Exposing the Deadly Dangers of Hair Dye

The Health Risks of PPD

Although I focus on nutrition and the internal strategies required for peak performance and optimal vitality, external factors influencing our wellbeing are equally important.  The truth is, as conscientious and well-intentioned we may be about the dietary choices we make every day, it is only one piece of a very large puzzle.  Every choice we make has a consequence and this certainly includes all personal care and lifestyle products.  The toxic load that we are exposed to has never been so great and thus we need to choose wisely. 

While there are many toxic influences to be aware of from makeup to skin care to household cleaning products, one of the greatest risks comes to us in the act of colouring your hair to create shiny, grey-free locks.  Statistics on the subject of how many women dye their hair vary from 2 in 5 to 4 in 5 women with an ever-increasing number of men and young girls and teenagers.  Whatever the true percentage is, the research on the many hazards of hair dye, even supposedly ‘natural’ hair dye points to a very dangerous picture.

Hair dyes are categorized according to the penetrability of the colouring agent into the hair shaft, which determines how much grey is covered and the staying power. Permanent hair colours are the most aggressive and can provide up to 3 months worth of grey coverage, while semi-permanent can last anywhere from 6-8 weeks and temporary colours, 1-3 weeks depending on the frequency of hair washing and shampoos used. 

The scalp is the most absorbent part of the body.  The thought of slathering coal tar derivatives and other highly carcinogenic compounds onto one’s scalp is a chilling one, and yet most women do this with great frequency over the majority of their lives.  Since most women will not stop dyeing their hair, the issue comes down to the identification of the chemicals used in different brands and making the smartest choices possible, even when it comes to so-called ‘green and eco-friendly’ hair colour.

One carcinogenic compound that has received the most attention from clinical studies is a chemical known as PPD or P-Phenylenediamine, which is commonly found in the majority of conventional hair dyes as well as many ‘natural’ hair colours. Classified as an allergen by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in the short term it can cause dermatitis, rashes, bronchial asthma, irritation to the larynx and pharynx as well as redness and swelling.  Current European Union Legislation allows PPD up to 6% in a formula, however it has been banned in Germany, France and Sweden.

It must be noted that sensitivity can build with repeated exposure.  PPD is not just found in hair dye (with higher concentrations found in the darker shades), it is also found in tattoo ink, dyed fur and leather as well as photographic materials.  What is alarming however, is the increase in reactions both in numbers and severity to hair dyes containing this compound.  Stories of anaphylaxis are common with even some cases of coma and death from exposure to PPD.  A 2011 story in the Daily Mail exposed 2 horror stories of severe anaphylaxis, one resulting in the death of a 17 year old girl.  One simple search on the dangers of PPD reveals the many untold stories of women with severe reactions to this chemical.

A closer look at the research shows that PPD is a highly carcinogenic compound.  Repeated exposure to PPD can lead to a range of issues such as laryngeal edema, rhabdomyolysis and subsequent renal failure, neurotoxicity and acute toxic hepatitis.  A 2001 study from the International Journal of Cancer found that women who used permanent hair dye for 15 years on a regular basis were three times more likely to develop bladder cancer.  In 2008, the Yale School of Public Health revealed that the risk of developing follicular lymphoma, a form of leukemia, is doubled in those women who use dark hair colours more than nine times a year. 

There are other compounds to be aware of such as parabens, aminophenols, tetrahydro-6-nitroquinoxalines and chlororesorcinol.  These endocrine-disrupting compounds have the potential to interfere with cell signaling, hormonal balance and DNA integrity and bring with them a long list of consequences to one’s health.  While there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ permanent and semi-permanent hair colour to cover grey, there are safer options. 

Choosing a brand that contains absolutely no PPD is paramount, especially if one is colouring with some frequency.  While they are rare, there are a few brands that exist that are PPD free in addition to being free of many of the other dangerous compounds such as Henna Plus, Men’s Own and Hair Wonder from Holland.  Hair Wonder is even PPD and Ammonia free and is enriched with certified organic botanicals, Argan Oil, Phytokeratin and Provitamin B5.  The safest option is of course 100% pure Henna, but this can only provide minimal grey coverage (with up to 20%) and does not allow for the colour changes seen with permanent and semi-permanent colours.

Being aware is the first step.  Examining labels, asking tough questions and making the correct choices is ultimately very empowering.  The next time you colour your hair, think of the consequences and make the safest, greenest choice possible. 


Renita Rietz is a health and nutrition writer and speaker who educates on the phytotherapeutic potential of indigenous foods and plants for prevention and regeneration.  renitarietz@gmail.com

Categories: Natural Remedies