I'm not singling any specific email out with this post. I respect privacy (sometimes). We all need to have our beauty secrets. Suffice to say I've gotten numerous requests over the years practically begging to know about safe hair dyes. We wrote about dye in The Complete Organic Pregnancy, as most pregnant woman are cautioned by regular old obstetricians with no interest in (or knowledge of) environmental health concerns to avoid it for the first trimester (and sometimes beyond). We clearly don't think this advice goes far enough. But it's a general rule of thumb for good reason. And the people asking me how to dye their hair are asking because they know studies have linked conventional hair dye to many types of cancer (see below).
Please take the following advice and information with a big ol' disclaimer: I have never used any of the below products myself, nor have I been to the two salons I mention. Fuller disclosure: I have never dyed my hair. I don't have grays (yet), and I've never felt the urge to highlight, even as a teenager. (I think I once got a bottle of Colorific about halfway in my hair that was the foam that would wash out in about 2 washes before my mother intervened.) Every time I see a picture of an older woman with hair like mine (thick/wavy/curly and currently long) that she has let go salt and pepper, it makes me smile. I think this is what I'll do with my own. But who knows. I may not like it when it happens. That's why I'm glad to have done this research already. Please email/post if I have gotten something wrong. Usually I research and then try everything out. As I'm not taking that step here, I'm concerned about my margin of error.
There is no such thing as organic hair dye. There are synthetic versions that work well and contain a lot of chemicals. And, then there are natural things like henna and vegetable dyes which are usually applied at home (unless a friendly salon worker/friend obliges). To be totally honest these safest options haven't gotten the greatest reviews either in my inbox or online. People report turning orange as carrots (with real henna), or very inconsistent results, even with the same product, over time. These colors don't last very long, either. But that's par for the course with a more natural dye, as it doesn't penetrate the hair shaft like a synthetic does.
Going for something harsher is a personal decision. Before doing it, be aware that The Environmental Working Group found that 69% of hair-dye products they tested for their Skin Deep database may pose cancer risks. A 1994 National Cancer Institute report states dark dyes used over long periods of time seem to increase the risk of cancers such as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma. And a 2001 International Journal of Cancer study found people who use permanent hair dye are twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those who don't dye. The FDA doesn't regulate hair dye ingredients (synthetic or natural).
If you're a chemical ingredient junkie, here's some of what should be avoided in conventional hair dyes: ammonia, peroxide, PPDs (para-phenylenediamines, the chemical that creates color and is widely thought to be carcinogenic), coal tar (the FDA issued a warning about it being a possible cancer risk back in 1993), lead, toluene and resorcinol.
If you want to go to a salon for a professional application, John Masters in New York City says they have ammonia-free, herbal-based, low-PPD, dyes that are also lead-, toluene- and coal tar-free. His line of hair products, unlike the dyes, are totally organic (I'm a huge fan). When we interviewed him for the book, he suggested that highlights and lowlights are safer as they don't place dye in contact with the scalp. Your hair, your choice.
"Salon brands of hair dye are almost all 100% synthetic and petroleum-based. The dyes are usually the controversial oxidative dyes. Aveda uses oxidative dyes like the rest of the industry (albeit in a small percentage), because so far there are no plant formulas that can provide consistent, long- lasting dyes. Oxidative dyes make up the 1% to 3% synthetic ingredients of the Aveda formulations. Oxidative dyes have no pre-existing colors until they are combined and joined with oxidizing ingredients. Most dyes use a synthetic to do this, but Aveda did research into essential oils and plant extracts, and have found and patented a process to oxidize the dye using green tea extract. Not only is the end process less petroleum-based, but the result is more natural looking. The common base formulas for dyes are petrochemical solvents, and in this process Aveda has substituted protective and lubricating plant oils in the formula so that it is significantly less drying to the hair than the solvents normally used."
Here's a list of seven brands I've heard are quite pure. Most are widely available but I'm including their manufacturer's websites so people can do their own research and ingredient-label-reading before using. Several of these brands are also available at Naturalhairdye.com, which has an interesting decision guide to help consumers make educated choices.
- Light Mountain
- Surya Henna
- Rainbow Henna
- Morrocco Method Simply Pure Henna
- Color Me Naturally by Aubrey
I'm sure you noticed most of these dyes aren't American-made. Another option is to hop a plane to Europe, carbon footprint be damned, as the European Commission banned 22 hair-dye substances that could potentially caused bladder cancer back in 2006. Or you could always dare I say it? embrace your gray.