The Dangers in Hair Coloring and Safer Alternatives

Friday, February 01, 2008 by: Cathy Sherman
Tags: personal care products, health news, Natural News

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(NaturalNews) Many consumers are growing in their watchfulness as to what goes in their bodies, but health can be as greatly impacted by what goes on their bodies. We already realize that chemicals in cosmetics such as skin creams can break through the skin barrier, but what about the chemicals in hair coloring? In response to recent bad press about hair dyes, many have turned to semi-permanent solutions. However, there is reason to question the safety in the substances used in these products as well. If you are among the 50% of women who color their hair, or a man who covers his gray, you might want to do more investigation into your favorite hair coloring.

Europe seems to be well ahead of the U.S. in its members' responses to potentially dangerous chemicals in cosmetics and body care products. Last year on December 1st, a ban on 22 hair dye substances issued by the European Commission, a body that drafts legislation for the European Union, took effect. These substances had been linked to bladder cancer in a 2001 University of Southern California study. Commented European Commission Vice-President GŁnter Verheugen, who is responsible for enterprise and industry policy, "Substances for which there is no proof that they are safe will disappear from the market. Our high safety standards do not only protect EU consumers, they also give legal certainty to the European cosmetics industry." The United States, however, has not required manufacturers to file data on ingredients or report cosmetic-related injuries.

This ban was the first concrete step taken by the EU as the result of a 2003 agreement to establish a positive list of hair dye substances which are considered safe for human health. The agreement called for the Commission to ban all permanent and non-permanent hair dyes for which industry has not submitted any safety files and those for which the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) has given a negative opinion.

In a public consultation the Commission had asked cosmetics producers to provide safety files for their substances, based on scientific expertise, which proved that a substance did not pose a health risk for consumers. Though the industry submitted 115 files on hair dye substances for evaluation by the scientific committee, such safety files for the 22 banned hair dye ingredients were not submitted. The committee also recommended an overall safety assessment strategy for hair dyes, in addition to testing the ingredients for their potential genotoxicity or mutagenicity. The banned substances include:

* 6-Methoxy-2,3-Pyridinediamine and its HCl salt

* 2,3-Naphthalenediol

* 2,4-Diaminodiphenylamine

* 2,6-Bis(2-Hydroxyethoxy)-3,5-Pyridinediamine

* 2-Methoxymethyl-p-Aminophenol

* 4,5-Diamino-1-Methylpyrazole and its HCl salt

* 4,5-Diamino-1-((4-Chlorophenyl)Methyl)-1H-Pyrazole Sulfate

* 4-Chloro-2-Aminophenol

* 4-Hydroxyindole

* 4-Methoxytoluene-2,5-Diamine and its HCl salt

* 5-Amino-4-Fluoro-2-Methylphenol Sulfate

* N,N-Diethyl-m-Aminophenol

* N,N-Dimethyl-2,6-Pyridinediamine and its HCl salt

* N-Cyclopentyl-m-Aminophenol

* N-(2-Methoxyethyl)-p-phenylenediamine and its HCl salt

* 2,4-Diamino-5-methylphenetol and its HCl salt

* 1,7-Naphthalenediol

* 3,4-Diaminobenzoic acid

* 2-Aminomethyl-p-aminophenol and its HCl salt

* Solvent Red 1 (CI 12150)

* Acid Orange 24 (CI 20170)

* Acid Red 73 (CI 27290)

The 2001 USC study was not a clinical cancer trial but it did identify the highest risk groups for susceptibility for bladder cancer due to hair dyes. These include women who have used permanent dyes once a month or more for a year or longer and those who have worked as hair dressers or barbers for ten years or more. If the dyes were used for 15 years or more, the risk was tripled. The darkness of the dye also increased the risk.

There have been conflicting results from such studies, but bladder cancer involves some complicated issues. Women flush out carcinogenic ingredients from their bodies at differing rates, and those with slower rates have a higher risk of contracting bladder cancer. About half of the Caucasians in the U.S. have slow-flushing genes. Also, bladder cancer takes more time to show up following exposure to a carcinogen, usually about 30 years as opposed to 15 to 20 years for most cancers.

When the FDA learned that rats fed the coal tars used in dark hair dyes contracted cancer, they asked for warning labels to be placed on dye packages. Instead, the industry decided to substitute other chemicals for the coal tars. Researchers doubt that the petroleum-derived chemicals are any safer, however. What's more, the National Cancer Institute has discovered a connection between hair dyes, especially dark ones, and the group of cancers that impact blood and lymph nodes, such as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma. More studies are looking at these connections, since a connection does not in any way prove causality.

The most problematic hair dye ingredient is a family of chemicals called Arylamines. Arylamines are a known risk factor for bladder cancer and have been found to cause cancer in experimental animals. One of these is p-phenylenediamine (PPD) which is listed on the box of even non-permanent "natural" products. It is an important ingredient in hair coloring because it lasts through many washings and perming is possible with it. PPD hair dyes usually come packaged as 2 bottles, one containing the PPD dye preparation and the other containing the developer or oxidizer. PPD is a colorless substance that requires oxygen for it to become colored. It is this intermediate, partially oxidized state that may cause allergy in sensitive individuals. Fully oxidized PPD is not a sensitizer, so individuals with PPD allergy can wear wigs or fur coats dyed with PPD safely.

Another factor involves the mixing of hydrogen peroxide with ammonia. Research has found that this combination may create potentially carcinogenic chemicals that don't normally exist in the two liquids prior to mixing them together.

A third factor is that the darker dyes are more challenging as they contain greater levels of chemicals. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) stated that skin contact with PPD should be prevented in order to avoid the allergic reactions, and indeed, the FDA has NOT approved its use for direct skin application. This is an oxymoron, though, as it is next to impossible to avoid contact with the skin when applying hair color.

