ingredients to the scalp is a worrisome thought for many. Luckily, there is a category of hair colors that is completely free of any synthetic chemicals, though what is not contained in these products does limit what they can achieve. "You can't bleach or lighten with our products," says Tony Farish, co-owner of Rainbow Henna of Bohemia, N.Y. "Henna is primarily used as a way to enhance your natural color, bring out highlights and tone down gray."
A powder created from the leaves and roots of the Lawsonia alba plant, henna can be mixed with a variety of other natural ingredients to bring about an array of coloring options. For example, adding rhubarb can enhance red tones, while including walnut shells will boost brown shades. To get even better results, Farish has created unique application recipes that he says produce amazing results. "For instance, if you are trying to cover gray and you are looking for a chestnut brown, we recommend adding boiled coffee rather than plain water to the medium brown henna."
Henna is also the primary colorant used in Logona's line of natural hair dyes, which boast no synthetic ingredients and only certified-organic henna. "We come from the German marketplace, which is extremely stringent in its quality criteria and its use of the word natural," Wrightson says. To create varied color offerings without having to use chemicals, Wrightson says Logona products incorporate nutshells, berries and other herbaceous materials that have been used safely for eons.
Natural hair colorants can do more than simply enhance hair color; they can also improve its health and shine. To achieve this, companies have added essential oils as well as powdered jojoba and hydrolyzed wheat protein to deep condition hair during coloring. "We have also added powdered algin [which is derived from algae] to the formula, so when you mix it with water, it creates a nice gelatinous texture that won't drip," Wrightson says.
Ultimately, coloring hair should not be a messy process, or a scary one. Although there is still some debate as to whether conventional hair dyes can be considered dangerous, there are plenty of health conscious women and men who are thankful that there are natural alternatives. "Hair color is a life-changing instrument," Wrightson says. "But it should only be life changing in a positive way."
Linda Knittel is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 2/p. 36