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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01 .Introduction


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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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 allergic reaction can occur at any time – from the first time you use dye or suddenly after many years of trouble-free use. Alarmingly, these same allergens can be found in some henna hair products and henna tattoos - not quite where you'd expect them.

Allergens - what to look for

The main culprits are p-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.

PPD appears to have the strongest allergenic potential, followed by TD then TDS . PPD is found in most permanent dye products on the market, and it's also found in some henna products for hair and temporary tattoos. Getting a temporary tattoo may sensitise you to future contact (more below).

PPD used to be banned from hair dyes in some European countries, but it's now considered okay if it comprises less than six percent of a product. Manufacturers aren't required to state exactly how much PPD is present and, depending on the colour, the level can vary. There tends to be more PPD in darker dyes. There are some products, such as Herbatint, which contain lesser amounts of PPD than other products, and this may help reduce the risk of developing an allergy.

Skin patch test for allergies

Products with these sensitisers carry warnings and recommend you do a skin sensitivity (patch) test, where a small amount of dye is applied to your forearm or behind the ear. If there is no reaction within 48 hours, it’s presumed you are safe to use it.

However, the EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Products points out that this is no guarantee: there are many misleading and false-negative results, and it can take up to a week to react to the allergen, not 48 hours. They also point out the patch test can actively sensitise people to the allergen, so when they apply the dye to their hair two days later they get an allergic reaction .

While most people are likely to never develop a hair dye allergy, you can reduce the risk by making sure not to get the dye on your skin, using gloves to apply the dye and making sure you don’t leave the dye on longer than the recommended time.

Your options if you’re allergic

• If you’re allergic to PPD, you may also be allergic to TD and TDS, because they’re similar chemicals. However, studies have found that it’s possible to be allergic to one but not others. If you have a confirmed allergy to one, it could be worth trying a hair colour with the other – but do two patch tests a week apart, and only apply colour to hair a week after a clear second patch test. If you’ve suffered a severe reaction in the past, try this only after consulting your dermatologist.
• Hydroxyethyl-p-phenylenediamine sulfate, another known sensitiser similar to PPD, has also recently been tested on people with PPD allergies – some reacted, but most did not . It’s not yet used in products available in Australia, but may provide an alternative to PPD in future products.
• For mild allergies, ask the hairdresser for foils and specify that the dye doesn’t touch your scalp, or stick with highlights using a cap.
• You could try henna products, including those mixed with indigo for a brown rather than red effect. Senna gives a golden tint to grey or blonde hair. Some plant dye products contain PPD (see below) or metallic salts, so check ingredients.
• Beware many products that suggest they’re natural or organic still contain these chemicals.
• If you’re allergic to hair dye, you may also be allergic to benzocaine, a topical anaesthetic used in some anti-itch creams, dental and medical ointments and cough drops.

PPD in henna

These and some other henna products – especially black or dark henna – contain PPD, and are therefore unsuitable for people with hair dye allergies. If you’re buying henna products because of allergies to conventional hair dyes, check the ingredients carefully.


Henna tattoos – steer clear

Hair-Dyes_alm10914_fm-1_ups-w150pxThat ‘temporary’ black henna tattoo you or the kids get on holidays may become a lasting souvenir. The girls in this picture got black henna tattoos while on holiday in Egypt, and a few days later blistered in perfect synchrony with the original tattoos.

Paraphenylenediamine (PPD) is often used in henna to make it darker and to dry faster, and similar allergic reactions have been reported among Australians holidaying in Asia. They’ll never be able to use hair dye containing PPD, and are also potentially allergic to para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA – found in some sunscreens), benzocaine and sulfonamides (a class of medicines which includes some antibiotics, diuretics and anticonvulsants).

Almeida PJ & Borrego L. Snapshot: Temporary henna tattoos with long-term consequences. MJA 2009; 191 (11/12): 687. © Copyright 2009 Medical Journal of Australia – reproduced with permission.

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