Do you hate your gray hairs or just want a change? Hair dyes are one of the most amazing inventions of all time–it’s a product that makes us feel younger, more confident, and exciting. Naturally, the best way to get rid of that unwanted silver hair is with hair color. But if you’re trying to live a clean and non-toxic lifestyle, hair color formulas, for the most part, have a pretty toxic mix of chemicals that are unsafe and, in some cases, may be extremely harmful with regular use. You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you topics like safest shampoos, safest cookware & safest deodorants, now join us as we tackle hair dye. And stick around for the end as we have ranked all the hair dye products, even the ones with vivid colors.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to Amazon and was fact-checked by Rebecca Elizabeth Sherrick Harks, Registered Nurse.
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I’m Just Going to Break it To You–Your Chances of Getting Cancer Increase with Regular Use of Hair Dye
Cancer sucks. There’s nothing happy about it. Most of us know someone who has cancer or knows someone who has lost their lives to cancer. But when it comes to women who regularly use hair dye, those numbers start to go up. Here’s a list of cancers that are linked to regular use of hair dyes. While many debate the overall risk of various cancers and whether they are caused by permanent dye and their ingredients, it seems clear that there is a risk.
It’s important to put this into perspective and understand that we are surrounded with carcinogens and hormone disruptors all the time. Hair dyes seem to be a bigger exposure to women, but if you improve other areas like cookware, the mattress you sleep on, and shampoo you use, and the type of air purifiers and water filter you have. It lessens the overall impact of your hair dye. In other words, if this is too much for you, start detoxing elsewhere.
A recent study out of Finland surveyed over 6,500 breast cancer patients, ages 22-60, and discovered that the odds of breast cancer increased by 23% among women who used hair dyes when compared to those that did not.
A 2004 study suggested that there might be an increased risk of bladder cancer for people who dye their hair: “Overall, odds ratios (of getting bladder cancer) were somewhat elevated among women who began using hair dye after 1975, used dyes for more than 31 years and who used hair dyes more than 282 times.” Additionally, women who started regularly using hair dye before the age of 37 were also more at risk. While studies like these remain controversial, other studies have shown an increased risk of bladder cancer among professionals who use hair dye in their work (hairdressers and barbers).
At least one study suggested a possible link between glioma, a type of brain cancer, and hair dye use. It was easy to find several studies linking permanent hair dye and leukemia, as well as at least one linking it to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
13 Basic Ingredients Inside Hair Dyes That Are Toxic and Should Be Minimized As Much as Possible
Used in permanent color, especially darker shades. It may also be contaminated with 4-ABP, a human carcinogen. According to the FDA, this is a skin allergen and irritant. In fact, the FDA does not allow its use on the skin in the form of black henna temporary tattoos.
There is a lot of conflicting and missing data on this particular ingredient, including whether or not it’s banned in Europe, whether the FDA tried to ban it outright and more. It is banned in Canada. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics claims that it has long been suspected to be carcinogenic and may alter DNA when mixed with hydrogen peroxide but to date, the data is not rigorous enough to be conclusive. The EPA also lists it as a respiratory toxin.
This is an endocrine disrupter that impacts thyroid function. Skin and eye irritant.
This is a known endocrine disrupter and at least one study has linked it to thyroid tumors.
Ethanolamines (MEA, TEA, DEA)
Some products contained ethanolamines, which have been shown to cause cancer in animal lab studies. When in use with certain other chemicals, they can form nitrosamines, which are a possible human carcinogen. These chemicals can bioaccumulate, even hair dyes. They also may impact male reproductive health, pregnancies, and possibly damage the liver or kidney and cause neurotoxic effects.
Some products include Cocamide MEA, which is meant to be a safer form of ethanolamine. Unfortunately, it may contain traces of Cocamide DEA, which has the same effect of producing nitrosamines.
Toluene, Toluene-2,5-Diamine, and 4-Amino-2-Hydroxytoluene
According to the CDC, toluene can impact your nervous system. Repeated exposure can lead to permanent problems and scientists are not sure if repeated low exposures will lead to permanent damage. Some studies have also suggested possible reproductive effects, such as spontaneous abortions, but it’s not clear. Toluene itself is the most harmful, but the other versions listed above are not completely safe either.
Short for ammonium quaternary sanitizers, quats have been linked to medical issues such as harming fertility, causing miscarriages, and severe birth defects in animal studies. Some are also endocrine disruptors. Certain quats can also release formaldehyde, even if the product does not contain any formaldehyde.
This chemical can harm eye, lungs, respiratory tract, and is very toxic for people with asthma or allergies.
Undisclosed Fragrance with Phthalates
Many hair colors employ undisclosed fragrances, likely to cover up the harsh chemical smell. These fragrances can come thousands of sources, so there is no way to tell what toxins are in them. There were few that did not have this ingredient. One problematic ingredient that could be hiding in “fragrance” is phthalate. Phthalates are an endocrine disruptor linked to cancers, weight gain, and infertility.
These surfactants can be an eye irritant. Some debate whether SLS is a carcinogen and other research states it may damage the immune system.
Lead Acetate (in “progressive” hair dye)
In October 2018, the FDA repealed approval for lead acetate as a color additive to hair dye. Progressive hair dyes may contain lead acetate but I did not find any thus far in the brands I checked.
