I am answering the burning question, does organic hair dye exist? As a hairstylist, hair color was the first thing that changed when I moved towards a greener lifestyle years ago. Not that organic hair dyes are perfect, because they aren't. But there are better options than the conventional hair dyes out there, especially if you're breathing in toxic fumes all day as a stylist. I actually stopped doing hair for a bit until I found a safer option. I didn't want to be around conventional color, and I definitely didn't want to be exposing others to chemicals.
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You may be thinking that hair dye isn’t that big of a deal if you are only using it a handful of times per year. But I am here to say that it can’t be ignored when you consider the toxic ingredients in hair dye and the fact that
66-77 percent of women dye their hair (1)
Pretty crazy statistics! And when you consider that some (maybe even many) women might not know what they're putting on their heads along with the fact that the FDA doesn't regulate hair dye it definitely gets a little more scary. In fact,
“the FDA cannot take action against a coal-tar hair dye on the basis that it is or contains a poisonous or deleterious ingredient that may make it harmful to consumers, as long as the label includes a special caution statement and the product comes with adequate directions for consumers to do a skin test before they dye their hair. PLUS, Coal-tar hair dyes, unlike color additives in general, do not need FDA approval. (FD&C Act, 601(e)).” (2)
YIKES! And this “coal-tar” hair ingredient I am talking about, well it’s in a lot of hair dyes…even some of your so-called natural hair dyes. You also need to know that hair dye that is “For Professional Use” isn’t required by the FDA to list the ingredients even. That’s right, your hairstylist may not even know what is in that professional box of hair dye. So scary!
But, I am here to provide everything you need to know when deciding if you want to dye your hair (or not) and what you would want to use if you are aiming for a less toxic hair dyeing experience.
What exactly is in hair dye that makes it so toxic?
Taking a closer look at hair dye means we need to look at the ingredients that make up your favorite color for your hair. Here are a few ingredients to consider when deciding if you want to continue using your current hair dye or not:
This is one of the most dangerous chemicals found in hair dyes. It has been known to cause bladder cancer and to cause cancer in experimental animals. One of the most common names for it is p-phenylenediamine (PPD). You will even find it in natural hair dyes (although the percentage is a lot lower). It functions as the main coloring agent in hair dye and it helps the color to last through shampoos.
While toxic alone, it gets even more toxic when paired with hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is what's used in formulations with the PPD to get it to activate. It's interesting to me that the FDA has not approved for this chemical to be tested on the skin, yet it's nearly impossible to not get it on your skin if you're coloring your hair…crazy! Many stylists can end up with dermatitis because of constant exposure to PPD and those getting their hair dyed report eczema and dermatitis. Studies link it as a possible carcinogen. (3)
This is the most popular chemical people tend to hear about when faced with mainstream hair dyes. Ammonia is used in hair color to blast the cuticle and deposit the color. Besides it being toxic, it's also really damaging to your hair. Why do you think stylists are always pushing those conditioners like crazy?!
There is plenty of research showing ammonia is a respiratory and asthma irritant (4). Plus it is just plain not good for the environment considering it is washed out of your hair and goes down the drain into our waterways. This is a big deal because it is known to be toxic to aquatic life even in low concentrations. (5) Besides inhaling the toxic fumes, once it is on a client's scalp it seeps into the pores, which is then carried into the bloodstream. Bottom line-avoid it!
These are used in permanent hair dyes. Besides getting headaches, getting dizzy and having allergic reactions, long term exposure can lead to female reproductive system damage and pregnancy loss. (6)
Parabens, Resorcinol, lead acetate are a few other offenders.
*There's a slew more chemicals you can find in your hair dye – actually there can be up to over 400 chemicals!
What is the best natural hair dye?
As both a consumer and a hair stylist, I have to say that the best professional natural hair dye is Oway. But there are 2 other brands I want to include in my list of better hair dye options if you are getting your hair dyed professionally. When I say professional, I mean these are only available to those licensed as a cosmetologist.
