Let’s discuss the facts about dyeing and coloring hair. Over the last few months hair color and dyeing have been a huge part the national discourse. There is the “Hair Dyes and Straighteners May Raise Breast Cancer Risk for Black Women” study to the home hair coloring kits flying off shelves at stores during the COVID 19 pandemic, so what’s the real deal when it comes to dyeing or coloring hair.
Adding color to your hair is the thing that will make you stand out in the crowd, make heads turn and get you untold compliments. Colored hair can provide sheen, enhance your existing color, cover greys, give you a bright new shade or provide highlights. It’s also an equalizer for both men and women who at some point color or dye their hair.
So we ask the question what is hair coloring or dyeing? How does it affect and impact health? We’ll look at the science and then provide answers to a few questions.
Melanin, the pigment (color of hair) is made in melanocytes in the hair follicle. Natural hair color is derived from two types of melanin that range from light to dark, blending together to make blond, red, dark brown and black hues. When you dye hair (permanently) you’re changing the natural melanin (that you were born with). If you apply semi permanent color to your hair it does not alter the natural melanin and adheres to the cuticle.
The active ingredients used in permanent hair dyes in varying mixes and strengths are hydrogen peroxide, ammonia and PPD – phenylenediamine:
- Merriam Webster’s definition “used especially as an oxidizing and bleaching agent, an antiseptic”.
- Removes the natural pigment from the hairs cortex layer this is dependent on the strength of the peroxide and the desired color.
- Merriam Webster’s definition ”a pungent colorless gaseous alkaline compound of nitrogen and hydrogen NH3”.
- Opens the cuticle layer to allow the color to penetrate through to the cortex, it also allows for lightening when peroxide comes into contact with other molecules.
PPD – phenylenediamine
- The CDC lists PPD as being a contact allergen. Exposure routes are through inhalation, skin absorption, ingestion, and skin and/or eye contact.
Demi Permanent Dye
Have no ammonia, but some hydrogen peroxide. A demi permanent dye will lift and enhance natural melanin and it’ll wash out after 20+ shampoos.
Semi Permanent Dye
Semi permanent dyes do not alter the hairs cortex in any way, color adheres to the cuticle layer and will fade after a couple of shampoos. Heat and or the length of time the semi permanent dye is on the hair will achieve increased color density and the amount of color deposited to the cuticle layer.
Hair goes through several lifecycles, during the initial growing phase the process melanogenesis occurs. And as melanogenesis takes place, melanin is formed in melanocytes located in the hair follicle. As the hair grows upward, pigment/melanin continues to form in the cells of the cortex.
As melanogenesis decreases melanin cells slow down, and eventually die off. At this point, there is no color/pigmentation hair will begin to grow grey or white. When pigment in the meloncyte diminishes the entire hair strand has less melanin and overtime it looks grey/white or silver.
Now that we have an understanding about why we have a specific hair color and why we may go grey lets answer some of the most pressing questions:
Q & A
What are the active ingredients in permanent hair dyes?
The active ingredients in hair dyes are hydrogen peroxide, ammonia, persulfates, parabens, propylene glycol and phenylenediamine. The active ingredients are in different variations, concentrations and mixes. Hair dyes will also contain conditioning ingredients that nourish and moisturize the hair after the chemical treatment.
Do professionals have to apply color?
No, but it’s wise to seek professional advice and consultation when deciding to apply color, or add highlights. Professional stylists are trained and have the requisite expertise to use chemical treatments, they’ll avoid irreparable damage, breakage and weakened hair. It’s critical to avoid harm to skin and the scalp, the damage includes but is not limited to irritations, interference with hormone production and dermatitis.
What takes place when hair is dyed permanently?
The steps are as follows in the hair dyeing process:
- Hydrogen peroxide, ammonia and or phenylenediamine strips the natural melanin and lifts the cuticle layer.
- Coupling agents react with the primary molecules in the ingredients listed above to produce a range of colors and hues.
What are the harmful ingredients in permanent dyes that are not in semi permanent color?
Semi permanent hair dyes do not contain ammonia or hydrogen peroxide. The color adheres to the hair cuticles and it’s washed out with each shampoo over time. The EU has banned a number of ingredients found in hair dyes. The list of banned ingredients can be found here.
Does colored hair alter the hair shaft?
Yes, if the color change is permanent. When the chemical treatments as listed above are used, they strip the natural melanin from the hair shaft.
Deciding whether to color or dye your hair is a personal choice, there are documented risks if you opt for a permanent color change. However, there are healthy natural and less damaging alternatives that should be considered.
What are the natural ways to color hair?
Ancient Egyptians colored hair using plants, henna, saffron, indigo, and alfalfa. Today we still have plant-based, natural, chemical-free dyes, namely henna along with amla, shikkai. When applying plant-based dyes protection of skin, hands and nails is necessary to avoid staining.
There are temporary natural options to color hair e.g. waxes, paints and sprays. However with the temporary option there may be some transference of color onto clothing they also shampoo out easily.
Can you prevent hair from going grey?
There is an element of hair turning grey that’s related to ageing. In addition, in a recent study researchers determined that stress is a factor in hair going prematurely grey. Because of the chemicals that are released when stressed, they directly deplete the hairs melanin reserves. In other words if you are overtly stressed when hair is in its growing phase the stress contributes to the depletion of melanin reserves.
Melanin is made from an amino acid L-tyrosine. You can support your L-tyrosine levels by eating a healthy balanced diet, exercise and reducing stress. If you have a healthy diet, exercise and reduce stress you’ll be able to delay going grey (that is unless you are genetically predisposed).
Let us know about your experiences with colouring or dyeing your hair in the comments below.