Amonbê | The Toxic Roots of Hair Dye
Beauty, Global Gardens, Charity, Amonbe,
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The Toxic Roots of Hair Dye

One out of two women colour their hair, and so with this in mind, we sought out to investigate the health hazards of using commercial hair dyes. Often aggressive and allergenic, the formulas of hair colouring products are far from trivial, and lo and behold, our suspicions were correct—according to a European Commission report of 2006, not one hair dye brand has proven to be consumer safe. In fact, the EU Commission has already banned 22 ingredients that may still be found in many products sold outside of Europe, and the commission is in the process of investigating another 115 potentially harmful ingredients.

So What’s in Hair Colouring Products?

There exist several hair dye products offered by commercial beauty brands and the best-selling products are, alas, synthetic colourings. Whether colouring hair is done at home or at the hairdressers, in a few minutes or several hours, the ways of dyeing always follow the same logic. Hair dyes use a combination of the chemicals ammonia and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide works by bleaching out the natural colour and releasing oxygen, which allows chemical reactions to take place. The ammonia works by breaking down the outer cuticle around the hair shaft, allowing the other chemicals to enter the hair, where the colour development can take place.

Today, there are several hair dyes that state ‘ammonia-free’ on their packaging. Nevertheless, one shouldn’t rely on this fact, as it does not rule out the presence of other lesser known but equally irritating or sensitising ingredients. Did you know about p-aminophenol—a derivative of coal, which is believed to be cause of skin allergies? Or how about Toluene-2,5-Diamine Sulfate (TDS), a skin toxicant and allergen or 1-Naphtol, a compound that is irritating to both the skin and respiratory tract?

The cocktail of irritants in synthetic hair dyes is responsible for many cases of eczema, hypersensitivity or allergic reactions. To guard against reactions, all hair dye manufacturers recommend that you patch test their products on your skin before using them. But while this is certainly advisable it is far from foolproof as it can take up to a week to react and patch tests can produce many false negatives. Even worse, the patch testing can itself sensitise you to the allergen.

Carcinogenic Substances

PPD is short for para-phenylenediamine. It is used as a dye for dark colour shades and is made from coal tar, a petroleum-derived chemical that includes benzene, naphthalene, phenols, aniline, and other chemicals. Bad news: PPD easily passes through the layer of skin and can cause symptoms ranging from a burning sensation and redness or rash, to weeping blisters, chemical burns and severe swelling of the face. In addition to this, once a person has become sensitised to PPD (has suffered a significant reaction) that sensitisation is likely to remain with them for life. But perhaps more worrying is that many do not always know that the substance is thought to increase the incidence of bladder cancer among professionals who use it and those getting their hair dyed.

Potential Endocrine Disruptors

One ingredient known as ‘resorcinol’ is easy to remember, and as an inexpensive colouring agent it is found in three out of four hair-dye products. The bad news is that if you’ve ever had an allergic reaction from a colouring session, resorcinol is most likely the culprit. Easily absorbed into the skin, corrosive, and often referred to as the paraben of hair care, resorcinol has been deemed by the World Health Organisation as an endocrine disruptor and ranks high as an overall hazardous ingredient. Chemically, resorcinol is a dihydroxy benzene. Benzene is a natural constituent of crude oil, and one of the most basic petrochemicals. Unfortunately, resorcinol can cause hormone imbalances, mess with your body’s functions, and cause fertility complications. Pregnant women should steer clear. Resorcinol also causes thyroid dysfunction and changes in the thyroid gland that are consistent with goiter—thyroid enlargement. This condition causes difficulties in regulating metabolism, which can result in weight gain, malnutrition, and immune system dysfunction. Even more concerning is the fact that human studies showed the exposure to resorcinol was associated with central nervous system disturbances and red blood cell changes. If that isn’t alarming enough, resorcinol is not regulated and cosmetic companies can use it at will. You’ll often find it in anti-acne skincare and whitening creams as well as hair dye.

So before we go on any further, here is the list of 22 hair dye chemicals banned by the European Commission:

  1. 6-Methoxy-2,3-Pyridinediamine and its HCl salt
  2. 2,3-Naphthalenediol
  3. 2,4-Diaminodiphenylamine
  4. 2,6-Bis(2-Hydroxyethoxy)-3,5-Pyridinediamine
  5. 2-Methoxymethyl-p-Aminophenol
  6. 4,5-Diamino-1-Methylpyrazole and its HCl salt
  7. 4,5-Diamino-1-((4-Chlorophenyl)Methyl)-1H-Pyrazole Sulfate
  8. 4-Chloro-2-Aminophenol
  9. 4-Hydroxyindole
  10. 4-Methoxytoluene-2,5-Diamine and its HCl salt
  11. 5-Amino-4-Fluoro-2-Methylphenol Sulfate
  12. N,N-Diethyl-m-Aminophenol
  13. N,N-Dimethyl-2,6-Pyridinediamine and its HCl salt
  14. N-Cyclopentyl-m-Aminophenol
  15. N-(2-Methoxyethyl)-p-phenylenediamine and its HCl salt
  16. 2,4-Diamino-5-methylphenetol and its HCl salt
  17. 1,7-Naphthalenediol
  18. 3,4-Diaminobenzoic acid
  19. 2-Aminomethyl-p-aminophenol and its HCl salt
  20. Solvent Red 1 (CI 12150)
  21. Acid Orange 24 (CI 20170)
  22. Acid Red 73 (CI 27290)


Three Tips in Choosing the Right Product

  1. Decrypt the list of ingredients on the packaging of your hair dye. If you see an ingredient listed above, avoid using the product.
  2. Do not rely on the word ‘natural’ or ‘herbal’ on the packaging, only look at the list of ingredients. Although packaging may reassure you with images of fruit, plants and other natural goodness, many store hair dyes still contain plenty of chemicals, including the main allergy culprits.
  3. Consider using a natural plant dye if you can, as it is softer and less controversial ingredient not only for your personal wellbeing but for the environment as well.


The Great Alternative – Natural Plant/Vegetable Dyes

True plant/vegetable dyes are generally a mixture of roots; leaves or plant extracts in powder form, such as finely groundnut, turmeric, chamomile and acacia. When mixed with liquid, a paste is formed which will gently stain the hair. This is the famous principle of henna, which unfortunately has had a bad reputation due to undesirable ingredients, such as PPD, being slipped into their formulas.

In any case, besides henna, there exist many plant/vegetable dyes that are just as effective as synthetic colourings—provided that one accepts a longer waiting time and complementary treatments. Just remember that you cannot discolour hair using a vegetable dye, for instance achieving platinum blonde is impossible if one is naturally brunette. In the same way, one cannot attain dark locks if one has light brown or blonde hair. Apart from these cardinal rules, natural plant dyes are in fact a real benefit as their natural pigments help to smooth, protect and thicken hair.

In order to dye using natural plant/vegetable powders, you must first cleanse and ‘detoxify’ your hair in order to facilitate the attachment of the natural colouring pigments. This ‘detoxification’ can be carried out using a mild shampoo without sulphates or silicones, and then with a clay mask. You may have to do this twice if you have never had a natural colouration before.

Once you have mixed the plant/vegetable powder with warm water in order to attain a colouring mask, leave the mask on for about 30 minutes to 2 hours. The plant dye must be rinsed thoroughly afterwards and results will gradually begin to show over time–generally after two shampoos. It is important to remember that natural plant/vegetable powders are temporary dyes. The dye will gradually begin to fade overtime, as it only impregnates hair cuticles without penetrating them directly.