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Hair Colour Safety

Just how safe is colouring your hair? Find out here.

And I don't mean aesthetically safe (although I've certainly seen plenty of hair colours that one could well describe as aesthetically hazardous). I'm referring to chemicals. What exactly is in that wondrous goo? Is it better suited to cleaning your driveway? Or is there a have a beautiful colour without beating up on your precious body?

Before I launch into this, I'd like to point out that I'm not a chemist and I didn’t investigate all of the ingredients in artificial hair colour, just the most commonly talked about and suspect ones. There are undoubtedly many other chemicals that one person or another would object to, but in this offering I did not set out looking for the “live-in-the-forest-eating-only-organic-carrots” version, nor was I interested in the “beer-guzzling-Chito-eating” approach. Give me something moderate, leaning toward the healthy-as-reasonably-possible. (Sorry for the lengthy preambles, I'm just trying to keep from getting jumped on by the well meaning extremists). And although I'd truly love to be able to give you a perfect, clear, nut-shell understanding of the whole thing ( and that's what I originally set out intending to do), for I moment I forgot that this is planet Earth and that everything is a sea of subjective perceptions. Ask ten people you get ten answers. So although I know there's no way to offer the perfect explanation, I can offer something very helpful, worthwhile and workable, here it is:

The short of it:

In my understanding and in my opinion, at this moment in time, there is no such thing as a totally safe hair colour that will cover grey and offer nice results consistently. But there are colours that are less toxic than others made by a few companies that are making admirable gains in cleaning things up. If you know your stylist is knowledgeable about these things and holds them to be of importance, then all is well. If you're not sure where they stand, ask them; if they sound like a politician, dancing around the subject and smiling a little too much, you may have some priorities to examine. Of course the best thing is to know the fundamentals yourself. If that sounds like a good idea, read on, you'll probably end up knowing more than your stylist.

The longer of it:

Whether hair colour is safe or not depends, as always, on who you ask. It amazes me how two or more seasoned experts on most any subject will give you completely polarized opinions. In my investigations I heard all the way from: “No problem at all, there's no scientific evidence to say that hair colour is hazardous” to “You might as well jump in front of a moving bus!” If you've ever investigated anything health related, you're undoubtedly rather used to such things; truth, strangely enough, is a very subjective thing. So what to do? The only reasonable thing: get a good, thorough overview, throw out the obvious lies, and take what seems doable and moderate.

There are primarily three questionable chemicals in artificial hair colour, one is called PPD (I won't bother with the long, scientific name), another is Resorcinal, and the third, ammonia. All colour companies (as far as I can tell) use these or something similar to get colour to do what it does, especially when covering grey hair. There are of course various herbal ways of coloring hair that use nothing but plants (such as henna) to stain the hair, but there's almost no consistency in the results. In my opinion, using them is only a good idea if you want your hair to look like you grew up in the rain forest. If they worked, I'd be all over them.

In recent years, due to the curious phenomenon of human beings actually caring about what we put in and on our bodies, some colour manufacturers have been looking a these questionable chemicals and making changes. These manufacturers have reduced the amounts of these chemicals or replaced them with something apparently less harmful.

Ammonia, the long time standard in hair colour, has often been replaced with something called MEA, which, in my experience, is a good idea. MEA seems to be gentler, at least when it comes to fumes and scalp irritation, which to me, says something. If it feels okay on the nose and scalp, it seems to make sense the hair and rest of the body would be less irritated too.

PPD, another suspect chemical, has often been replaced with PPT, a similar, but apparently milder alternative. This may or may not be an improvement, again, it depends on who you ask. It's quite possible that the reason for replacing PPD with PPT was nothing more than the manufacturer being able to claim “PPD free!”. According to my online research, many people who have reactions to PPD, still have reactions to PPT. So that one's up in the air, but nevertheless, we still have reason to celebrate, at least there are changes taking place.

Resorcinal, the third of the Questionable Three, is still present in any of the colour brands I have looked into, but a few have removed it from certain shades or minimized it overall. With all three of these chemicals it's not just whether it's present or not, it's also the amount. Obviously a little is better than a lot.

If you're doing your own research and encounter companies that claim “no PPD” or “no Resorcinal”, read the finer print and find out if that means in all of the shades or just some of them. At the time of this writing, most companies still use these chemicals in the darker shades.

If you do your own colour at home (yikes), it's helpful to be aware that, contrary to popular belief, colour from the health food store is not necessarily any less toxic than most salon colours. Find out what's in it, don't believe the old “all natural, herbal” spiel, just because it's just across the aisle from the organic kale. Drug store colour is not something I have researched, but I believe I can make a logical, reasonable assumption that if  professional colour needs to use certain questionable chemicals, do does drug store colour. After reading this article, you will know what to look for and be able to check into it yourself.

Removing or reducing suspect chemicals is definitely not the whole story, you still have to end up with a product that creates beautiful, rich, shiny hair colour—or what's the point? According to many of the comments online written by stylists, a lot of the more “natural” colour lines haven't been all that great at covering grey evenly, nor have they been reliable and predictable in general.

