Hair color ingredients

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With the plethora of products and brands available in the hair color market, the knowledge of the ingredients, their functions and impact can help consumers make an informed choice.

The practice of coloring hair goes back to ancient times. The fascinating range of ingredients used in those days included henna, black walnut shells, leeches and charred eggs.

Why should I be aware of this?

Choosing the right hue that suits the hair and selecting the right product requires knowledge of ingredients and chemicals. Knowledge of ingredients is important to

  • Read and understand the label on the hair color brand correctly;
  • Understand the function of each ingredient and see if these functions are needed to meet your requirement.
  • Understand the impact of each ingredient on your hair quality, health and environment.

Scientists believe that the risks of adverse effects of chemical hair dyes are real enough. Manufacturers have called their findings flawed and vouch for the safety of their products. Several studies have been carried out on hair-dye use and cancer risk. But there does not appear to be an educated decision on whether any risk exists, or what is the extent of that risk?

All about hair color ingredients

For hair coloring to be effective, permanent hair dyes must contain both color and a developer. The developer lifts the outer opening of the hair known as cuticle, enabling the color to penetrate. These chemicals are contained in varying concentrations in most permanent hair dyes. Your choice of brand will depend on what composition is best suited to your hair and skin conditions. Chemicals in hair dye cause a degree of damage but it is considerably mild if you are darkening your hair. If you are a regular at dying your hair, you may not notice it. But women with problems of hair loss or certain scalp disorders should be extra careful in checking the chemicals which may not suit them

Some common ingredients found in most hair colors

Ammonia - All the more expensive hair color brands, such as L'Oreal, Revlon, Garnier or Sunsilk, Pantene and many others, are ammonia-free. Though ammonia is bad for hair, colors with ammonia generally last longer than those without it. Ammonia can make some colors extremely conditioning depending on the other ingredients present in the color, like natural oils.

  • Though exposure to high levels of ammonia can cause irritation, in small concentrations it is not toxic to the body.
  • If you are not allergic to ammonia, you may go for brands with low ammonia content.
  • Herbatint is an ammonia-free dye, but uses low concentrations of p-Phenylenediamine and peroxide.

p-Phenylenediamine -- Everybody's hair is different - what works for one might not work for the other. For effecting a dramatic color change it is difficult to avoid questionable chemicals. p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), found in many permanent hair colors, is one such chemical. In order to be effective even green-friendly permanent hair dyes too require some chemicals such as ammonia, peroxide, p-Phenylenediamine or diaminobenzene=AD.

Hydrogen Peroxide -- For some hair conditions, hydrogen peroxide is the main culprit. If you want a lighter hair or change the color of your hair completely you require bleaching. Hydrogen peroxide bleaches your hair and thus damages it. But the extent of the damage will depend on its level of concentration. Some of L’Oreal semi permanent hair dyes do not have ammonia but contain hydrogen peroxide. But because it is not a permanent color, it contains very small concentration which does not harm.

Monoethanolamine -- Monoethanolamine does not cover grey hair as well as ammonia and cannot lighten the hair as much as ammonia can. Monoethanolamine color works well if your hair is porous. It however, fades quickly.

Harmful ingredients used in hair color and hair dyes

  • Para-phenylenediamine and tetrahydro-6-nitroquinoxaline, both have shown to damage genetic material and cause cancer in animals.
  • Coal tar, a known carcinogen is used in hair colors and dyes as it creates brighter and more lasting colors than other organic vegetable dyes.
  • Formaldehyde is a preservative linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity and more.
  • DMDM Hydantoin, another preservative is a known immune system toxin (and has been restricted for use in cosmetics in Japan).
  • Eugenol is a fragrance ingredient that’s associated with cancer, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and allergies

Useful tips

Hair colour and hair dye -- Hair colour and hair dye are often used in the same breath, but chemically they are different. Hair dyes contain heavy metals that can be harmful. They cover the hair on the surface so get washed off faster. Most of them are shampoo-based. On the other hand, hair colours are permanent in nature. They contain the chemical paraphenylene diamine (PPD) which enters the hair shaft and colours from inside. This colour does not fade and only the root needs to be touched up as new hair emerges.

What can I do?

  • If you have to use a hair color, then check out the ingredients listed on the label; see what suits your purpose and then opt for those which have only the ingredients that deliver what you need.
  • If you only want to cover grey hair or premature greying you don’t need a product with hydrogen peroxide in it.
  • Go for natural hair colors or herbal hair colors.

Hair color and health

  • Ammonia and hydrogen peroxide, also cause allergic reactions.
  • All the three chemicals, ammonia, p-Phenylenediamine and hydrogen peroxide are harmful for women with hair loss problems and scalp dermatitis.
  • Mercury or lead -- Hair colors that use mercury, lead or other metals are very damaging.
  • Aniline dyes, which are often used in semi-permanent hair dyes, are said to be toxic and cause irritation to the eyes, skin and mucous membranes to hypersensitive people.
  • PPD -- Allergic reactions from PPD are known to cause facial and neck swelling. Inhalation is likely to bring about coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath, and respiratory problems in extreme cases. Skin contact with PPD may cause rashes and eye contact irritation, redness and pain.
  • Coal-tar- The most recent studies on Coal tar-based hair colors state that “women using permanent hair dye at least once a month for a period more than one year more than double their risk of bladder cancer” (USC School of Medicine, Gago-Dominguez et al. 2001).


Something New

  • Researchers at the Southern California School of Medicine believe there is a link between the use of permanent hair dyes and the development of bladder cancer. A study of 897 men and women concluded that study participants who had used permanent hair dyes for 15 years or more had a three-fold increase of bladder cancer. The increased risk for hairdressers and barbers was five- fold. The team found no increased risk with temporary or semi-permanent dyes.[1]

Grey areas

  • Many colors may lead you to believe they contain natural dyes when in fact they may contain both natural ingredients and synthetic chemicals.
  • Ecocolors contains small amounts of ammonia and peroxide. It has a soy and flax base and uses rosemary extract to condition the hair and flower essences instead of artificial scents.

Hair Dye and Pregnancy

There is no conclusive study to prove that dyeing one’s hair has any effect on pregnancy. In some animal studies, however, no significant change was noticed. Low levels of chemicals in the dye get absorbed in the skin. The danger could be in the inhalation of the fumes, which, though not harmful to the baby, can make you nauseous.

It is advisable to take precaution like consulting a doctor before dying and selecting a well ventilated area for dying. Wear protective gloves if your are dyeing your hair yourself. Absorption of fumes can be reduced by rinsing your scalp with cold water. See How to Dye Your Hair While Pregnant.


  • Women who used permanent self-administered hair dye at least once a month for a year or longer were twice as likely as women who did not use permanent hair dye to develop bladder cancer. [1]
  • Those women who used permanent dye monthly for 15 years or more were more than three times as likely to develop bladder cancer as non-dye users.[1]
  • Hairstylists and barbers with just one year or more occupational exposure to permanent hair dyes were 50% more likely to have bladder cancer than those who did not. This increased to five times — 500% — more with 10 years of professional exposure.[1]

See also


  • Are dye jobs to die for?
  • Hair dyes linked to bladder cancer; New Scientists
  • Can I color my hair while I am pregnant?
  • Finding the Right Hair Color for You