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Hair color that's eco-friendly — and effective

The beauty industry struggles to find natural hair colors that work as well as chemical dyes.

January 09, 2011|By Alexandra Drosu | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The debate over whether hair color products are harmful to health has gone on for years.
The debate over whether hair color products are harmful to health has gone… (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles…)

The beauty industry is no stranger to organic ingredients, and a multitude of hair- and skin-care companies claim to be eco-friendly, all-natural or certified organic. More recently, hair color companies have joined the eco-revolution, advertising nontoxic, ammonia-free, all-natural or organic formulas. But can hair color truly be green and effective?

The debate over the dangers of hair color has percolated in the United States for more than 50 years, with studies both supporting and refuting the notion that hair dyes cause cancer.

Specifically, the ingredient para-phenylenediamine, or PPD — which in hair dye is essential for fast, nonfading color — is at the root of these claims. In large doses, the chemical has been shown to increase the risk of cancer and cell mutation, and it is restricted by the Food and Drug Administration, with maximum usage guidelines.

PPD causes swelling of the hair cuticle (the outer layer of the hair shaft), brings the dye with it into the cortex (the middle layer), where the color molecule is then too big to be washed out, says Dr. Paul McAndrews, clinical professor at the USC School of Medicine.

Although PPD often comes under fire, many experts think that the risk from using hair color is minimal. "The debate has been going on for years on whether or not hair dyes lead to cancer, but there is no definitive evidence to support that theory," says Philip Kingsley, founder of an eponymous line of products as well as the Philip Kingsley Trichological Centers for hair care in London and New York.

Other experts say that today's color formulas have sophisticated delivery systems and are far safer than previous formulations, which had stronger active solutions and took longer to process. Today's products contain lower amounts of PPD that are within FDA guidelines and take less time to use, thus decreasing contact with the scalp. Lastly, "most products don't absorb into the skin well," McAndrews says.

Though cancer may not be a huge concern when it comes to dyes, formulas can cause allergic reactions and scalp sensitivity. There's also the question of whether inhaled fumes can lead to respiratory issues. Hairstylist Clay Patane switched products when he worried about his 6-month-old son being exposed to chemicals in his Eagle Rock Salon, the Loft Hair Lounge. He turned to a yogurt-based, PPD- and ammonia-free product by Kemon called Yo Color, whose formula uses alternative chemicals that a company spokesman says are less irritating and have no odor.

Vegetable-based dyes that are completely chemical-free do exist, but most colorists question the quality of results.

"I think it's complete balderdash," Kingsley says. "You have to have certain ingredients in color for it to adhere into the hair shaft. To have something that is eco-friendly doesn't make sense; natural products would go rancid right way." He says vegetable dyes don't adhere to the hair and cause more damage because they must be used more frequently, while more effective formulas simply substitute different chemicals.

"Due to the plant base in organic products," adds celebrity hair stylist Ric Pipino, these "can sometimes leave hair with a subtle green tint."

Says McAndrews: "How do we know we're not replacing apples for oranges? Poison oak is a botanical, but is it good for you?"

Jennifer J., owner of Brentwood's Juan Juan salon, says that when it comes to hair dye, there's no magic pill. Eco-friendly brands often have limited color ranges, don't cover gray as well and don't last as long. "You have to choose your battles. Would you rather have a little more hair color or better results?"

She recommends INOA by L'Oréal for those who want to eschew ammonia, and semi-permanent vegetable dyes (such as Palette by Nature) for those who are after a temporary change. Also, not all traditional hair-color formulas are the same. She recommends visiting the Environmental Working Group's Cosmetic Safety Database ( to assess the toxicity rating of dyes.

"Natural is a great way to approach things, but eco-friendly hair color is still in its infancy stage and needs to be researched and further developed before we feature it as a color service," Pipino says.

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