Hair to Dye For

Natural Alternatives to Toxic Coloring Agents

I was born to be a redhead, but that’s not the color I got. The first time my hair dried to the glorious shade of red on the box of dye, I was hooked. I’m not alone: more than 50 million women in America dye their hair on a regular basis, from those covering gray to those who like to highlight or frost. And in case you hadn’t noticed, men are no longer immune to this particular vanity or the potential risks associated with it.

As this model would tell you, natural hair treatments offer alternatives to harsh chemicals.</© Tod Bryant

It has been years since I banished my mousy brown hair. I hadn’t really thought about the chemicals I routinely doused my scalp with until a friend of mine cancelled our dinner plans due to a "hair emergency" that was more worrisome than a bad dye job. After her last coloring, she had developed a rash over much of her body, caused by an allergic reaction to the commercial hair color she had been using. According to my friend’s doctor, she most likely developed a reaction to one of a few known allergens in hair dyes, possibly ammonia or peroxide, or the chemicals p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) or diaminobenzene. A person can become allergic to these chemicals even after years of use, and those who are chemically sensitive usually find them too toxic to use at all.

A Cancer Link

In addition to allergies, hair dye has come under scrutiny in recent years due to a possible link to various types of cancer. In 1994, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute announced that deep-colored dyes (like dark brown and black), when used over a prolonged period of time, seemed to increase the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. In 200l, the International Journal of Cancer found that those who use permanent hair dye are 2.1 times more likely to develop bladder cancer (as are their hairdressers). I was left wondering if the battle with my hair genes was worth the risks.

An examination of the shelves at my local organic supermarket yielded several options for both permanent and semi-permanent dyes. The labels boasted natural ingredients, nourishing plants and soy bases in such profusion that I wondered if I could eat the dye I didn’t use on my hair. John Masters, president of John Masters Organics, and owner of the salon by the same name, says, "You really have to read the labels and see what’s in there, since almost anything can be labeled as natural."

Whether to use a permanent or semi-permanent color depends on several factors. "If more than 50 percent of your hair is gray, or if you want to lighten your hair, you have to use a permanent color with peroxide," says Masters.

It turns out that all permanent dye must use PPD to adhere to the hair shaft and peroxide to open it. According to Marie Therese Dufour, North American representative for natural hair coloring Herbatint, those permanent dyes that don’t use PPD or one of its derivative names, like benzenediamine dihydrochloride or aminoaniline dihydrochloride, use toxic metals like lead or mercury to achieve the same effect. Herbatint ($12.50 per box) comes in 30 shades and contains low concentrations of PPD and peroxide, uses no ammonia, is not tested on animals and is biodegradable. In regards to possible toxins, Dufour says, "Many customers have come to us with psoriasis and eczema caused by irritation from other products; they use ours without reaction because it is very mild."

Ecocolors has a soy and flax base, and uses rosemary extract as a hair conditioner.© Ecocolors

Vegetal ($14.99 for three applications) from the Herbatint company lasts only five to six washes and is a vegetable-based color preparation containing no ammonia, peroxide or PPD. It is an alternative to harsher chemicals, although it has to be used more often as it just coats the hair shaft without penetrating it. Another permanent preparation is the ammonia-free Naturtint ($10.99 per box), which is enriched with oat, soy, corn and wheat extracts.

Ecocolors is another entry into the permanent dye category. It contains ammonia and peroxide at low concentrations. Founded by Lisa Saul, formerly a lab scientist, Ecocolors ($13.50 per box) has a soy and flax base and uses rosemary extract to condition the hair and flower essences instead of artificial scents. Saul got interested in alternatives to traditional hair dyes in 1990, when she was pregnant and worried about unnecessary chemical exposure. "I wanted to protect myself and my children," she says. Although no link has been found thus far between hair coloring and the health of the unborn, Saul’s concerns register with many women who want to avoid toxins when pregnant. Ecocolors will be in health stores this summer, and is available on the Internet.

Naturcolor ($14.95 per box), an import from Europe, also covers gray hair and improves hair condition. This product comes with an applicator (unlike Herbatint); you can mix only as much as you need and use the rest later.

Tried-and-True Henna

For a truly natural hair dye option, consider henna, which is made from the powdered leaves of a desert shrub called Lawsonia. Henna has been used for thousands of years to color hair and skin. (Cleopatra was a famed proponent.) Although it seems to pose no health risks, some sensitive people might still experience allergies when using it.

Rainbow Henna makes a variety of completely organic colors ($6.95 for four ounces), since henna is not just for red hair or highlights. Black hair and a huge variety of reds, light and dark browns and blondes can all benefit from henna’s coloring and super conditioning properties. Like any semi-permanent dye, it will only coat the hair and lasts an average of six weeks. But one advantage to henna is that it can be mixed with ingredients from the kitchen to customize color, like coffee to deepen brown tones, tea to add highlights to light brown and blonde, and apple cider vinegar to help hold color on resistant gray hair.

Tony Farish, a former Clairol employee who now owns Rainbow Research—the parent company of Rainbow Henna—made the switch to natural products in 1976. "Because henna is natural, there are limits to what you can do with it. You can’t lighten or bleach with it, but you can use it on some gray hair, and brown shades work particularly well," he says. Another henna dye company is Light Mountain, which sells application kits that are convenient for those used to traditional home hair coloring packages ($5.50 per box, $10.98 for gray-covering formula).

With many of these dyes available at health food stores and supermarkets, the choice is yours. And don’t forget, you can bring any natural coloring or henna to your hairdresser if it’s not carried there. Most hair colorists are happy to use a product that a customer prefers.

There are also quite a few natural options available exclusively to salons. One popular brand is Tocco Magico from Italy. Let your colorists know that you are interested in fewer chemicals for both your health and theirs.

STARRE VARTAN, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, has been coloring her hair continuously since she was 16.