Since making the transition over to organic foods and products, I have asked myself many times why I still go to a traditional salon. I didn’t even know organic salons existed until one of our writers,Organic Olivia, raved about her experience at Mauricio Hair, the first non-toxic/organic salon in NYC. Since I don’t live in New York, or even in a large city, I expected to have to travel pretty far to find one. When I learned there was actually one in my own region, I was ecstatic.
I visited two salons, and the women working in both told me they had decided they simply couldn’t be subjected to the harsh chemicals they were being exposed to daily any longer, and didn’t want to expose their clients to them anymore, either. One woman became so sensitive to them that she had no choice but to use and learn about organic products so she could still practice her passion.
Naturally, people assume that if a product is used in a salon it is regulated and safe for use (a mistake we make with most things, including our food), but there are many loopholes in the Toxic Control Substance Act (TSCA) and within the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (which hasn’t been updated since 1938) does not require premarket safety approval of products, nor does it require cosmetic companies to disclose the “chemicals [used] or gain approval for the 2,000 products that go on the market every year. And removing a cosmetic from sale takes a battle in federal court,” reports Scientific American. Which in short means that salon workers and clients have no way of knowing which products are safe, allowing them to be routinely exposed to hazardous chemicals. Even now, the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA), the agency responsible for establishing and enforcing the maximum exposure limit for chemicals, hasn’t updated its Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for chemicals used in salon products that have adverse health effects.
How Hair Dye Works
Dana Oliver from The Huffington Post asked cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson, chief executive officer of Catalyst Cosmetic Development, and Elizabeth Cuannane Phillips, Philip Kingsley’s trichological expert, to explain what hair dye is really doing to our hair. The following is taken from the interview.
For hair dye to work, ammonia literally lifts up your hair cuticle…
Hair dye has a couple of barriers that it has to overcome before it actually deposits the color onto your hair. “It needs to be able to get into the hair shaft, and obstacle one is the cuticle, which is the hair’s protection,” explains Wilson. “If you think how tree bark has that outer covering, that is almost how our cuticle acts. So in order for [dye] to penetrate through the cuticle, it has to be lifted up.” Enter, ammonia. This chemical elevates the pH of the hair, and in doing so, the cuticle relaxes and lifts up. “The problem with that is once you’ve disturbed the cuticle, the damage has started because the cuticle is not meant to be lifted up,” says Wilson.
… and peroxide destroys your current color.
Now that the cuticle is lifted, the next step is to actually dye the hair. “In order to get the color that you wanted, your current color has to be destroyed,” according to Wilson. “That’s where the peroxide comes in, and that breaks down your natural hair pigment. Peroxide is very drying on the hair, which contributes to the damage of the hair. Now the cuticle is lifted, your pigment has been broken down, so now your hair should be straw-like.”
Now the color from the dye has to be developed, and that’s the pre-mix that you do. “You put that in and while it’s sitting, it’s going into the hair strand and beginning to develop. Keep in mind that your cuticle is lifted for however long you have before you rinse, and the dye is penetrating into your open cuticle and hair shaft. The longer your cuticle is lifted up, the more it’s weakening. Once you rinse, your cuticle comes down because the color has deposited, but the damage is already done,” says Wilson.
The result? Your hair is more damaged than before you entered the salon. According to Hilton Bell, owner of International Hair and Beauty Systems, the ammonia in normal hair colouring solutions creates tiny holes in the hair. “In fact the shaft of hair is starting to resemble Swiss cheese.” This leads to breakage, dryness, and overall hair damage.
Effects on Salon Workers
In 2014, Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) released “Beauty and Its Beast: Unmasking the impact of toxic chemicals on salon workers,” a thorough report that “analyzes the unique chemical exposures that salon workers experience, the health impacts they suffer, and the need for greater research, regulation, and innovation to ensure improved health and safety in the salon industry.”
In the report, they revealed the following discoveries:
Hair salon workers have an increased risk of several types of cancer, including breast cancer, lung cancer, cancer of the larynx, bladder cancer, and multiple myeloma. Hairdressers and cosmetologists are also more likely to give birth to low birth weight babies, especially when their work involves using hairspray and permanent waves, and have an increased risk of miscarriage and babies born with cleft palates.
In addition, a significant proportion of salon workers experience skin conditions like dermatitis, and breathing problems, such as asthma and cough, due to chemical exposures from their work. Some studies found that over 60% of salon workers suffer from skin conditions, such as dermatitis, on their hands. Salon workers are significantly more likely than comparison groups like office workers to suffer from cough and nasal and throat irritation due to their work.
The WVE is especially against the Brazilian Blowout, a popular straightening treatment which, along with other straightening products, contains high levels of formaldehyde (up to 10%!) even when labeled “formaldehyde-free.” Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and is so toxic that it continues to expose customers and salon workers to toxic fumes for months after its initial application.
