The last few years have seen a bigger-than-ever push for natural and organic beauty products. Many consumers are under the impression that components found in "organic" or "natural" hair products make them inherently safer. Unfortunately it's not that simple, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
In fact, not only is organic hair dye not necessarily safer than synthetic hair dye, organic hair dye simply doesn't exist.
The Good Housekeeping Institute breaks down why: "Other than henna, any commercially available hair dye — store-bought for home use or found in salons — uses chemical actives for them to work," says Birnur Aral, Ph.D., Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute's Health, Beauty and Environmental Sciences Lab. "By and large, these chemicals are synthesized substances."
Even when the packaging claims to be all-natural, organic or chemical-free — which is literally impossible because everything, including organic things, are made of chemicals — that could basically be an outright lie. This is because the FDA can't do anything about the use of these terms regarding cosmetics. The FDA regulates cosmetics via the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, neither of which define the term "organic."
In other words, if you see hair dye that isn't henna and it claims to be organic or natural, it's "most likely still employing synthetic ingredients for it to work," Dr. Aral says.
The good news: Hair dye doesn't have to be organic or natural in order to be safe, and there are other ways to be both health- and eco-conscious when it comes to coloring your hair. Here are the most important things to know:
You can't avoid chemicals, but you can avoid unnecessarily harsh ones.
As previously mentioned, everything is made of chemicals. Water, for example, is a chemical compound. So get it out of your mind that chemicals aren't safe just because they're chemicals.
There are, however, harsh and potentially toxic chemicals in some beauty products, and while there has been growing momentum in the industry to remove or minimize these ingredients, hair dye is one of the worst offenders when it comes to including some pretty shady and unnecessary chemicals.
"There is definitely a movement happening where women are choosing more ingredient-conscious beauty products," says Chelsea Smith, master colorist for Madison Reed, which makes at-home hair color that's touted as the first "six-free" formula. This means it doesn't include what they consider to be six questionable ingredients commonly found in hair-color formulas: ammonia, resorcinol, parabens, phthalates, PPD and gluten.
"These six ingredients are a mix of hair color 'actives,' preservatives and contaminates, and we were able to redesign our hair color from the ground up without the need or presence of any of them," Smith explains. "We've been able to remove them from our products in order to minimize the chemical profile of our formulas while maintaining salon-quality gorgeous results."
Go as natural as possible.
If you still prefer natural ingredients regardless of unproven safety benefits, you may want to look to a trusted brand like Aveda, which promises a mostly natural hair-color formula.
"Ninety-six percent of the formula is comprised of ingredients derived from nature, such as the humectants, conditioners, viscosity builders, solvents and antioxidants," says Justina Mejia-Montane, Vice President, Global Product Development at Aveda. "The formula is chockfull of naturally sourced ingredients, most notably our signature botanical blend of sunflower, castor and jojoba oils that help protect the hair and infuse it with amazing shine."
Keep in mind that even a brand so committed to natural formulas must rely on some synthetic ingredients in order for the hair color used in its salons to work.
"The remaining 4% of the ingredients are of synthetic content which are the colorants, dyes and preservatives," Mejia-Montane explains. "It is unavoidable to include synthetic ingredients in professional hair color because all of the colorants and dyes used in permanent and demi-permanent hair color are synthetic. These are the ingredients that create hair color via the oxidation process."
Choose a cruelty-free brand.
Although you may not be able to color your hair with a natural or organic formula, you can make conscious choices when it comes to the treatment of animals and the use of animal-derived ingredients.
Manic Panic, which recently celebrated 40 years of making wild hair colors used in both homes and salons, has been cruelty-free for so long that they've actually trademarked the motto, "Tested on celebrities, not animals." And in addition to being free of ammonia, peroxide and PPD, all of the formulas are vegan, prompting PETA2 to name their formulas Best Cruelty-Free Hair Product in several different years.
Madison Reed is also cruelty-free, boasting certification by Leaping Bunny.
"It is an international stamp of approval that recognizes no animal testing is used or commissioned in any phase of product development by our company, its labs or ingredient suppliers," Smith explains.
Indie cosmetics brand Lime Crime also has the Leaping Bunny seal of approval, and they have a popular collection of fantasy hair colors called Unicorn Hair ($16, amazon.com) that can be applied at home.
Pick formulas that come in eco-friendly packaging.
Want to make Mother Nature especially happy? Pay attention to the packaging too.
"Aveda's tubes are manufactured with 100% wind power and made from post-consumer recycled content — right down to the cap," says Mejia-Montane.
And when you order directly from Manic Panic's website, it will be packed with biodegradable peanuts.
Ultimately, the dream of organic hair dye is just that — a dream. But that doesn't mean you can't use your head when deciding what kind of hair color to put on top of it.