8 Rules for Safer Hair Color
Written by: Jean Godfrey-June
Updated: July 26, 2022
Hair color is, with only very small exceptions, 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 (paraphenylenediamine)—rated seven out of ten in terms of toxicity on ewg.org—is in most permanent hair color (some contain a 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.
8 Things to Know about Safe Hair Color
Go blonde, not brunette. Dark hair color contains significantly higher levels of PPD.
Wait to color your hair until you’re grey, if you know grey is going to bother you.
Go longer between coloring. Strategy A: Color-Wow makes a miraculous brush-on powder that covers roots imperceptibly—and it stays on until you wash it out—so it’s an easy, seriously effective alternative to obsessively dyeing your roots. Use it to draw out the time between coloring; over the course of your lifetime, you’ll significantly reduce your exposure. Strategy B: Condition, condition, condition your ends; wear hats; avoid chlorinate; wash your hair less—all in the service of keeping your color as vibrant and healthy-looking as possible, so you need to recolor less often.
If you’re coloring at home, respect the instructions. Wear the irksome gloves, especially with the home hair-color kits: Reduce your exposure in every way possible.
If you feel the slightest twinge of an allergic reaction after coloring, get medical help right away. (We’re not talking about irritation or even burns from bleach here; we’re talking swelling, dizziness, difficulty breathing.) People who’ve been coloring their hair most of their lives have had anaphylactic reactions to PPD, and people who’ve just colored their hair for the first time have also had the same reaction. Even people who’ve just passed a patch test have suffered reactions. Take any even vaguely allergic feeling extremely seriously; an anaphylactic reaction is a life-or-death emergency.
If you’re pregnant, don’t color during your first trimester, says colorist Marie Robinson, who owns popular salons in New York and Miami, and stay away from on-scalp coloring for the entire pregnancy if at all possible. “Talk to your colorist about options,” she says. “It’s possible to color and avoid the scalp in many cases.”
Avoid getting full-on color on your scalp. Highlights, for instance, don’t involve the scalp at all and pose little to no risk. Along similar lines, Robinson advises people with up to 25 percent grey to color only the grey, leaving the rest of the hair natural. “You don’t necessarily have to go for the full tint,” she says.
Use non-PPD formulas. They may or may not be completely nontoxic, but at least you’ve eliminated one known, especially virulent toxic ingredient. We love the temporary gel color from Christophe Robin; the brand Hairprint is a more-permanent, PPD-free option that involves a slightly more complicated application, but is totally doable at home.
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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 percent 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 times greater risk of getting bladder cancer than the general population. PPD’s also been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2008).
Beyond cancer, 2001 research from Linköping University in Sweden suggests that PPD might compromise the immune system, setting off rheumatoid arthritis (women who’d colored their hair for twenty 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 by-products 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, as an irritant, as 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.
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.)
Skeptics point out that even PPD-free formulas can contain toxicants like benzenes, which are 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, the founder of FourteenJay Salon in Tribeca, an Aveda salon (Aveda offers PPD and non-PPD color, and its formulas replace some of the other potential toxicants in hair color with natural ingredients). “The technology is changing all the time.” Robinson’s NYC salon 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.”
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.