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Hair to dye for

There's nothing wrong with a change of color. But most hair dyes contain a bushel of ingredients with known health risks, including resorcinol and PPD, or p-phenylenediamine, both of which rank in the “high hazard” category on the nonprofit Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetic-safety database,

“P-phenylenediamine is nasty stuff,” says Sean Gray, a senior analyst with EWG, based in Washington, D.C. “It scores a 10 on our toxicity score, which is the top of the scale. Resorcinol also has a long list of concerns.”

Natural hair-dye companies have long sought to reduce levels of these chemicals by using less harmful replacements or botanicals that work in conjunction with synthetic or petroleum-based colorants, and a new company has launched a product that does away with all the major problem ingredients and uses only botanical dyes. To understand the challenges of formulating a natural hair dye, it's important to understand how traditional hair dyes work.

Tinting techniques
Hair colors contain a lightener, generally hydrogen peroxide, to bleach the hair, providing what's called “lift.” They also contain an ingredient to change the hair's pH, typically ammonia, which opens the hair shaft so dye can penetrate. Finally, they contain a base and coupler which, when mixed together, produce an oxidation dye. PPD and resorcinol are components of the dye, whose large molecules then enter the hair shaft.

The natural difference
“The biggest difference with our product is that there's no ammonia, which is extremely alkaline,” says Eileen Sheets, managing director of Ghent, N.Y.-based Bioforce USA, which distributes the Herbatint dye line in the U.S. “Because we include herbal color, the molecule is smaller and the cuticle doesn't need to be forced open so far, so we can also achieve a low volume of peroxide.” Herbal extracts include black walnut and Chinese rhubarb.

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Herbatint, like most hair dyes, uses PPD and resorcinol, though in lower amounts than mainstream products. “Being in this industry, we would like to be 100 percent natural, but the truth is you're not going to get good, stable hair color without some of these chemicals,” Sheets says. “Resorcinol and PPD really help stabilize the color so it stays true without fading, while the plant colors alone don't hold as well. But Herbatint has always aimed to have the smallest amount of chemicals necessary to work with the synergy of the herbal components.” Herbatint also contains echinacea and aloe to soothe and moisturize the scalp.

Products formulated with less peroxide can only lift hair two shades. However, many consumers who have allergies to mainstream products can use products such as Herbatint. “It also leaves hair smoother and shinier [than mainstream products], so it doesn't have that rough texture,” Sheets says.

New developments
“People who dye their hair on a permanent basis are looking for permanent solutions, and there's not really a permanent solution that's low toxicity,” says EWG's Gray. But that may be changing with the launch of a new permanent hair-color line from Advanced Cosmetic Technologies of New York. The company's products are PPD-, resorcinol- and ammonia-free, using a new, patent-pending technology to permanently color hair. The secret? Plant breeding, according to Jeff Greaves, president of Advanced Cosmetic Technologies.

“In the past, the limitation of natural colors was that they weren't intense enough and didn't bind to the hair,” Greaves says. “Through selective breeding, we've concentrated the dyes to the point where they're economical.” The company uses more than 40 botanicals for its color range, including alfalfa, saffron, turmeric and indigo.

“Through our breeding and processing breakthroughs, we've improved an ancient technology,” Greaves says. “You don't have to worry about known allergens and suspected carcinogens, and you still get a product that lasts 40 washes, which is the same or more than traditional products.”

Because the molecular size of natural dyes is so much smaller than traditional synthetic and petroleum-based dyes, Greaves says, they can penetrate the hair shaft without it being opened by ammonia or other alkaline substances. “Our product has good color, far superior to henna, but it's warmer than traditional dyes, with a refractive that's closer to melanin [the natural pigment in hair],” Greaves says.

Because the product contains no peroxide, it doesn't lift color, but can be used in conjunction with a peroxide lightening kit for those who want to go lighter.

Greaves sees the Advanced Cosmetics Technologies line as an invitation to new customers who previously didn't color their hair due to allergic reactions to common ingredients. “I think there's a big desire to get away from PPD, especially in Europe,” he says. “Now consumers have a true, natural option.”

A closer look Demystifying dye ingredients
  • Ammonia
    Used as a pH adjuster, ammonia makes hair alkaline and opens the cuticle so dyes can penetrate. The Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C., rates this product a three, or moderate hazard, with irritation to the skin, eyes and lungs being the primary concerns.
  • Hydrogen peroxide
    Rated from three to six on the EWG scale depending on usage, peroxide is used to lift or lighten hair and to help open the cuticle. “Any bleaching agent is by definition stripping material from hair, so hydrogen peroxide by its very nature is going to damage skin and hair,” says Sean Gray, a senior analyst with EWG. Overuse of peroxide products can leave hair brittle and rough.
  • P-phenylenediamine
    PPD scores a 10 out of 10 on the EWG scale, with established concerns including cancer, immunotoxicity, developmental toxicity and allergic reactions. Related chemicals include paratoluenediamine, or PTD. “We suggest avoiding dark hair dyes because of their higher PPD concentrations,” Gray says.
  • Resorcinol
    Used as a coloring agent, resorcinol rates an eight on the EWG scale. In addition to irritation and allergic reactions, this ingredient is also linked to immunotoxicity and cancer.
  • Plant dyes
    Used either in conjunction with chemical ingredients or on their own, traditional plant dyes offer a wide variety of colors with little to no concern about toxicity or allergic reactions. Their smaller molecular size allows them to penetrate the hair shaft more easily. Common colorants include extracts of black walnut, indigo, turmeric, saffron and Chinese rhubarb.
  • Mineral salts
    Mineral salts, including ferrous aspartate, copper gluconate, zinc gluconate, zinc aspartate, copper aspartate and calcium gluconate, are now used to fix natural plant-based dyes, allowing them to achieve the same level of permanence as chemical dyes with less damage to the hair.


Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.

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