I have to say this line I've been the most impressed with. I've only used them a handful of times – unfortunately when I had my salon it wasn't available otherwise I would have definitely used it. First they're made in Italy. They're ammonia free and offer 89 colors which is a decent selection. They actually have 6 legit natural ingredients in their hair color, which is rare to find. They really push the words biodynamic, natural and organic. Obviously, if you've been reading through this post you know that it's probably a marketing term, which it is. But I am shocked how they do really have a high standard when it comes to being more eco-friendly all around. You don't have to sit under heat to process the color or do a ton of steps to cover grays – which isn’t the case with all the brands I will mention. If you're a stylist and reading this definitely use a scale, it's essential for good results with this color line. I was impressed with how I didn't have to pack on the color with this line too – again, not the case with all the brands I will mention. Obviously, it's still not completely natural but I would say as far as being a stylist and having ease of use, consistent results and doesn't smell horrible, it's definitely a better option.
I wanted to also mention how much I loved Oway's Hbleach lightener! It's the best lightener I've ever used. It actually makes the hair feel better after using…I know crazy. It's ammonia free and contains lavender essential oil and kukui butter. It's so creamy. If you're a stylist and you're wanting to try out Oway, check out the website simplyorganicbeauty.com. You will have to get accepted as a stylist in order to purchase products. Also, if you're not a stylist but want to find a stylist that uses Oway, call their number (888)213-4744 and then push the number 4 to find a salon near you that uses it. You can also email them here.
This is the professional line I used at my salon. They are made in the UK, which is great because they have higher standards than the U.S. It is ammonia and resorcinol free. This was one of the main reasons I went with the line at the time. It was back in 2013 and this really was the only option when it came to natural hair dye from what I knew. It still does have PPD in it but has the lowest amount needed in order for it to still be effective. Instead of Ammonia in the product they use Ethanolamine and Triethanolamine. They don't smell as bad, but as far as toxicity goes, are still up there with ammonia. Not really that much better in my mind. They use Ethanolamine and Triethanolamine in combination with heat for the color to penetrate the hair shaft. You can read the full ingredient list here. This line covers grey and gives beautiful results. Your hair feels healthy and shiny. The fading was no different than mainstream color. I dare say it was actually better than traditional color.
The smell is more of an earthy smell, nothing unpleasant about it at all. If you've smelled ammonia color then you know what I'm talking about. They offer 64 colors that can be made permanent or semi-permanent depending on the developer and they offer two lightening powders. The lightening powders are ammonia, bleach and dust free. The line is vegan and some of their products do contain a wheat protein, however they claim that they are gluten free. I would still ask them if you're sensitive to gluten in any way before applying this color just to be sure. Some of their colors, as well as the lightening powders, have wheat protein in them.
They also have a truly semi-permanent line that's called No Limits. These dyes will wash out in 6-12 washes but don't contain PPD or PTD and you can use them in the convenience of your home. They are sold as a retail product from the salon. As I mentioned above, just because this line is “natural” and has the word “organic” in it does not mean it doesn't contain toxins. When I used it, I still wore gloves. Although it is better in some ways than standard hair dyes, it still is hair dye at the end of the day. To find a stylist using OCS, please e-mail them at email@example.com.
O&M stands for Original Mineral. I used it here and there in my salon. It is newer and made in Australia. O&M is ammonia, resorcinol and PPD free. But still contains a host of other toxic chemicals instead of PPD like p-aminophenol, 4-Chlororesorcinol, Toluene-2,5-Diamine Sulfate and 2, 4 Diaminophenoxyethanol hcl. Here is a full ingredient list.
The smell of O&M is more of a cleaning agent smell. I'm not a fan to be honest. It's not overly strong or burning like ammonia at all but it isn't as pleasant as OCS. It does not require heat to penetrate the hair shaft like Organic Color Systems does, which I loved. They also have a very creamy consistency. The hair felt great after using the product. They are a lot larger than OCS in terms of colors, they offer 99. They come in a cream form for permanent and liquid for semi-permanent. The results I got from using O&M were great. It covered grey well. The hair shined and lasted through shampoos also. If you're a stylist and you're wanting to try out O&M, check out the website simplyorganicbeauty.com. You will have to get accepted as a stylist in order to purchase products. Also, if you're not a stylist but want to find a stylist that uses O&M, call their number (888)213-4744 and then push the number 4 to find a salon near you that uses it. You can also email them here.
