Can We Have it and Still Stay Healthy?

Hair Colour HazardsThese days, roughly three out of five women have used or are using hair-colouring products, along with an increasing number of men. This is not always merely a matter of vanity; appearance sadly can still be a deciding factor in whether we get the job, or the contract, or success in many social and economic situations.

Unfair and backward as it may be, it is an obvious fact that ageism exists in the job market, and that grey hair is not necessarily an asset. This is not exactly new — following the first ever round of layoffs at Ford Motors in the 1930s, sales of black hair dye exploded in the Detroit area when it became known that Henry Ford favoured younger employees for their perceived “superior energy.”

Society rewards youthfulness for its own sake, and thanks to our sometimes incomprehensible human instincts, hair has a disproportional importance in the impression that we make. Small wonder then, that we feel a natural instinct to intervene and preen a little, whether it be to hide grey hair, or just choose a more flattering colour. As Sam Malone, the hair-obsessed bartender on Cheers said while gazing contentedly into a mirror, “Good looks open doors, but good hair blows them off the hinges.”

Choosing whether or not to colour involves more than social, economic or psychological factors, however. There is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that hair colouring products may be involved in some serious illnesses.


Hair dyes are grouped into three basic categories: permanent, which uses chemicals like ammonia and peroxide to break down the surface of the hair shaft to allow penetration of colour, and normally lasts four to six weeks; semi-permanent, a bonded coating of the hair shaft which typically lasts for 12-24 shampoos; and temporary, which merely coats the shaft and is removed in the next few washes. Concerns about hair dye-related illness are mainly centered around two toxic factors: 1) the combination of ammonia and peroxide, mainly used in the developing solution of permanent and semi-permanent dyes (one or both of these chemicals have been removed from many natural products); 2) the common petrochemical p-phenylenediamine (PPD), and its derivatives, 4-MMPD and 4-MMPD Sulphate, which are found in most commercial, and many natural products. PPDs have been found in independent studies to be mutagenic, or capable of altering DNA codes, a precursor to cancers and a feature of many known carcinogens. And dyes contain a host of other suspected toxins, such as diaminobenzene, ammoniated mercury, and sodium laurel sulfate.

There is a mass of scientific data available about the dangers of hair dyes, however the research is not entirely conclusive. Conflicting results exist between independent and university research, and lab research conducted or funded by the manufacturers themselves. Needless to say, the manufacturers have millions of reasons to find no connection with disease — hair colour is big business and growing. This is similar to the deliberate confusion created in the debate between organic food producers and the corporations that control conventional food growing and processing (and the media advertising that supports them) — as long as the public remains confused, it’s business as usual. Hair dye, though, has been pretty firmly linked to a range of serious health disorders. Because of conflicting claims, and apparent public apathy, there are no warning label requirements for hair colouring products in North America.

Illnesses associated with hair colouring have generally been linked with permanent and semi-permanent dyes, especially darker colours (with black being singled out as particularly hazardous). Most at risk are those regularly exposed, such as hairdressers, and those exposed over an extended period, such as long time do-it-yourself colourers and salon customers. Diseases which have hair dyes implicated as a potential cause include:

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma — Frequency of this cancer, which attacks the lymphatic system, has increased roughly 100% since 1950, suggesting a link with modern environmental pollutants, and the issue of toxic overload. A study conducted at the University of Washington in 1994 found a 50% increase in the incidence of N-HL in long term hair dye users.

Bladder Cancer — This illness is currently being closely studied for a connection with hair dyes; a flood of information and misinformation should soon follow. A 2001 study at the University of Southern California found a five times greater incidence of bladder cancer among hairdressers working with permanent and semi-permanent dyes than in the general population.

Leukemia and Multiple Myeloma — Leukemia (cancer of blood producing cells) and multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer) have both been associated with environmental pollutants, especially petro-chemical toxins (like those found in hair dyes). A National Institute of Environmental Health Science trial found that those using dyes for over 16 years had a 2.5 times greater likelihood of developing leukemia.

Ovarian Cancer — A Harvard School of Public Health study found a two times greater risk for ovarian cancer in women who dyed their hair five times per year or more.

