Hair to Dye For

Have you ever changed your hair colour? It’s more common than you’d think; even men and children are regularly dyeing their hair nowadays. And brand name companies continue to pump out newer and brighter shades. Unfortunately, picking your next box of product should be the least of your worries. Chemical hair dye ingredients contribute to both environmental pollution and a variety of health problems. Studies have linked the use of hair dyes to an increase in bladder cancer, dermatitis, depigmentation, rheumatoid arthritis and respiratory ailments.

Harmful Chemicals and Side-Effects

All permanent hair dyes are made up of two components: colour and developer. Manufacturers produce a wide variety of shades that range from a light white blonde to ash, fire engine red to mahogany, and light brown to cobalt black. The developer contains hydrogen peroxide and ammonia to modify the molecular structure of the hair shaft and allow the large colour molecules to penetrate, while phenylenediamine (PPD, or its derivative names benzenediamine dihydrochloride, or aminoaniline dihydrochloride) permits the colour to bond with the hair. Some permanent hair dyes may also contain coal tar, a potentially detrimental petrochemical, and toxic metals such as lead or mercury as developers.

The dangers of permanent hair dye have been in the news lately. Mrs. Narinder Devi, from England, died in August 2002 of anaphylactic shock a few hours after she used a drug store permanent hair dye product. Her death is presently being investigated to see if the dye was responsible for the fatal allergic reaction.

In a study from the University of California in 2001, researchers discovered that women or men who use permanent dyes once a month for a year or more have twice the risk of developing bladder cancer. Hairdressers or barbers in contact with hair dyes had five times the risk. Permanent dyes contain known carcinogenic substances called arylamines, which are absorbed through the skin during the hair treatment. Genetically, some individuals are able to produce very efficient protective enzymes that render the arylamines harmless and eliminate them quickly through the urine. In others, the process is less effective, and these people are at risk of bladder cancer. Luckily, there is no cancer link between temporary or semi-permanent colouring products.

The PPD in permanent hair tints is a major offender in cases of dermatitis around your scalp, behind your ears or on your face. This condition is also present in men who dye their mustaches, sideburns or beards. Depigmentation is also a PPD side-effect and can continue even after the product is discontinued. Similarly, the glutaraldehyde preservative in the hair conditioner package can cause this result.

PPD creates a greater hazard to hairdressers and barbers because they are continually exposed to the toxic irritant. Even with the use of vinyl or latex gloves, a rash can erupt. The severity of the inflammation depends on the strength of the chemical, the duration and location of exposure, and the condition of the skin at the time of contact. If the hairdresser’s hands are perspiring, they will absorb PPD more readily. As well, many professionals can develop severe respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchospasm. Some hairdressers and barbers develop anaphylaxis (extreme allergic reaction).

The majority of men who darken their hair use progressive hair dyes. These products form a plausible health threat since they usually contain lead acetate. Lead salt is created to bind with hair proteins. These dyes have 2,300 to 6,000 micrograms (mcg) of lead per gram 10 times the regulated limit once allowed in house paint! Up to 80 mcg of lead can remain on the hands even after washing with soap and water. Since the dye does not stain, it is difficult to know where it may have dripped and left lead residue. Also, if you run your hand through your hair after dying it, you can still pick up 286 mcg of lead. If you then inadvertently you touch your mouth, you will unknowingly ingest the dye.

Scientists have also discovered a link between rheumatoid arthritis and the use of permanent hair dye. The Annals of Rheumatic Diseases (2001; 60: 934-936) recently reported that Swedish researchers found an increased incidence of rheumatoid arthritis in women who used permanent hair dye over a long period of time.

As to environmental concerns, consider this. What happens to the portion of hair dye you don’t use? It gets discarded as trash to accumulate in a landfill somewhere. Those chemicals can leech into the ground and affect both local and distant ecosystems, as chemicals are known to travel. You’re also sending synthetic hair dye down the drain when you dip your head. Those chemicals do end up somewhere often where you’d least suspect.

Natural Solutions

If you want to lighten your hair or darken your grey (at least 50 percent grey) without using toxic, environmentally unfriendly products, ask for advice from knowledgeable sales staff about the natural, permanent dyes, available at health food stores. They have low concentrations of PPD and peroxide, and they’re ammonia free and biodegradable. The bases may contain soy, flax or rosemary for conditioning, and flower essences as fragrances. The lighter you want your hair, the more chemicals are required, so it’s better to pick a colour closer to your natural shade.

Highlights are another way to hide partially grey hair. Lowlights, or darker highlights, can be done with semi-permanent colours, since they do not require peroxide. This type of colour coats the hair shaft without penetrating it. The colour blends in the grey and eventually fades out after about 14 shampoos.

The most natural way to colour your hair is with henna, which is also available at many health food stores. This well-known plant dye has been around for centuries. The Lawsonia inermis shrub is native to North Africa, Asia and Australia. The all-natural dye coats the hair’s cuticle while giving it colour, strength, body and thickness. Today’s henna can tint black, red, dark brown and blonde manes. It cannot lighten hair, but it can cover grey.

Try customizing the henna. For dry hair, mix henna to the texture of wet cake batter, then add an egg or a teaspoon of olive oil to seal in the moisture. By adding dry coffee or rosemary, you can create a richer tone. Strong chamomile tea will brighten light brown or blonde hair, and apple cider vinegar will help bind the henna to colour-resistant hair.

With all hair dyes, even henna, do a patch test on the inside of your arm. Even though henna is the safest all colouring products, some people may have an allergic response. You can tell if you are going to have a reaction within a couple of hours.

Why not have your hair colourist use a natural hair colouring product on your hair the next time you go to the hairdresser? To ensure you don’t experience toxic side-effects, stick to semi-permanent and henna treatments. If you feel you need more colour to achieve the results you want, then use a natural permanent hair colouring product with low concentrations of PPD and peroxide. You, your colourist and the environment will experience the benefits.

Children at Risk

Most studies on the health risks of hair dye have been conducted on adults, but it is children that are often at greatest risk. Teens are dyeing hair at ever earlier ages-thus putting their still developing bodies into repeated contact with toxins. A young body does not have the same defenses to withstand chemical contamination, and in the longer term, many of these chemicals accumulate in the body and can cause long-term problems that we’re still learning about. For all these reasons, if you’re a parent, it would be wise to discuss natural hair colouring solutions with your teens. 

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