Organic Hair Dyes & Highlights?

Dear EarthTalk: Are there organic highlights and dyes I can use in my hair that contain less ammonia and peroxide than traditional brands?

—Terry Hornsby, Taunton, MA

For those who want to color their hair but find the chemicals in widely available dyes and highlighting treatments too harsh, a new crop of products promises to do the trick without causing allergic reactions or other health problems. While green-friendly permanent hair dyes still require some of these chemicals—such as ammonia, peroxide, p-Phenylenediamine or diaminobenzene—in order to be effective, alternatives do exist that contain smaller amounts.

Ecocolors, which contains small amounts of ammonia and peroxide, has a soy and flax base and uses rosemary extract to condition the hair and flower essences instead of artificial scents. Another option is Herbatint. This ammonia-free permanent dye is biodegradable, but it does make use of low concentrations of p-Phenylenediamine and peroxide.

Meanwhile, temporary dyes and highlight treatments should be able to color hair without the need for harsh chemicals. Naturcolor and Vegetel are shorter-lived options that do not contain any damaging chemicals, although their effect will only last a few washes.

One truly natural although temporary dye that has been around since Cleopatra herself is henna. Made from the powdered leaves of a desert shrub called Lawsonia, henna has been used for thousands of years to color hair and skin. Rainbow Henna makes a variety of 100 percent organic hair treatments ranging from blonde to black hair and everything in between. Meanwhile, Light Mountain sells an organic henna application kit familiar to those accustomed to traditional home hair coloring packages. While many such treatments are available at natural health and beauty supply retailers, others, such as the Italian-made Tocco Magico, may be available only at salons.

Recent studies have given those worried about the traditional hair dyes they use new reasons to switch to less harsh alternatives. A 1994 National Cancer Institute report found that deep-colored dyes (like dark brown and black), when used over prolonged periods of time, seemed to increase the risk of cancers such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Meanwhile a 2001 study by the International Journal of Cancer found that people who use permanent hair dye are twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those who go au naturel regarding hair color.

CONTACT: Ecocolors,; Herbatint,; Naturcolor,; Rainbow Henna,; Tocco Magico,