The Ingredients You Don’t Want In Your Hair Dye

Not all hair dye is created equal. What sets one color product apart from the next comes down to the ingredients used. With so many actives out there that can wreak long-term havoc on your hair, scalp, and even your body, it can be difficult to know if you’re causing any damage—and to what extent—until after it’s already been done.

Harmful Yet Hard to Avoid Ingredients
Colorist Cassi Frielich of Frank Cassi Salon in Palm Beach, FL, says there are a handful of harmful ingredients in dye, which can be present in both professional and over-the-counter products, regardless of permanence. They include: PPD (this allows color to bond with the hair shaft), resorcinol, MEA, ammonia, persulfates, parabens, propylene glycol and metals such as nickel. “Some of these ingredients can cause serious problems," says Frielich. "Resorcinol, is known to be irritating and also interfere with normal hormone production, as do parabens. MEA is damaging to the hair and effaces the cuticle, and propylene glycol can cause dermatitis.”

Go Ammonia- and Peroxide-Free
A lot of the ingredients that cause damage are hard to replicate and replace, like ammonia (which opens the cuticle so hair can accept color) and peroxide (which penetrates into the hair shaft by raising the pH of the hair so it can be lightened), but there are some alternatives that can be used. Colorist and stylist Thomas Heinz of Thomas Heinz New York says, “Some companies use ethanolamine as a replacement for ammonia, but essentially, it does the same thing.” Heinz explains that every time chemicals are processed on hair, the hair’s natural protein and moisture are removed and the hair becomes dry and weak.

Avoid These Really Problematic Ingredients
Heinz adds that there are other damaging chemicals in hair dye that can affect your overall health and aren’t directly responsible for damaging the hair shaft. “Ingredients like PPD, persulfates, resorcinol and 4-ABP can lead to problems like skin irritations and allergic reactions.” For some, it’s an inability to tolerate the specific ingredients, and for others, it comes down to inappropriate use of the product (think overprocessing and incorrect mixing) that can cause issues. “Side effects can be anything from light tingling to more severe problems like itching and burning, allergic reactions, blistering and rashes,” says Heinz.

If you’re prone to developing rashes, sensitivities or have known allergies to hair dye, it’s best to avoid PPD and resorcinol at all costs—that means you basically have to stick with highlights and lighter shades. “Most non-natural hair lighteners and bleach don’t contain PPD or resorcinol, but do contain high concentrations of persulfates and possibly ammonia,” says Frielich. “The darker the color or heavier the load per tube, the higher the concentration of PPD.” A patch test can help determine if you’ll experience a reaction to color or not.

What Else You Need to Know
You should always know what’s in the color that’s being used and never feel as if you’re left in the dark. “Make sure your colorist is up to date on products in the market and the ingredients in them. Always schedule time for a thorough consultation and patch or strand test, if necessary,” says Frielich. "Protect your hair and scalp from color by not shampooing for a day or two prior and keep your hair as hydrated as possible. If you don’t, the more damaged your hair becomes from coloring and the more likely it is to look dull and snap off." 

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