So, is organic hair dye any better than conventional hair dye?
I do think it’s better. But, have you looked on the back of your “organic” hair color at the ingredients? Because there's definitely some serious artificial ingredients going on, meaning it’s anything but organic.
Below is a list of ingredients found in “natural” boxed hair dye. They aren't pretty. It would be different using it if it only had a couple toxic ingredients but when the list is this long, it makes you think twice before using it. They may remove some of the heavy offenders when it comes to conventional dye but they are far from safe. If there is a score next to the ingredient list it's the score from EWG's Skin Deep DataBase.
- PEG's(polyethylene glycols)- Petroleum based enhancers. Usually contaminated with heavy metals, Ethylene oxide (used in World War 1 nerve gas) and 1,4 dioxane-(a carcinogen) and makes it easier for ingredients to absorb into your skin/scalp. Not something you want in your products if there are a list of other toxic ingredients. The EWG Skin Deep DataBase rates this as a 1 but that's not accurate. They aren't looking at the whole makeup of the ingredient. Some brands can try and remove these impurities but it would be hard to find that out.
- Mineral Oil- Made from petroleum. Can be contaminated. It can even be a possible carcinogen. (7)
- Propylene Glycol- Very similar to (PEG's- polyethylene glycols), it also makes it easier for ingredients to penetrate the skin and can be a skin irritant.
- Parfum/Fragrance- Can cause phototoxic reactions and can be photoallergic. Skin irritant, and has been known as a neuro-toxin, hormone disruptor and an allergen.
- p-Phenylenediamine- Score of 7- Allergies and immunotoxicity as well as cancer.
- Ethanolamine- Score of 5-6, Allergies and Immunotoxicity
- 4-Chlororesorcinol- Score of 6- Allergies, Immunotoxicity, and cancer.
- 2-Methylresorcinol- Allergies and immunotoxicity.
- 2-Amino-4-Hydroxyethylaminoanisole Sulfate- Score of 3 but it did have a reference for cancer.
- m-Aminophenol- Score of 5, for allergies and immunotoxicity and cancer.
- N-Phenyl-p-Phenylenediamine Sulfate- Score of 7, allergies and immunotoxicity, cancer.
Despite this, I do think organic hair dye is better than conventional because you’re not using ammonia which blasts your hair and in the end damages your hair. The integrity of the hair is preserved so much better and the hair is overall healthier when using organic hair dye or dye that doesn't use ammonia in it. There are less overall potentially harmful ingredients in organic hair dye versus conventional hair dye as well. Although not perfect, I think if you’re going to dye your hair organic hair dye is a better option.
Is organic hair dye bad for your hair?
I don’t think hair dye in general is good for your hair but organic hair dye is the best option and I wouldn’t say it’s bad for your hair. It actually nourishes it so much more and has a much more gentle approach to getting the color in the hair cuticle compared to conventional hair dyes that blast your cuticle and leave hair feeling dry and brittle.
What natural hair dyes can be done at home?
If you want to continue dyeing your hair yourself, then here are some of the natural boxed hair dye options, however just remember they are not completely natural.
Many of these boxed dye options are even available on Amazon!
I will say that I was most impressed with Madison Reed's ingredient list. Still totally not squeaky clean at all, but compared to the other boxed dyes it wasn't as crazy. Madison Reed's are also PPD free, for those that are allergic or sensitive to PPD. But know that doesn't mean the ingredient they use instead, para-toulenediamene sulfate, is non toxic. It has its own set of side effects too.
I will list some hair dye alternatives below that are definitely safer. But these boxed options are for those that just don't want to spend that much time doing their hair every 6 weeks, or they have red hair, want highlights, etc. The alternatives to hair dyes just won’t be able to meet everyone's needs.
What are the best hair dye alternatives?
I have 3 options for natural hair dye alternatives for you to check out, although I do think Hairprint is the best option with just 8 food grade ingredients.
