Hair Coloring 101: Permanent dyes.

More than 50% of women do it at least once every 6 - 12 weeks, and it's the number one revenue generator for salons across the country. There’s no doubt about it, hair coloring is big business.  Not just about covering gray, hair color is the ultimate fashion accessory.  Not just about looking good, hair color makes us feel good.  Walking out of the salon with that fresh shade of red or streaks of golden blonde highlights; somehow suddenly, everything looks a little brighter. 

But, in a time when we're questioning the safety of everything and anything from our water bottles to our carpeting, it's not surprising that the number one question I am asked these days is “how safe is hair color?”

Technically speaking, the type of permanent hair color typically used in hair salons, which is also the type of hair color I will review in this article, is called oxidative permanent hair color. 

Permanent hair color is, by definition, irreversible. The process requires two separate formulations to be mixed together just before application to the hair.  The first formulation contains the dyes, dye intermediates, ammonia or other alkali to create a high pH, as well as other ingredients to create a thick crème or gel base for easy application.  The second formulation contains peroxide and acid to keep pH low, as well as other ingredients to create a thick consistency.

Once applied to the hair, the high pH of the chemical mixture swells the hair shaft, allowing the dyes and dye intermediates to absorb into the hair.  During the processing time (usually 20 to 40 minutes) a series of chemical reactions take place, whereby the hair’s natural shade (from melanin) is lightened or “lifted”.  The smaller dye intermediates, now inside the hair shaft, chemically change into larger dye molecules, so large, they are trapped inside the hair and cannot wash out.

The dyes used in permanent hair color commonly include ingredients such as PPD (p-phenylenediamine), which is technically not a dye, but an intermediate, that becomes a dye once mixed with other chemical agents.  Also, preformed dyes, such as 2-nitro-p-phenylenediamine are used to create the desired shade.  Are these dyes and dye intermediates safe? Unfortunately, the answer to this question and so many others regarding chemical safety are not fully understood today.  My canned answer is "research is rarely black and white".

Disturbingly, the FDA reports on its website that “several coal tar dye ingredients have been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”  But, today, the only warning required on hair color includes statements regarding the potential for skin irritation and direction that the product must not be used for coloring eyelashes or eyebrows, as it may cause blindness. 

What can you do if you are concerned about the safety of hair color?  Here are my tips…

Lighten up.  Darker shades have significantly higher concentrations of the dyes and dye intermediates.  Therefore, a lighter shade means lower exposure.


Extend the time in between color services.  To accomplish this without looking two-toned, select a shade which blends with your re-growth, so the line of demarcation isn’t so apparent.

Go gray.  For many mature women who are more than 50% gray, the fight to cover the gray is a losing battle.  If you don’t like your natural shade, ask your hairdresser about temporary colors that can tone your gray and brighten up the color.


Hair colorists –use protective gloves.  If you are a hair colorist exposed to permanent hair color several times a day, your risk is obviously greater.  Make sure you always use gloves to minimize contact on your skin.


Use natural and organic permanent hair color. Trick answer! Did I catch you? Sorry, but there is no such thing as an all natural or organic permanent hair color.  Believe me, I wish there were, but today all oxidative permanent hair colors use the same dyes and dye intermediates. Suffice it to say, permanent hair color is permanent hair color.  Same dyes, same color. Don’t be fooled by marketing hype.

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