Rheumatoid Arthritis — It has been found that women using permanent hair dyes for more than 20 years had double the incidence of this painful, crippling disease — long suspected of links with environmental toxins.

Besides these potentially deadly and debilitating diseases, hair colouring is an established factor in other less serious problems including hair loss, allergies, eye injuries, and skin and scalp disorders like eczema and rosacea. The scalp is one of the most porous parts of the human skin, and takes up outside substances easily and quickly, similarly to the soles of the feet.

Also exacerbating hair colour problems is the issue of “toxic overload.” Most of us are affected by this modern problem, caused by constant exposure to pollutants and toxins, as has been pointed out by Helke Ferrie in her Vitality articles. Due to dietary overuse of wheat products and refined starches, sugar, pasteurized dairy and other such foods, our overburdened and “sticky” lymphatic systems and other channels of elimination cause us to retain toxic material much longer than in the past. This combination of circumstances could be behind the current explosion of cancers, endocrine disorders, and “new” diseases like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, and it certainly does not help us tolerate or eliminate chemicals and non-biodegradable solids used in beauty products. Curiously, many of these illnesses are affecting more women than men — witness the near epidemic of breast cancer.

Because of the dangers and lack of conclusive data, I believe it is probably best to avoid commercial permanent hair colour (especially dark colours) until the waters become less muddied. Most experts recommend moderation in all use of colour (four times per year or less), and any dyeing of hair during pregnancy is a definite no-no.


With growing public awareness of the dangers of toxic household chemicals, many new products have come to market to fill the need for safer alternatives. Besides natural hair dyes this includes foods, cleaning products, cosmetics and more. “Natural” is a relative description without legal definition, a marketing and advertising term which should be taken with a grain of salt, and a pinch of buyer beware. Many natural products contain ammonia, peroxide or PPDs. Some that do not contain these suspect chemicals contain worse ones, like coal tar derivatives or metals. Some “herbal” formulas contain all of the suspect chemicals, plus a few herbs designed to condition the hair, not protect health.

As a rule of thumb, all products which lighten hair contain peroxide, even naturals, and less than 10% peroxide is generally considered safe for most people. If you wish to avoid potentially dangerous “mystery” chemicals, it it important to read ingredient labels carefully.

Here’s a look at a few of the better known alternative brands.

Aveda: This well regarded product line is a favourite of professional colourists, and used in many natural salons. Aveda — now owned by Estée Lauder Corp. — claims that their products are 97% plant derived, often from certified organic ingredients, including natural pigments in the colourant. Aveda has reduced the use of petro-chemicals in its hair dye by replacing catalytic chemicals with essential oils and other natural compounds, making it a less toxic and “fumey” experience. Aveda permanent hair colours do contain PPD though, and peroxide in the lightening shades. While they have come a long way in improving the safety of their product, they can’t be considered organic and should be treated with the same caution as any other brand.

Herbatint: This well-known and widely distributed brand contains peroxide and a small amount of PPD in some colours, but no ammonia. One advantage — several of the dyes will cover grey more gently than standard permanent dyes.

Vegetal Colour: This plant based product contains no ammonia, peroxide or PPDs. Vegetal Colour is a temporary dye which lasts for six to eight shampoos, and is gentle enough to use weekly, according to the manufacturer.

Clairol Natural Instinct: Judging by the ingredient list, this is a standard commercial, semi-permanent product dressed up for the natural market. It does not contain ammonia, but does contain PPD and peroxide. A few herbs are included as well.

Light Mountain Natural: This semi-permanent product is available in a wide colour range, contains no ammonia, peroxide or PPDs, and is considered safe.

Logona: This brand uses only henna for colourant, and contains no ammonia, peroxide or PPDs, a genuinely natural product. Not suitable for covering grey hair, as all henna tends to turn grey hair a brilliant coppery red colour.

Not every formulation will work for all hair types, hair structure is very different from person to person, while grey hair is difficult to cover with anything milder than a permanent dye. Some shopping around for an acceptable ingredient list, followed by experimentation with brands, is probably a good idea.