It is also important to keep in mind that each of us have very unique bodies and some are more reactive to chemicals than others. I react noticeably to ammonia fumes, which is one of the reasons this whole investigation started. Being both an artist and hairstylist, I encounter plenty of toxic goo on a daily basis, so both my art studio and my hair salon have been subject to investigation.

As a stylist who genuinely cares about healthy bodies and hair, it's been challenging to determine what to use in my salon. But I've seen that there are indeed companies who really do care. Unfortunately, I can't give you a list of who are the heroes, who are the wolves in sheep's clothing and who are the stuck and stagnant. I wish I could, but it's too big and there are too many factors. You'll have to find out what your stylist uses, go online and check the ingredients I've pointed out, try to determine if the company is actually making a serious effort to reduce or eliminate these chemicals, and decide if that colour is making your hair look good.

In my own salon, after rather exhaustive research, I ended up with a hair colour line known as Naturlique. It's not the only company creating healthier colour, but it's the one I choose, given all the criteria I have in mind. I want the least toxicity possible, and I want beautiful, dependable colour. Naturlique, which is fairly new to Canada, is from Denmark, and as far as I can tell, genuinely cares about what they're doing. They want what I want and seem to be focused on getting it. The colour has very low fumes, no ammonia, very little Resorcinal (only in dark shades), and minimal, or no, PPD depending on the shade. They also have a new, smaller range of shades that uses no PPD or Resorcinal, however these shades do use a small amount of PPT, which, as I said earlier, may or may not be an improvement. Few salons in Canada use Natulique, partly because it's so new to this country and partly because it's a pain to switch colour brands, especially when stylists have got something they already like and are used to. The colour is quite popular in Europe and the USA.

Since I began using Naturlique, none of my clients get itchy or burning scalps when the colour is on, many of them comment that they cannot smell any fumes, grey is covered well, and the hair comes out shiny and soft. Overall, hair condition is similar or better than other lines I've tried. I like it and so do my clients. Another good sign is that a have a few clients who are chemically sensitive and they have told me that Naturlique is the only colour they have not reacted to. I also have people who have done their own research seek me out as a salon that uses Naturlique.

Should you decide to do your own research, great!, but a word of warning: you take the risk of going a little bonkers. Trust me on that one. Everyone's got their perceptions, opinions, vested interests, arguments, etc. Some point out the least toxic colours but have never tried them and are not stylists, so they don't know if the products actually create beautiful colour consistently. And when you read opinions from stylists on those products, they often say they tried them but the colours just don't work that well. Other people (mostly stylists) throw woods like "safe" and "natural" around like they were beach balls, without ever having done any actual research for themselves. It's a bit of a circus, but it's just the hair colour version of the circus, there are similar circuses everywhere. Perceptions rule the world and make truth a very subjective thing.

The American Cancer Society also has the opinion that the whole colour toxicity thing is pretty vague and subjective. We just don't know enough to make clear conclusions, here is a link:

In my opinion, if you want to colour your hair and have it be anything more than a very temporary, wash out colour that won't cover grey or lighten your hair, you're going to have to accept the fact that there is some chemistry on your sweet head for a while. Whether that makes it dangerous or not is a very subjective thing.

So if you like colouring your hair you're going to have to find a stylist who not only has the skill to give you a beautiful hair colour, but actually knows and cares about toxicity.

Colouring hair is one of a hundred or more things we encounter every day that may or may not cause us harm. People have been colouring for many years and we still can't really tell if it's any more or less of an issue than white sugar or food additives or a zillion other things. One day soon, with some clear intention, we'll all have a more accurate idea about what things in our lives are actually better to avoid, and with any luck, we won't have to dig a hole in the ground and live on beets. All we can do for now is try to be informed and aware. Well now you're a little more of both.

If you'd like to learn more about Naturlique, go to

Want to learn about how to cope with aging hair? Or how to grow out your colour? How about some top secret government secrets used by Donald Trump on how to maintain a comb-over? Or how to buy a good blow dryer? All this and more at the Flow Newsletter.

Thanks for caring. The world needs as many of you as it can get.


In my experience, being excessively concerned about toxicity in our lives often leads to fear, and according to most any doctor on the face of the Earth, fear makes us sick. So we end up being frightful and sick in the name of trying to be healthy and calm. Somewhere we must find a place of moderation where we can still live and enjoy.

Another consideration is that perhaps a bigger problem than hair colour toxicity is our fear and loathing of aging and looking the age our bodies actually are. In some societies, elders are revered and looking older is a thing to look forward to, so as usual, it's all perception and social programming. If and when we learn to love ourselves, we can colour our hair or not. If we do, it won't be because we fear not being accepted and loved by others, it'll be for the same reason I paint a canvas and you plant a garden: because it's a fun, creative thing to do.

Peace be with you,