It’s not pretty—covering your roots can be hazardous to your health if you’re using chemical-laden permanent hair dye. A 2001 study from the University of Southern California published in the International Journal of Cancer found that women who used permanent hair dye once a month for a year had twice the likelihood of developing bladder cancer as women who didn’t. The same increase in bladder cancer was found in hair stylists who handled hair dyes for a least a year. A possible culprit are arylamines in hair dye, found to cause cancer in laboratory animals, according to previous studies; small amounts of arylamines are absorbed through the skin when you color your hair. You later expel these chemicals through urine, passing them through the bladder.
Ammonia, parabens, and resorcinol (a dangerous toxin found in most brands of hair color), are other potentially harmful ingredients. Research suggests links to pancreatic cancer, leukemia (with black dyes) and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. An ingredient called Para-Phenylenediamine, or PPD, a type of arylamine, can cause allergic reactions. Exposure to PPD can cause rashes, swelling (some user’s eyes actually swell shut), and painful burning sensations (and even actual chemical burning) on the scalp.
Beyond the negative health effects, these products damage your hair. Hair loss and breakage are common. Not to mention flyaways and dryness.
So what’s a girl (or guy) to do if you’re just not ready to go gray—or you just want to try a fun new color? Do more natural alternatives work, and will you get the results you want, and the color you want? Some natural hair dyes may use a natural alkaline medium instead of ammonia—just as effective at opening the hair cuticle. And they’re available in more than just henna-red: virtually any color you can find in mainstream products is available in natural products. And added benefits include softer, shinier locks and less damage to hair. Many include conditioners with natural oils, plant proteins, and hair-strengthening pro-vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid).
Boulder-based Elizabeth Black, who had been coloring her hair blonde for more than 30 years (with conventional hair dye) says, “My scalp had become sensitive, and my hair looked and felt dry. I was afraid to try anything new, but a friend recommended a more natural color (Naturtint Permanent Hair Color) sold in vitamin and health stores. I liked that it was ammonia-free and made with natural ingredients. I tried the Sandy Blonde.”
The verdict? “There was no horrible odor, and my scalp did not burn,” she says. “I was delighted with the results. My hair is now soft, and I love the color and shine. I think the secret is the conditioner applied after shampooing—it smells fresh and makes my hair feel silky. This is the only at-home hair color I will ever use again.”
If you don’t color at home, look for a salon that uses less-toxic products. Or bring your own natural hair color product to your regular stylist: “I buy a box of natural hair color and then take it to my stylist, who applies it for me,” says Julianne Riley of Los Angeles. “I’m never disappointed—my hair looks shiny and healthy, and the color is beautiful.” Consult with your stylist before purchasing a natural color in order to find the closest match to your usual tint, or take one or two choices to the salon. A salon can also do a patch test for you to ensure you’re happy with the results.