While carcinogenic evidence might be unconvincing at this time, one must not overlook the dangers in allergic reactions. We tend to dismiss allergies as something we can deal with, but they can be deadly in many ways. The most common allergic reactions to hair dye chemicals are dermatitis of the eyes, ears, scalp and face, which may include a rash, extreme swelling and a severe burning sensation on the scalp. More severe reactions include cross-sensitization and in rare cases, death. Cross-sensitization means that it not only makes you sensitive to PPD but you become responsive to all of its chemical cousins. This includes most textile dyes, pen ink, gasoline, oil, food dyes, medication dyes, preservatives like Parabens, and some drugs (all caine drugs such as Benzocaine and Novacaine), Sulfonamides, sulfones, sulfa drugs, and Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA).

One last cross-reactor is fragrance, since so many of these contain related chemicals. Just because a person does not seem to have a reaction after using a product several times does not guarantee cross-sensitization will not occur after the next usage. In fact, it might not occur until the 25th time the product is used. The only way to use such products without worrying about an allergic reaction is to do the patch test every time one colors their hair, at least 72 hours in advance. Not many people actually do this, and it would be very difficult for a salon to do so.

Basically, about 400 out of the 456 hair colors ranked in the Skin Deep cosmetics database of the Environmental Working Group are considered high hazard, which means they contain toxic ingredients linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, organ toxicity, in addition to the allergic problems already discussed.

The safe alternatives for hair coloring can be categorized as safer and safest. The industry has taken out some of the chemicals by producing semi-permanent coloring. Still, as previously mentioned, these products usually contain p-phenylenediamine, hydrogen peroxide and resorcinol. Although the amount of chemicals is of a lesser degree and may be less hazardous, there is still no evidence to back this up. Since the darker the hair coloring, the more problematic, it is also safer to go blonde or use highlighting only. Whatever is used, it has been recommended to drink a liter of water afterward to help flush out the toxins.

There is a safer alternative that so far produces no health concerns. One can use vegetable-based rinses which act by coating the hair shaft with botanical extracts such as blackberry, boysenberry, licorice root, chaparral, nettle, red sorrel, black walnut and other color pigments. These substances do not penetrate the hair shaft, plus they give the hair more shine and make it feel thicker and fuller. The coating action may also aid in protecting the hair from environmental elements such as sun, salt, chlorine and assorted pollutants. Safety tests have found that these rinses contain the least amount of synthetic chemicals of any hair dyes. The down side is that the effect is short-lived, lasting only a few weeks.

Safer alternatives to ammonia and peroxide are being developed. One company's organic and mineral research laboratory has found a way of making peroxide from avocado oil and it is far less irritating to the skin. They have also discovered an alternative to ammonia. Derived from coconut oil, it isn't irritating and has no nasty smell. Look for products that are ammonia and peroxide-free and use vegetable-based dyes. A search on the web for "natural hair colorings" should turn up a few good leads. Two examples are Planet Organic and Aveda. Some of these companies state that their formulas provide longer lasting color than the older vegetable rinses.

Many people have tried henna as a solution. Henna's effect lasts longer than a vegetable rinse and adds a wonderful shine, highlights and bounce to the hair. Henna products, which are gluten-free and animal-cruelty-free, are not always a red color, but all henna contains and imparts a little red. Today this natural dye comes in a wide array of shades, not just red, but will not lighten hair. Henna enhances your natural color rather than totally covering it, which allows some of your natural highlights to come through. The coating and sealing advantages mentioned above are inherent with henna.

On a related issue, the consumer still needs to be careful when selecting henna products, at least in regard to henna tattoos. Recently, PPD received bad press when it was used to darken henna tattoos and caused numerous disfiguring scars. The FDA states that this "black henna" may contain the "coal tar" color p-phenylenediamine.

As an alternative to henna, one can create a non-toxic infusion by boiling certain herbs in water and then cooling and straining prior to using the rinse. Other rinses can be derived from many ingredients easily found in most kitchen pantries ( .

For Brunette shades, rinse hair with one of these suggestions:

* The cooled water left after boiling unpeeled potatoes

* Teas made from rosemary, sage, raspberry leaves, parsley, or catnip

* Black coffee or black tea

* An infusion of tea, walnuts and coffee

* An infusion of apple cider vinegar, rosemary and coffee

For Blonde shades, rinse hair with:

* Infusions or teas made from Saffron, Turmeric, Calendula (marigold), Mullein

* An infusion of Avena Sativa (oat straw), Licorice Root and Saffron

* Chamomile tea

* Water from boiling chopped rhubarb in water, cooling, and straining

For red shades, rinse hair with:

* Cool, strong black coffee

* Teas made from rosehips, red hibiscus, calendula or saffron

For gray shades, rinse hair with:

* A Hollyhock infusion or Betony rinse to remove the yellow from gray hair.

When it comes to cosmetics and safety, the consumer must keep in mind that there is no U.S. governmental agency regulating products in this category. The FDA can only make recommendations about unsafe chemicals; it is up to the cosmetic companies themselves to do the research into an ingredient's safety or potential dangers. Consumers can draw their own conclusions, but when one looks at Europe and other countries to see what is regulated and compares this list to the list of ingredients on the packages on our drug store shelves, it is cause for concern. The discrepancy makes it hard to trust the industry.

As always, it is up to you, the consumer, to do the research and to become responsible for your own health, in regard to what goes on your body in addition to what goes in it.

Related resources:



FDA, (


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Recipes for hair infusions and rinses - Geocities/Heartland/Prairie, ( and Vegfamily

About the author

Cathy Sherman is a freelance writer with a major interest in natural health and in encouraging others to take responsibility for their health. She can be reached through

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