Sixty-five percent of Kiwi women and five percent of men dye their hair. When it comes to being green, how does a home dye compare with the salon? Not-entirely-natural blonde Anna Hart investigates
If we were to compile a list of ecological blind spots, hair dye would have to come near the top. We may eat organic, buy second-hand or cycle everywhere, but giving up our highlights or grey coverage is an eco-sacrifice many of us can’t bear to make.
But facts are facts: every visit to the salon means foils tossed and exposure to synthetic chemicals that have been linked to everything from headaches to anaphylactic shock. Surely this means a home dye job—especially using product purchased in a health shop—is a more ethical alternative?
Sadly, it’s not quite this simple. First, let’s talk about toxicity. Hair dyes generally consist of three components. Ammonia opens (some say “ravages”) the hair cuticle and allows the other chemicals to do their job. Hydrogen peroxide destroys the hair’s melanin, or natural colour. And lastly, there’s the colourant itself. While ammonia is considered an irritant and can cause headaches, stinging eyes, rashes and nausea, experts are more concerned about the colouring agent, which in most products contains paraphenylenediamine, or PPD. This can trigger a range of allergic reactions, and intensive longer-term use is associated with various cancers and rheumatoid arthritis.
Sounds nasty, but there are natural alternatives, right? Sorry, but terms such as ‘natural’ are unregulated, and some brands make dubious substitutions, replacing one substance that consumers are wary of with an equally toxic ingredient that doesn’t ring alarm bells. Even the ‘organic’ hair colours in salons and health shops are likely to contain some percentage of ammonia or a similar alkaline ingredient, and/or PPD. As for henna, while it can be a good option for brownish hair tones, some experts consider it a skin irritant. And be aware that ‘black henna’ is one of the most notorious misnomers in the beauty industry: it’s henna mixed with PPD. As stylist Lucy Vincent-Marr, of Stephen Marr in Auckland, puts it, “Cosmetic companies are constantly coming up with new ways to make products sound safe and ethical when they aren’t.”
All this confusion brings us to the first major advantage that a salon visit has over a DIY job: knowledge and expertise. Visit an eco-minded salon and you’re benefiting from a hair care professional’s dedicated research into green options, instead of wrestling with an ingredients list yourself. Gareth Peters at Auckland salon Nada uses the Californian range Organic Colour Systems, which is ammonia-free and contains the “lowest possible” levels of PPD: 0.83% compared with the 6.4% found in some of the major brands’ products. Stephen Marr offers a few healthy options: a Wella system that contains minimal amounts of ammonia, a specialist colour range containing no PPD, and a series of new-generation vegetable dyes.
Good salons take positive measures you can’t replicate at home. Stephen Marr’s chemical run-off is stored in a slop bucket, and then a specialist company removes this waste, tint tubes, foil and developer bottles to render chemicals inert and recycle materials. Nada employs reusable foils that Gareth washes and dries between customers, saving between 50 and 100 foils per head from landfill.
On the other hand, one advantage of using a home dye is that no one else is coming into contact with these toxins. “I certainly don’t discourage people from using home dyes like Tints Of Nature, the DIY version of what we use in Nada,” says Gareth. “It’s affordable, it can top up your colour between salon visits, and it means one less batch of chemicals I put into my own system.”
This too comes with a caveat. As many of us know, a DIY job is much more likely to go horribly wrong, necessitating a colour correction and ultimately taking a greater ecological toll than if we’d gone to the salon in the first place. Instead of experimenting on your hair, try a wig or colour consultation to determine whether a new shade will suit you. Bear in mind that darker colours generally contain higher levels of PPD, and all-over colours have more contact with your skin than foils.
The truth is, there is no 100 percent healthy and eco-friendly option for colouring your hair—but if you’re not ready to go grey gracefully or embrace the adjective ‘mousy’, the Good verdict is to stick with the salon … just make sure it’s the right salon, and go with a reputable colourist who’ll give you a result you’re happy with. Your aim should be to keep colouring to a minimum, so go for a low-maintenance colour close to your natural shade, which will require less frequent touch-ups.