Eight Rules for Safer Hair Color
Hair color is not clean. At all. Even products in Europe, and even most brands labeled “natural,” “herbal,” or “organic,” contain seriously toxic chemicals. Many of us here at goop color our hair, love the results, and in no way plan to stop. But we’d love to at least understand the risks we’re taking when we do—and of course, what we’d most love is for the whole process to become more transparent, and eventually, safer.
Is coloring your hair as bad for you as, say, a regular smoking habit? Probably not, though its effects are (shamefully) less studied. Perhaps the most toxic ingredient, PPD (para-phenylenediamine), rated seven out of ten in terms of toxicity on ewg.org, is in most permanent hair color (some contain the similar compound, PTD), including many so-called “organic” and “natural” formulas. “PPD is one of the most concerning ingredients,” says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
PPD is a powerful chemical sensitizer, explains Lunder: “It can cause strong allergic reactions.” These reactions can go beyond itchiness or even redness and irritation, though PPD can cause all of those. PPD can also cause fatal anaphylactic reactions—which can occur even if you pass a patch test, even if you’ve been using the same hair color with no ill effects for years, or, conversely, if it’s the first time you’ve ever tried hair color. And the patch test itself is controversial: “People are now studying to try to figure out whether the patch test only serves to increase your exposure—and thus increase the likelihood of an allergic reaction—or whether there’s a benefit,” says Lunder.
PPD is also linked to cancer—in 2001, a University of Southern California study found that women who had colored their hair once a month for fifteen years or more had a 50% higher risk of bladder cancer; in a 2004 study published in the International Journal of Cancer, hair colorists who’d been working with color for more than fifteen years had a five-fold risk of getting bladder cancer compared to the general population. PPD’s also been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2008).
Beyond cancer, research at the Linkoping University in Sweden in 2001, suggests PPD might compromise the immune system, setting off rheumatoid arthritis (women who’d colored their hair for 20 years or more had twice the risk of women who had not), according to the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases. Despite all this, the FDA has even less authority to regulate PPD than it does other cosmetics. PPD and all other coal-tar colorants—usually derived as byproducts of petroleum combustion—are called out specifically in the Food Drug and Cosmetics Act as exempt from rules for any cosmetic that “bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious.” To quote the FDA website: “FDA cannot take action against a coal-tar hair dye, as long as the label includes a special caution statement and the product comes with adequate directions for consumers to do a skin test before they dye their hair.”
The European Union classifies PPD as a wildlife and environmental toxin; an irritant; a restricted occupational hazard; as toxic or harmful for use on skin; and as an immune system toxicant. The EPA classifies PPD as a known human respiratory toxicant, and as generally toxic to animals in moderate doses (and it acknowledges there are no low-dose animal studies).
All of that said, many of the published studies are based on subjects who were dying their hair pre-1980, and formulas have absolutely improved since then. Improved, though, does not mean there isn’t still PPD in most hair color. Because the FDA requires little transparency when it comes to hair color formulas and labeling, the incentives for companies (both “natural” and not) to clean up their acts are simply not there.
In terms of alternatives, stylists say it’s rare to find anything performs as well or looks as natural as PPD-based color. Some people have good results with pure henna, others do not; henna formulas can contain heavy metals, salts, and, particularly when labeled as “black henna”, PPD. (Lunder says the so-called black henna that’s used in temporary tattoos is made of PPD.)
Studies show, though, that you’re more likely to find non-PPD color options in a salon, rather than on the shelf at the drugstore; one new PPD-free salon line from Wella called Innosense, is getting lots of buzz. Skeptics point out that even PPD-free formulas can contain other toxins like benzenes, also linked to cancer. Again, without any FDA regulation, risks and benefits are hard to parse. “It’s a moving target,” says editorial colorist David Adams, founder of FourteenJay Salon in Tribeca, an Aveda salon (Aveda also offers PPD and non-PPD color; its formulas also replace some of the other potential toxins in hair color with natural ingredients). “The technology is changing all the time.” Top colorist Marie Robinson’s NYC salon also offers non-PPD options, and she too, sees reasons for optimism: “Every day there are breakthroughs in beauty,” she says. “And hair color just doesn’t have the same chemical content as it did when our parents and grandparents used it.”
Mild Shampoo + Protective Conditioner
= Longer-Lasting Color
You can color your hair less if you really take care of it. Focus on clean, nontoxic, ultra-gentle, super-moisturizing formulas—just as you would with your skin.
True Botanicals Shampoo & Conditionergoop, $64
True Nature’s shampoo/conditioner set packages together two of goop’s favorite hair care products. Both the shampoo and conditioner smell absolutely amazing, are extremely nourishing, and completely toxin-free. The scent is a refreshing mix of lemon and orange peel oils, ylang ylang flower oil, sweet violet extract, and mimosa tenuiflora bark extract. Bonus: The subtle silver tone of the bottles makes this a stunning combination on any shower ledge.
Rahua Shampoo & Conditionergoop, $70
Sustainably sourced from deep in the Amazon, the hair-nourishing Rahua and Ungurahua oils that create the base for this shampoo have been used by indigenous women to treat hair for centuries. Combined with coconut and shea butter, quinoa extract and Palo Santo (“holy wood”), it leaves your hair utterly cleansed, revitalized, healthy, and shiny. In the shower, the light lather and delicate scent create a soothing aromatherapeutic experience.
Lavett & Chin Hair Wash and Hair Moisturizer/Conditionergoop, $36-38
Made with geranium, spearmint, rosemary, and black spruce oils, this works-for-every-hair-type cleanser is gentle but thorough, leaving hair soft and silky. It works with your own natural oils to balance the scalp and stimulate hair follicles. Plus, it feels and smells amazing.
A luxurious mix of coconut oil, rice extract, spirulina, rosemary, geranium and fennel, this ultra-nourishing hydrator seriously increases shine and manageability, leaving hair smoother, softer and healthier. It smells and feels fantastic, and works brilliantly for everyday.
Reverie Nude Shampoo & Conditionergoop, $70
This luxurious cleansing cream is perfect every day for all hair types, especially color-treated. Made with sweet almond, neroli, grapefruit, sandalwood, and patchouli oils, it’s incredibly gentle yet cleanses thoroughly, leaving hair beautifully silky and shiny.
A brilliant every day cream rinse, this super-hydrator is made with sweet almond oil, zinc, neroli, vanilla, cardamom, and a host of other amazing essential oils. It leaves hair bouncy, manageable, and gleaming with health.
Rodin Luxury Hair Oilgoop, $70
Like all Rodin products, the hair oil is naturally scented and incredibly hardworking. The apricot oil-based formula was designed by famed hairstylist Bob Recine to heal and maintain damaged hair.
Uma Nourishing Hair Oilgoop, $70
For shinier, bouncier, and all-around healthier hair, this all-in-one healing blend of hibiscus, yerba de tago, Indian gooseberry, jojoba, moringa, and grapeseed oil is infused with lemon and grapefruit extract to cleanse the scalp, stimulate hair follicles, and promote healthy hair growth. The best part: Though it penetrates deeply and saturates hair with essential moisture, it doesn’t weigh it down. Apply 5-7 drops of this restorative solution directly to the roots, either as an overnight treatment, or for about 15-20 minutes before you shampoo. Bonus: It’s totally safe for color-treated hair, too.