This is the only completely safe color line available at the moment. But I wouldn't really call it a hair color line. It's a boxed dye you can use at home that doesn't work like you might think a conventional color would. It uses 8 food-grade ingredients to dye the hair. I've personally used it on my mom's hair several years ago. Although it's completely safe it's also a lot of work. It took us about 2 1/2 hours from start to finish. I fully recommend it if you're just wanting to cover your roots and you have brown to darker hair naturally, but it doesn't work well with someone who wants to cover their dark roots and have highlights, which was my mom. It turns your hair to its original color. So if you're a natural level 5 brown, that's what the color will look like when done. In my experience it was even darker though. It looks very opaque and not see through. It faded on my mom but still was too harsh for her. As you get older the rule of thumb with color is add warmth and go lighter. Darker can make you look older and the skin more sallow. Hairprint doesn't work for blondes, redheads or reddish hair. You can buy it online here!
Henna is a plant and completely natural. There are still henna dyes that contain small amounts of PPD, so make sure if you are using henna it's pure. Typically henna will reveal a reddish brownish color but some companies have added in other plants with henna now to change the color.
Henna is really hard to work with. Once you put it on your hair, you really can't get it out. It's permanent. But a different permanent than conventional permanent dye. I've tried stripping henna out before with bleach and what happens is it turns brassy and red. The problem is once you put it on, you really can't do much else with your hair. Nowadays you can achieve different colors using a variety of henna powders. Check out Morocco Method for more info.
This is a great alternative to hair dye – a root concealer! This isn't actually an all over color for your hair but for just your roots. You use it when you are trying to hide those grey hairs. It really does blend well and covers the grey! It just washes out after shampooing. You use it like you would mascara. Now this isn't by any means completely natural. It rates a 5 on the Think Dirty app. However, this is definitely a better alternative to dyeing hair in my opinion. You are giving yourself a lot less of a toxic load. It is a lot better than mainstream root concealers too. Plus, if it can help you stretch getting your hair dyed then it's worth it. Check it out here.
Conclusion: Does organic hair dye exist?
If you’re thinking truly organic in terms of no harmful chemicals then no- unless you’re talking about Hairprint. Are there better options, absolutely. While terms like organic and natural are thrown around with hair dye, they shouldn’t be taken lightly. I tell people it’s a good place to start when looking for a safer approach to hair dye but also can be a greenwashing term if you’re not careful. There are better options out there when it comes to dyeing your hair and that’s where you might see the organic hair dye label pop up. A great place to start but not the only thing to consider when looking for a safer hair dye.
Do you dye your hair? What’s your favorite natural hair dye?
If you like this post, checkout past posts:
- Top 7 Natural Hairspray Products: A 2021 Guide
- Organic Hair Product Favorites
- Curling Hair With A Flatiron
- Saitta, P., Cook, C. E., Messina, J. L., Brancaccio, R., Wu, B. C., Grekin, S. K., & Holland, J. (2013, January). Is there a true concern regarding the use of hair dye and malignancy development?: A review of the epidemiological evidence relating personal hair dye use to the risk of malignancy. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3543291/.
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Hair dyes. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-products/hair-dyes.
- Koutros, S., Silverman, D. T., Baris, D., Zahm, S. H., Morton, L. M., Colt, J. S., Hein, D. W., Moore, L. E., Johnson, A., Schwenn, M., Cherala, S., Schned, A., Doll, M. A., Rothman, N., & Karagas, M. R. (2011, December 15). Hair dye use and risk of bladder cancer in the New England Bladder Cancer Study. International journal of cancer. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3203248/.
- Toxicant and disease database. Toxicant and Disease Database – The Collaborative on Health and the Environment. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthandenvironment.org/our-work/toxicant-and-disease-database/?showcategory=&showdisease=&showcontaminant=&showcas=7664-41-7&showkeyword.
- Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, February 29). https://www.epa.gov/wqc/aquatic-life-criteria-ammonia. EPA. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/wqc/aquatic-life-criteria-ammonia.
- Toluene. Toluene – Overview | Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/toluene.
- Mineral oils: Untreated and mildly treated. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles/mineraloils.pdf.