Note: this post has been updated 2/15/2010 with further information from Herb UK.
I have been turning gray since my early twenties. It must be hereditary since my grandfather was all gray at an early age. When I had just a few gray strands, I would literally “wash that gray away” with the product of the same name. It would cover the gray for about a week. As the years progressed, I became grayer and grayer. As I approached my late twenties, one of my clients remarked that my gray hair aged me. That was it for me.
The next week I made my first appointment to rid my dark brown hair of those ugly gray stands in my hair. This decision started a twenty year love/hate relationship with hair color. I yearned to stop coloring, but my gray hair was wiry and unattractive. At this point in my life, I am almost one hundred percent gray. When it is time to color, I look like a skunk with a silver band running down the middle of my hair line.
Have I been slowly Killing Myself?
The amount of chemicals that I was exposing my body to was horrendous. According to the National Cancer Institute, “[t]he evidence for increased risks of other cancers from hair dye use is limited and inconsistent.” See their article, “Hair Dyes and Cancer Risk, for further detail. Just to give you a little peek into the world of hair dyes, many products contain ammonia, parabens, resorcinol, toluene, and p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), which all received high hazard scores on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. All in the name of beauty.
(See here for health risk information regarding the exposure of high levels of ammonia, especially if you are a hairdresser. Just enter the word, “ammonia” in the search box.)
I knew what I was doing to myself was not healthy. In th mid-90’s, I brought a box of Herbatint to my colorist to apply it. It burned my scalp. In retrospect, I may have washed my hair the day before and my scalp was just sensitive. Nonetheless, I never tried Herbatint again and reverted back to using salon hair color. Always searching for a better alternative, I transitioned to a low ammonia hair color about ten years ago. But I still wasn’t happy. I wanted to be free of the ammonia . One fateful day, I spotted New Jersey’s Salon Boutique’s business card at my local health food store. This new salon uses organic and natural hair products.
Could Organic Colour Be the Answer?
Excitedly and a little skeptical, I called the salon and spoke to Stacy, one of the founders, about the products that they used. The salon uses Organic Colour Systems, an ammonia-free hair color along with other organic and natural facial products and hair products. (In the US, the product is distributed under the name Organic Color Systems.)
Stacy further explained that in addition to the healthier product lines that they use, the salon was created using low VOC paints and bamboo floors. In addition, a water filtration system was installed to insure that the water used with their products were free of harmful chemicals. The hair gods had answered my prayers.
I had read that hair color needed ammonia to be able to open the hair shaft in order for color to be applied. If Organic Color hair color did not use ammonia, then I wondered what other chemicals were they using? Being the ever skeptic, I emailed back and forth with Herb UK, the parent company of the color system.
Organic Colour was created sixteen years ago by London hairdressers/colorists, Stephen Landreth and Stuart Taylor, who since retired, as a solution to Landreth’s allergy to hair color. Landreth remains the technical advisor to the Company. The product took four years to develop, and uses a base of alkaline oil to soften the cuticle and heat rather than ammonia to open the hair shaft. The activator, which is comprised of a range of 0% -12% pharmaceutical grade hydrogen peroxide lifts the color in order to achieve the desired shade of hair color. (12% grade hydrogen peroxide is the European limit.) According to the Company, Organic Colour is the only product that contains organic roman chamomile to soothe and protect the scalp.
What concerned me about this product is its name which implied that the product was organic, especially looking at the list of ingredients of the product. Names like PEG-2 Soyamine, and Cocamide DEA did not sound too organic to me. The Company’s response was “the name ‘Organic Colour System’ is a trade name which was launched in 1994. At the time, organic had a broader meaning in the context of ‘natural’ and ‘of the earth’ and ‘organic development.’ It has only recently come to be used as ‘organically grown produce.”
According to the Company, they are working with Eco-cert to obtain certification for their products which takes into account the raw materials used and the process of how the products are made. At the present time, all of their products contained certified organic materials, many of the raw materials are naturally based, and there is only a small amount of synthetics used when no natural alternatives are available.
Is the product free of chemicals? No. So, is it safe?
Since the product is not listed on the Skin Deep Database, I had to do some of my own research.
The product does contain PPD since it acts as a carrier for the hair to attach to the new pigment being used. However,the Company states that the product contains a low level of no more than 2%, which is lower than the European limits of 6%. For those coloring their hair for the first time, a patch test is advised to ascertain any allergic reaction to the product.
