Do you subscribe to the notion that ammonia-free hair colours are better and or safer for you or your hair? Does the salon you frequent like to promote that their hair colours are healthy, organic or natural? This post is about the healthy, natural, organic, ammonia-free hair colour myth. To be clear, I do not offer hair colour services of any kind. This information is to help those who get them done.
Nothing is ever what it seems with cosmetics. Not always, but in most cases this is true. A few years back we started to see lots of talk about these new healthy hair colours. I was intrigued, but as always sceptical of the cosmetics industry. Let's take a look at the basic facts. Ammonia free colours took out the ammonia and replaced it with a chemical called monoethanolamine. Don't worry, it took me ages to learn how to pronounce that correctly. In technical terms, the presence of ammonia in permanent hair colour was essential. It is an alkalising agent and a key part of the chemical process for permanent hair colour to actually work, at all. They couldn't just take it out. They had to replace it with something else. That replacement is monoethanolamine.
Come on, say it with me. Mono-ethanol-amine. I still struggle with it at times. Of potential interest to the chemistry nerds out there, this chemical is an ammonia derivative. I know right? How can you say a hair colour is ammonia-free when it contains an ammonia derivative? You know, let's not get into that marketing sticking point right now. Anyway, your new favourite word monoethanolamine -- it is also used in dry cleaning fluid. Seriously. I'm not making that up. It doesn't smell as strong as ammonia does though, so it must be better right? That's literally how it was sold to me years ago. I had a rep stick a freshly mixed bowl of colour right up to their nose and take a breath deep. They then tried to shove the bowl in my face. "No thank you please!" (Serious bonus points for anyone who knows what favourite show of mine that line is from.)
Look, you decide. In the spirit of balance and fairness, some hairdressers and clients will swear their ammonia-free colours are better, last longer, and that is wonderful. If a client and their hairdresser are happy great. To each their own with this topic too. However, it is important to make this article and post known so that each client can decide for themselves which is ultimately best for their individual needs. After all, a well informed and educated client is always going to be better positioned to have healthy, happy hair.
So. What do I think? Stick with the devil you know. Ammonia, while stinky, has been road-tested for decades. If it is good enough for Aveda Hair Colour (which took over a decade to develop and is up to 96% natural) it's good enough for you. While researching information for this post, I stumbled across a great article that gets the facts right. It's from a wonderful woman named Cath in South Africa. She's doing really great things. Below is the text directly from her site.
There are a number of so-called ‘natural’ hair dye brands that use the catch-phrase ‘Ammonia-free’ to attract customers. This makes it sound as though you should want your hair dye to be ammonia-free. But do you really?
WHY DO WE NEED AMMONIA IN A HAIR DYE PRODUCT?
Ammonia is used to open up the cuticles of the hair so hair dyes may penetrate inside the hair. In order to achieve this goal, something corrosive, such as ammonia, has to be used. As you can imagine, this process is damaging to your hair. All permanent hair colours have to open up the hair cuticles, which is what makes the colour stay longer and cover even the most resistant grey hair. In other words, something corrosive is used to make the hair colour permanent.
IS AMMONIA HARMFUL?
It is definitely damaging to the hair, because of the process described above. And also damaging in that it can cause:
WHEN A HAIR DYE BRAND BOASTS THAT IS ‘AMMONIA-FREE’ WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
First of all, you need to find out if that hair colour brand is classified as a permanent hair colour. If it is NOT a permanent hair colour (they are called semi- or demi-permanent), ammonia is not needed in the first place. This is like saying “plastic-free” on a glass product. The reason semi- or demi-permanent hair colours do not need ammonia is that they do not need to open up the cuticles of the hair. Instead, they coat the hair, so it is a less damaging process.
SO HOW DO AMMONIA-FREE PERMANENT HAIR DYES WORK?
Because all permanent hair colors have to open up the hair cuticles, something else that performs this function has to be used. If ammonia is not used, ethanolamine is used instead.
WHAT IS ETHANOLAMINE?
Ethanolamine is also a corrosive chemical. It has to be in order to fulfill the same function – opening up the hair cuticles. It is not surprising that ethanolamine has an ammonia-like smell, too, although the smell is not as strong as ammonia.
IS ETHANOLAMINE SAFER THAN AMMONIA?
Because ethanolamine is a newer chemical, it has not been evaluated for cancer risks yet. There is evidence, though, that ethanolamine might increase the risk of birth defects, which is a big deal. I highly recommend if you are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, avoid using ammonia-free hair colors. In comparison, ammonia has not been known either to increase the risk of cancer or to disrupt hormones. The Environmental Working Group website rates ethanolamine as 5-6, which is slightly worse than ammonia’s rating of 4-6.
DOES AMMONIA OR ETHANOLAMINE DAMAGE THE HAIR MORE?
Ethanolamine has been shown to damage hair more than ammonia, in some extreme cases as much as 85% more. And ethanolamine has been shown to cause more hair loss than ammonia. You would think that since ammonia has a stronger smell, it would be more corrosive and thus damage the hair more, but this is not the case. You might want to ask a hairstylist who has had experience using both ammonia-containing and ammonia-free hair colors which hair color damages the hair more. Make sure though that the hairstylist is not bound by contractual terms with an ammonia-free hair color brand so they will have an independent opinion. I also noticed an interesting correlation that normally ammonia-free hair color brands claim to be organic, natural, plant-derived, naturally-derived, and even certified organic. Misleading or what? In closing, I would recommend avoiding all chemical hair dyes. But if you are going to use a chemical dye, use one that contains ammonia, and avoid ethanolamine like the plague.
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