Salon worker Jennifer Arce performed just one Brazilian Blowout treatment that exposed her to what her doctor suspected was “possible chemical poisoning.” She suffered breathing problems and migraines, bloody noses, blistery rashes, and bronchitis.
“Exposure to formaldehyde doesn’t end with the treatment—the fumes are reactivated every time heat is applied to the hair,” says Arce. “So when a client who’s had a Brazilian Blowout done elsewhere comes into the salon to get a haircut or color and has her hair blowdried, flatironed, curled, or processed under the hood dryer, the fumes that come out of her hair make me and several of my coworkers sick all over again.”
After hearing similar horror stories from other salon workers, Jennifer took to gathering letters to send to the FDA. When the California Superior Court ordered GIB, the makers of the Brazilian Blowout, to stop selling its product in California after finding that it emits smog-forming pollutants at levels higher than allowed by the California Air Resources Board, GIB was asked to present a new, reformulated product to meet California Air Quality Standards.
Other countries, most notably, Canada, France, Ireland, and Australia immediately recalled hair smoothing products containing formaldehyde, based on their own testing results.
Effects on Customers
Horror stories abound of people whose home hair dying experiences turned ugly, such as that of 17 year old Tabatha McCourt, who suffered a rare allergic reaction and died 20 minutes after applying the dye despite having coloured her hair plenty of times before. One Reddit user posted about his brother John, who suffered a terrible head swell from applying at-home dye. Such anaphylactic reactions, believed to be sparked from the chemical ingredient para-phenylenediamine (PPD) which is present in 99% of all hair dyes, can even cause people to go into a coma.
Persulfates are chemicals found in bleaching agents and hair dye and comprise 60% of most commercial hair products. Continued inhalation of persulfates can lead to persistent cough, throat discomfort, wheezing, lung inflammation, and full-blown asthma attacks. Ammonia is another common contributor to asthma attacks when using hair dye. In high concentrations, it can easily exacerbate pre-existing breathing conditions.
According to data retrieved from the National Cancer Institute, 30% of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cases are caused by regular use of commercial hair dye. 4-ABP is a hair dye byproduct that has also been proven to have carcinogenic effects. The byproduct is commonly found in blonde, red, and black hair dyes but may not be listed on the label.
Men who use hair dye every once in a while to cover up their greys may still be at risk for developing this cancer of the bone marrow. Research has shown that multiple myeloma risk is greatly increased in Caucasian males who use commercial dye products.
Alternatives With Quality
So what are your options? We hear it all the time. While natural may be better for us, it doesn’t seem to produce quite the results we’re looking for.
Huffington Post writer Rebecca Adams documented her experience going to an organic salon that used Organic Color System. She visited New York City’s Yarok Beauty Kitchen and was taken care of by Mordechai Alvow. “The process was exponentially more enjoyable, since the anti-oxidant blend of aloe vera leaf, comfrey root, orange peel and grapefruit seed in the organic dye didn’t have the same headache-inducing effects of the harsh-smelling, ammonia-filled dye you get in most salons.” In the end, she decided that this treatment was the best for her: “After Alvow was done with me, the color was the most striking shade of copper red I’ve ever had, and I didn’t have that pesky line of demarcation that always gives me what I call ‘fire roots’ (freshly dyed roots that never seem to blend properly until after a couple of washes). The best part: My hair felt 10 pounds lighter and as soft as an 8-year-old’s. Needless to say, I’m an organic hair dye convert.” (Check out her full experience, pictures and all, here).
Hilton Bell, the owner of International Hair and Beauty Systems and an exclusive distributor in the U.S. of Organic Color Systems, not only claims that organic products are better for everyone involved, but that they work better, too. A website dedicated to organic salon products explains just why his system is so great:
Bell is the exclusive distributor in the U.S. of Organic Color Systems, a revolutionary hair coloring product that, until recently, was only available in Europe. Unlike the old versions of organic color that merely coated the hair with semi-permanent tint, Organic Color Systems is a permanent color that uses modern advances in color technique.
By using a conditioning substance with a lower pH, Organic Color Systems gently opens the hair cuticle to color it. It’s simply a gentler way of altering the hair’s color. And, with less damage to the hair, the color comes out more vibrant, the hair more lustrous.
And, contrary to the common belief about natural hair products, this product can achieve all the results of traditional color. Even stubborn grays don’t stand a chance. All the ranges of the color chart are possible, from fiery reds to frosty platinums. Salon owners rave about their increased business as word of mouth spreads.
Here is another list of organic hair dyes you can check out if you want to scan the market.
Needless to say, the world is changing, and people are looking for healthier alternatives to common products which will work as well, if not better, than their chemically-laden and harmful counterparts. You might feel like a kid again trying to find that one salon you can call ‘yours’ and you may encounter some stylists who don’t quite meet your standards, but few things worthwhile in this life come easily!
I highly encourage you to seek out organic salons in your area and inquire about their methods and why they chose to make the switch. Their answers may inspire you. Or perhaps, armed with this information, you can convince a traditional salon to go organic, too.