In addition, the product also contains PEG-2 Soyamine and PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, which may contain contaminates 1. 4 Dioxane as part of the manufacturing process. 1, 4 -dioxane was previously listed as a possible human carcinogenic on the Canada’s Environmental, but has since been removed.  Many environmental groups were dismayed by the Canadian government’s conclusions. However, 1,4-dioxane remains on the “Hot list” for ingredients that are intended to be prohibited or restricted in use; however, it may be present as a manufacturing by-product. 
I asked the Company if 1,4 Dioxane had been stripped from the product when manufactured.
However, as of this date, I have not received a reply. The Company confirmed that its ingredients do not contain 1,4 Dioxane.
Other ingredients contained in the product were listed in the Skin Deep database with a score of moderate to hazardous depending on the application of the chemical. PPD receives a high hazardous score. Although all the ingredients are not organic, I respect Organic Colour for listing their ingredients and believing in full disclosure.
As mentioned above, the jury is still out on whether or not hair coloring causes cancer. Organic Hair Colour does not contain ammonia or resorcinol, and has a small amount of PPD. I personally had to weigh my own vanity of not allowing my hair to remain gray with the exposure of possible carcinogenic chemicals. In the end, I found that Organic Colour was the best choice for me now and hope that more products will be made in the future without any harmful chemicals.
Does it work?
I decided to be a human guinea pig to put the product to the test. What was the worse thing that could happen? The color did not last?
Samantha, my colorist, did not apply any protective cream around my hair line. When I questioned her, she explained that the product does not stain like other hair colors. That was a relief. Many times, I had walked out a salon with either dye stains near my hair line or red marks from the product used to remove the hair color.
She proceeded to apply the hair color in a similar manner to my prior hair color sessions. I still wondered what were they going to use as the heat part of the equation for the color to penetrate my hair shafts. Well, I got my answer when Samantha brought over a George Jetson like rotating donut and turned it on. I felt like I was in a science fiction movie with this halo circling around my head heating up my head. After about ten minutes, the halo structure was stopped and I sat for another ten minutes. Thereafter, I was washed, and there was absolutely no hair color left on my skin.
After my hair cut and blow out, I noticed my hair was very shiny and soft. See the picture above of my hair after color.
I took pictures of my hair over the next three week period so you can see that the hair color actually lasted. Realize as my hair grew, so did my gray roots. I keep my hair short so my gray part is not as noticeable.
3rd week (right before my color.)
As you can see from the pictures, my color did not fade as my hair grew. In addition, it remained soft and shiny until my next appointment. I have been using the hair color for a year, and couldn’t be happier. Now, if someone could just invent how to permanently rid my hair of gray, I would be ecstatic!
A word of caution for pregnant women.
Can this product be used by pregnant women? The Company indicated that it should not be used during the first trimester. With any product, check with your doctor as to its safety during pregnancy.
Where is it Distributed?
The product is being distributed in Australia, Europe and the United States. In the United States, the product has been distributed under the name of Organic Color Systems for six years by Hilton Bell, a hair dresser who felt this product was safer for fellow hairdressers as well as the public. The US website lists those salons using the product. Bell has a YouTube page with various videos for hairdressers who wish to make a switch to a healthier alternative than ammonia based color systems.
Tints by Nature is UK Herb’s retail box color. You can purchase it at various natural food stores or on Amazon. See the Amazon buy it now above.
Other sources of ammonia -free hair dyes: Herbatint UK, Light Mountain, products by Susan Henry, and John Masters’s Organic Color Line, and PPD, ammonia, resorcinol-free product by Act by Nature. For more information about the ingredients in each, contact the respective company.
I will be testing Act by Nature next. (Update, 7/31/10: I tested Act by Nature now known as Palette by Nature.)
- have you used any of the listed permanent hair color?
- If not, what do you use?
Photo of woman with mask courtesy of Hilton Bell of Organic Hair Color Systems.
Skin Deep database
Schmidt, Sarah, “Chemical found in baby shampoos not toxic: Health Canada” The ‘Gazette, September 4, 2009.
” 1,4-Dioxane CAS Registry Number 123-91-1” Chemical Substances, modified December 10, 2009.
Note, the Tints by Nature is an affiliate link, which Green Talk makes some money on every purchase you make. It helps to provide the great content delivered here!
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