In my view, hair dye toxicity is a serious issue which points to a more widespread problem. Any noxious, unnatural pollutants that we are in contact with could push us over the line into a toxic overload condition. We more or less constantly take up toxins from cosmetics, household products, food, water, air — everywhere. The body can handle elimination of a moderate amount of toxic material, one that varies with the amount of co-operation and care we give it. Keeping a clean inner body is probably the most important thing in avoiding illness — whatever the cause. A brisk and active lymphatic system and efficient elimination are good ideas for everybody. Body dry-brushing, exercise, plenty of water and fibre, purifying activities like yoga, massage and breathwork and a good green diet, which includes raw monounsaturated oils like flax, hemp, olive and wild fish oils, all can help free the body of stubborn toxins. Toxic matter is usually stored in fat cells, and these unrefined oils effectively replace contaminated cells with new, healthy fat cells. Monounsaturated oils have even been used to save the lives of people exposed to super-toxins like the notorious defoliant Agent Orange. This makes them a good addition to any diet and, ironically, they will help create beautiful, healthy hair and skin.

Scalp massage, lymphatic drainage, colonic irrigation, and supervised fasting are all excellent ways to reduce toxin levels. Also, sufficient natural source vitamin C maintains healthy intra-cellular tissue, and better resistance to pollutants. When choosing to use any kind of hair colouring product, it’s a good idea to consider your overall physical health, and your past and present levels of exposure to other toxins.


Deciding to use hair colours has its risks, without much doubt. One common myth says that it’s safer to have colouring done in a salon, where fewer metals are supposedly in the formulations. I was told by Jean Eng, owner of natural skin care and cosmetic centre Pure & Simple, herself a cosmetic chemistry expert and permanent hair colour user: “there are really no proven safe hair dyes; whether you pay $150 or $6, we’re all taking a calculated risk.”

Hair by Helen Organic Salon offers Aveda products as well as organic hair dye treatments, and is part of a growing trend toward combining beauty and wellness. Polly, their representative, told Vitality: “Most of our customers come because of a sensitive scalp, or allergies, and definitely people are more aware of the problems with commercial hair dyes as well.”

Marion Andrea, who has been a colourist for seven years at Vescada, an Aveda concept salon in Toronto, likes the fact that Aveda monitors the use of their product lines in these selected salons, training salon staff to match specific products with each customer’s unique needs. And because Marion is asthmatic, she says she appreciates the non-toxic quality of the hair dyes, which makes for a safer working environment. “If Aveda wasn’t such a clean product, I’d probably have to leave the industry,” she says, “because I just can’t tolerate the poor air quality in other salons.”

Despite the risk, men and women of all ages are using colour in many ways and for many reasons. I am a reformed, long time user of permanent dyes, and possibly a little naive, but wouldn’t it be nice if those of us with grey hair could accept ourselves and to heck with society’s prejudices? It’s not that simple of course; in the process of gathering information for this article, I found all kinds of resistance to going grey for health safety reasons. We need to ask ourselves though, whether it’s worth putting our health on the line to measure up to arbitrary standards of appearance. There are stylists who are expert at working with grey hair, and if you’re not yet grey, there’s plenty of time ahead to consider hair dyes. If you are showing any warning signs of toxic overload, like eczema, psoriasis, chronic headaches, or yellowish skin or eyes, take heed and avoid hair dye and other household chemicals until it is dealt with.

Great hair may knock ‘em dead, but if it knocks you dead, it’s too high a price to pay.


• Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill Udo Erasmus — Alive Books, 1997.
• Annals of Rheumatic Diseases October, 2001 (Rheumatoid Arthritis.)
• Journal of The National Cancer Institute, February, 1994 (Multiple Myeloma.)
• International Journal of Cancer, February, 2001 (Bladder Cancer.)
• Vescada Salon, 2373 Bloor St. West, (east of Jane), Toronto Tel: 416-769-3204.
• Hair by Helen Organic Salon, 432 Adelaide St. West, Toronto (at Spadina), Tel: (416) 504-2480

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  1. Jacquie
    September 18, 10:08 Jacquie

    I am so grateful for you sharing your knowledge on hair dye topics and any other pertinent information that is so crucial to our health and well being. I thank you !

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