This petroleum-based ingredient is often contaminated with carcinogenic compounds such as 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide which can also cause reproductive system toxicity, headache, and nausea.
Methylchloroisothiazolinone and Methylisothiazolinone
These allergens/irritants were found in a few brands. They are potentially neurotoxic and demonstrate organ toxicity in lab studies.
Important Notes About “Coal-Tar” Hair Dyes
Historically, some hair dye ingredients were a by-product of the coal industry. Today, most dyes are synthetic and are petroleum-based, NOT coal-tar based. However, the FDA never changed the name.
Mamavation’s Investigation of Hair Dyes–The Brands
Mamavation looked at hundreds of hair dye products for gray coverage, blonde hair, red hair, brown hair, dark hair, dark brown hair, temporary hair color, semi-permanent dye, & permanent formulas. Not all hair dyes are promising a natural look or using natural hair colors, but many are. Please use common sense because many natural ingredients can cause allergic reactions so please do your due diligence and double-check ingredients youself.
As you can see, hair color is chockfull of harmful ingredients. Almost all brands had at least one or 2 of these chemicals. Others were a whole toxic soup of these plus many more. Ready to see how your brand rated? Let’s take a look. Next to each brand is the number of toxins listed above their products contained.
The WORST Brands
These brands have 5 or more problematic ingredients inside their formulation. The number of problematic ingredients is listed next to the name. Some of these brands may advertise themselves as more natural, but in order for us to rank them higher, they would need to improve their formulations a bit.
- Aveda (6 bad ingredients)
- Calura (9 bad ingredients)
- Clairol Nice’N Easy Color Crème (7 bad ingredients)
- Clairol Nice & Easy Root Touch Up Semi-Permanent Colors AND Permanent Creme (7 bad ingredients)
- Clairol Natural Instincts (6 bad ingredients)
- Garnier Nutrisse (8 bad ingredients)
- Garnier Olia (8 bad ingredients)
- Ion (8 bad ingredients)
- John Frieda Sheer Blonde Go Blonder Lightening Spray (5 or more bad ingredients)
- John Frieda Precision Foam Color (6-8 bad ingredients)
- Loreal Preference (8 bad ingredients)
- Madison Reed (8 or 9 bad ingredients)
- Prevana (9 bad ingredients)
- Pulp Riot (6 bad ingredients)
- Revlon Colorsilk (8 bad ingredients)
- Shea Moisture (7 bad ingredients)
- Wella Colour Charm Demi-Permanent (5 bad ingredients)
The BETTER Brands
These brands have 3-5 problematic ingredients inside their formulation. The number of problematic ingredients is listed next to the name. This is the sweet spot where you will find a compromise between your health and effectiveness.
- Arctic Fox (5 bad ingredients)
- Ecocolors (2 or 3 bad ingredients)
- Clairol Nice & Easy Root Touch Up Refreshing Spray (none listed above but does contain heavy metals)
- Herbatint (4 or 5 bad ingredients)
- John Frieda Color Refreshing Gloss (2 or 3 bad ingredients)
- John Frieda Brilliant Brunette Color Deepening Treatment
- Just for Men Touch of Grey (4 bad ingredients)
- Kristin Ess (3 bad ingredients)
- Lime Crime (5 bad ingredients)
- Loreal Feria (4 bad ingredients)
- Manic Panic (3 bad ingredients)
- Natratint (5 bad ingredients)
- Natulique (5 bad ingredients)
- Naturcolor (5 bad ingredients)
- Organic Hair Colour (5 bad ingredients)
- Sun-In, both products (4 bad ingredients)
- Tints of Nature Henna (4 bad ingredients)
- Tints of Nature Permanent Color (5 bad ingredients)
The BEST Brands
These brands have less than 3 problematic ingredients inside their formulation. The number of problematic ingredients is listed next to the name. However, these formulations are ammonia-free, paraben-free, and the least problematic we could find.
- Beyond the Zone Color Jamz (2 bad ingredients, including undisclosed fragrance)
- Davines (1 bad ingredient)
- Desert Shadow (0 bad ingredients)
- Hairprint (0 bad ingredient)
- Henna Color Lab (0 bad ingredients)
- John Frieda Color Refreshing Gloss (2 bad ingredients, including undisclosed fragrance)
- John Frieda Brilliant Brunette Color Deepening Treatment (2 bad ingredients, including undisclosed fragrance)
- Light Mountain Henna (0 bad ingredients)
- Lush Henna (1 bad ingredient–undisclosed fragrance, but likely essential oils)
- Natulique Zero (1 bad ingredient)
- Morocco Method Simply Pure Henna (0 bad ingredients) **use discount code “mamavation” for 15% off**
- Overtone Coloring Conditioner (1 bad ingredient)
- Palette by Nature (0 bad ingredients)
- Radico Color Me Organics (0 bad ingredients)
- Rainbow Research Henna (0 bad ingredients)
- Saach Organics (0 bad ingredients)
- Sante Herbal Hair Color (0 bad ingredients – some colors had a fragrance but claim they are essential oils)
- Surya Brazil Henna Powder
- Tints of Nature Highlights (2 bad ingredients)