WTF Toxic Hair Dye!? A Non Toxic Guide To See How Hair Dye Measures Up

Most of us have done it once or twice or a few hundred times in our lives. It’s an easy way to shake things up a bit and change your look. After all, it’s just hair, right? Right. But that hair goes directly into our skin. So the chemicals in our hair dye really matter. Especially since some of those chemicals have been linked to cancer. So let’s break this down.

Why Can Hair Dye Be Bad? 

The chemical make-up of hair dye can vary and so can the affect it has on our health. The main factor is how much the chemicals in the dye penetrate into the hair shaft and have contact with the skin. Permanent hair dyes are the most dangerous because they cause chemical changes in the hair shaft that last for a long period of time. These permanent hair dyes have been referred to as “coal tar” dyes. And Let’s be honest, the name pretty much speaks for itself. These dyes were dubbed with that nickname because they, in fact, contained coal tar, as well as other harsh chemicals to be effective in the dying process. Temporary and semi-permanent dyes, lasting 2-10 washes, just cover the hair and don’t penetrate the hair shaft, so they are off the hook a little, but semi-permanent dyes can still be a cause for concern.

Although temporary hair dyes tend to be less of a concern, more often than not, we have to bleach our hair to get those vibrant pinks and blues. Bleach does penetrate the hair shaft gaining access to the rich blood supply present in the scalp. Not to mention, it has a damaging effect on your hair’s protein structure. Making your hair more prone to breakage & tangle, vulnerable to heat processes and overall porous in texture.

All the chemicals ingredients in hair dye may not be harmful on their own, but when mixed with other chemicals to create the reaction, they can become carcinogens. Creating a cocktail of mess for our health.

What Can Hair Dye Do To Us?

Hair dyes are considered to be a cosmetic, so the FDA barely regulates them, if at all. They can take action if the product is deemed to be harmful, but that takes a lot of time and proof. The FDA does not regulate each ingredient that goes into a product before it hits the market, that responsibility is put on the manufacturer. In fact, the FDA can't even take action against products containing coal tar, if it is proven to be carcinogenic, simply because brands include a small warning label. So chemicals like coal tar, formaldehyde, Fragrance, parabens, ammonia, & DMDM Hydantoin easily sneak their way into our hair dyes. These chemicals are just a few common ingredients that pop up in hair dye and all of them have been linked to one or more cancers and diseases.

Permanent dyes have especially been linked to cancer. More specifically, they have frequently been found in correlation with blood cancers (leukemia & lymphoma) and bladder cancer. Population studies over the years have seen an increase of bladder cancers in hairdressers and barbers. Those occupations are exposed to these chemicals every day and are even at risk while applying them. It is almost impossible to not expose skin to hair dye while applying it and even breathing the fumes can have some effect. Darker semi-permanent and permanent dyes should be avoided as much as possible. Unfortunately, these correlations are hard to prove without more studies, but they are causing some stir on whether more research should be done to protect people from this exposure. (We say yes, how about you?)

Some of the other side effects of hair dyes are skin irritations and allergic reactions. Causing the scalp to have sores, redness, and itching discomfort. These should not ignored. If you keep using hair dye they could get worse. This reaction is often attributed to bleach or to a chemical called para-phenylenediamine, or PPD, often used in permanent hair dye to darken hair or cover grey hairs. People have had as severe reactions as swelling of the face, scalp and eyelids.

How can I dye my hair safely?

As always with non-regulated cosmetics, the best way to avoid these chemicals is to do your own research. If you dye your hair yourself, use EWG’s Skin Deep database to look up the ingredients in your hair dyes. You can even find better alternatives on there if yours are bad news.

Fortunately, there are some companies that are making great strides in the non toxic hair dye arena. Organic Color Systems is one of those companies. They use a coconut acid extract to lift the pigment and lighten hair. This leaves the PH balance intact and doesn’t cause the damage or contain the toxic nature of bleach. In fact, between 98-99 percent of their ingredients are derived naturally or organic. The only synthetic ingredients are stabilizers and pigments. You can also try Organic & MineralLogonaSanteTints of Nature, Good Dye Young, or Naturigin. To name a few!

There are some great DIY tricks with food grade ingredients that can give you a temporary new hair-do. You’d be surprised what you can do with some vegetable extract, tea, herbs and coffee.

If you want to get your hair professionally done, which we recommend if you are going to go farther than simple DIY recipes, find a salon that shares your same values. Organic hair salons are popping up more and more these days due to the growing non toxic awareness. Just do a Google search and see if there are any near you. Our favorite is Primrose Organics Salon and Boutique. Not only do they use non toxic hair dyes, but they offer organic hair care as well. You can even be proactive and ask your hairstylist what they use and if they would be willing to consider a switch to a less toxic option. They sky is the limit when we decide to take control of what goes on our bodies.


Monica Schrock

Monica is a vegan, coffee and comics loving, non-toxic lifer who has her own cruelty-free body care company, Bare Bones Body Care. When she’s not advocating for public health, animals, or the environment, you will most likely catch her drinking coffee, playing basketball, or laughing uncontrollably.