Natural hair dye

They cost up to twice as much as supermarket products, but are health store hair dyes any healthier?
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They cost up to twice as much as supermarket products, but are health store hair dyes any healthier?

Their packaging may reassure you with images of fruit, plants and other natural goodness, but many of these health store hair dyes still contain plenty of chemicals, including the main allergy culprits. Closer inspection of products claiming to contain “certified organic” ingredients reveals most of the ingredients in there aren’t certified organic at all – plus the other chemicals are still there.

Given their higher price, is there any benefit to buying “natural” or “organic” hair dyes? Is there anything much wrong with a standard supermarket hair dye anyway?

For more information on Hair care, see Beauty and personal care.

What are the problem chemicals in hair dyes?

Many natural-sounding hair dyes claim to be free of ammonia, resorcinol, heavy metals, parabens, SLS and low in ethanolamine, hydrogen peroxide and PPD. So what do these chemicals normally do, and what - if anything - is wrong with them?

  • Ammonia opens up the cuticle of the hair and allows the pigment to penetrate the hair shaft. Apart from a strong odour, it can be irritating, and may create a burning sensation on the scalp.
  • Hydrogen peroxide, which activates the dye compounds as well as lightening hair, can also be irritating.
  • Ethanolamine (monoethanolamine, diethanolamine etc) is often used as an alternative in ammonia-free products, and is also a potential irritant. While there’s some concern ethanolamines can create nitrosamines when combined with nitrosating agents, The Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists recommends manufacturers ensure any amine-containing formulations don’t also have nitrosating agents.
  • Resorcinol causes skin to peel, and is often used in acne treatments and in products for treating corns and callouses. It can sometimes cause allergies and can be irritating. In hair dye it combines with p-phenylenediamine PPD and similar compounds to create dyes.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a detergent and foaming agent often found in shampoo and toothpaste, and may dry or irritate your skin.
  • Parabens are preservatives often demonised for their potential oestrogenic effects. While there’s no persuasive evidence they’re harmful, manufacturers are gradually replacing them with other preservatives. They’re not widely used in hair dye products, so excluding them isn’t a strong selling point.
  • Some products, particularly those aimed at men, contain lead acetate to restore colour hair. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in soft tissues and bone, and is also a suspected carcinogen. However, it’s permitted in hair products, subject to concentration restrictions. Studies have found that very little is absorbed into the blood through the scalp, though long term cumulative effects haven’t been studied. Bismuth citrate, another heavy metal, is sometimes used instead of lead acetate and is thought to be less toxic.
  • Permanent hair dyes contain ingredients which can cause allergies. Symptoms range from a burning sensation and redness or rash, to weeping blisters, chemical burns and severe swelling of the face. Anaphylactic shock is rare but it happens. The main culprits are para-phenylenediamine (PPD), Toluene-2,5-diamine (TD) and Toluene-2,5-diamine sulphate (TDS). These are the ingredients that make the dye permanent when oxidised with hydrogen peroxide. There's more on hair dye allergies and links to henna products here.

All in all, these ingredients won't cause problems for most people, and there's no evidence they cause permanent harm. If you don't suffer redness, dryness, burning or itching after using hair dyes, you'll find supermarket and pharmacy dyes are the cheaper home hair colouring option. However, some people will find these ingredients irritating, and if this is you, the good news is that you can buy products with no or low levels of them. They tend to come at a higher price, and you may need to look for them online or in a health food store.

Hairdressers' tip

If you find hair dyes irritating - and it's definitely not an allergy - leave your hair unwashed for a few days before dying. The natural oils and dirt on the scalp help protect the skin from the irritants.

'Natural' and 'organic' products

If you're keen to try something that sounds more natural than your typical supermarket hair dye, we found the following products in health food stores and pharmacies:

  • Hair-Dyes_Tints-of-nature-w200pxTints of Nature. “Tints of Nature is the first long lasting permanent hair colour to use certified organic ingredients”. Claims it doesn’t contain ammonia or resorcinol and is paraben free. Contains PPD. Price paid: $22 





  • Hair-Dyes_Naturestyle-w200pxNaturStyle “Discover NaturStyle, the natural way to colour your hair.” Claims it doesn’t contain ammonia or resorcinol. Contains PPD. Price paid: $19.75




  • Hair-Dyes_watercolours-w200pxAtlantis watercolour “…developed using vegetable pigment to enrich and enliven your natural hair colour without the need for peroxide or ammonia”. Claims it doesn’t contain ammonia or hydrogen peroxide; “may contain” PPD or TDS. Choice tested this product in 2007 and it rated equal last overall, mainly because it didn’t cover grey hair very well. Price paid: $22.85





  • Herbatint “… is the first most natural hair-colouring gel to be free of harsh chemicals and ammonia. It incorporates proteins, botanicals and natural vegetal extracts such as Cinchona, Rhubarb and Walnut, nutrients that give hair its deep, natural shine and vibrant, healthy colour.” Claims it doesn’t contain ammonia, parabens, resorcinol. Contains PPD (although at lower levels than other products typically contain). Price paid: $20.50




  • Nature Colour “… this gentle and caring formula avoids many harsh chemicals such as Ammonia and Resorcinol, with the additional goodness of plant extracts to colour and condition your hair …”. Claims it doesn’t contain ammonia, resorcinol, SLS or paraben. Contains PPD. Price paid: $16.99



Bottom Line

There are still plenty of chemicals, including potential allergens, in “natural” or “organic” sounding hair dyes. The addition of certified organic ingredients and other plant extracts doesn’t mean it’s any better for your health. The only possible benefit lies in its marketing potential, and possibly agricultural producers, who get a premium for the organic products. As we said earlier, if you don't suffer sensitivities to the ingredients, and are mainly interested in colouring your hair (without all the bells and whistles of plant extracts), save your money and buy a supermarket brand.

Do hair dyes cause cancer?

Use of hair dye has been associated with increased rates of cancer, in particular bladder cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The main risks were using hair dyes before 1980, which is when carcinogenic dyes were removed from formulations, and the use of dark-coloured permanent dyes for more than 25 years. Research on use of hair dyes since 1980 has not shown an increased risk of cancer.



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