Is Dyeing Your Hair Bad for You?

For many years, women have been coloring their hair, and every season there are more and more trends and colors to experiment with.

Although dyeing hair is extremely popular, anyone who has colored their hair or even considered doing it has probably asked this question: Is dyeing your hair bad?

In this article, we’ll be exploring just how damaging hair dye can be, going over the ingredients (which most people don’t even know about), explaining the effects hair color can have on your health, and looking at what safer alternatives are available.

Is Hair Dye Bad for You?

Hair dye is basically made from chemicals that change the color of hair. There are different types of dyes:

Temporary: These are usually products that sit on the surface of your hair and come out during your next hair wash.

Semi-permanent: This dye will penetrate your hair shaft and take longer than temporary dyes to fade (up to eight washes, depending on the brand you use). As it still washes out, one-day colors and semi-permanent dyes are both considered temporary hair colors.

Permanent: This is the most popular type as its chemicals will produce a lasting change to the hair and will remain until the hair begins to grow out.


Generally speaking, hair dye isn’t thought to be harmful. But Naomi Knights, colorist for celebrities such as P!NK and Scarlett Johansson, says the way dye is used and how often it’s used are factors important to consider. However, Dr. William Cole, a leading functional-medicine expert, has pointed out that various chemicals used in hair dye have been linked to cancer. Let’s find out which dangers hide behind the common ingredients of hair dyes.

What Are the Harsh Ingredients in Your Hair Dye?

To better understand whether hair dye is toxic or not, we need to take a closer look at the harsh ingredients you may find in the dyes and how they could potentially cause harmful effects.

  • Formaldehyde: a colorless, strong-smelling, and flammable chemical that, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), is used not only in hair products but also as a preservative at medical laboratories and at mortuaries. Formaldehyde was listed as a known human carcinogen in a report conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. However, the quantity that’s used in hair dye should be minimal and not cause harm if used properly.
  • Resorcinol: a chemical that can be found in hair dye formulations as well as acne medications. When used in hair dyes, it normally will react with peroxide in order to bond the dye to the strands of hair. It’s believed that only a small amount of resorcinol penetrates the skin during the hair-dyeing process, but high doses of this chemical can be toxic and cause health issues.
  • Ammonia: a colorless, highly irritating gas that also has a sharp, suffocating odor. It’s considered one of the most widely produced chemicals in the US, according the NY Department of Health. Ammonia will change the hair’s PH level, meaning that it allows the hair cuticle to open up. Therefore, the dye can be absorbed, which results in colored hair. Popular hair product brand Garnier claims that the damage ammonia can cause to your hair is irreversible and that ammonia can also be quite irritating to your skin.
  • Paraphenylenediamine (PPD): a chemical substance that’s most commonly used in permanent dyes, especially for darker hair dyes, as it provides a long-lasting, natural look. This chemical is colorless and requires oxygen to become a dye. PPD has been shown to cause allergic reactions in certain users. According to the American Contact Dermatitis Society, these reactions can manifest in the form of scalp swelling, scaling, or blistering, and may affect other areas of your face such as eyes, ears, or forehead.
  • Coal Tar: a liquid formed by a mixture of chemicals derived from petroleum and coal. The National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer now recognize coal tar as a known carcinogen, with various studies and experiments finding that exposure to this mixture of chemicals could potentially produce tumors or increase chances of bladder cancer, according to the Campaign of Safe Cosmetics. It’s also important to note that the FDA determined that any product that may contain coal tar must have a caution-statement label, letting the user know that this product may cause skin irritation, and if used for eyelashes and eyebrows, it could cause blindness.
  • Hydrogen Peroxide: a strong oxidizing agent that we normally use to disinfect. It can also be used to bleach your hair, removing the color to prepare the hair for the new color. Even though hydrogen peroxide is used to combat toxins, we must keep in mind that, while it’s killing them, it’s also removing all of the healthy aspects of your hair, like natural oils. This is why more often than not after you bleach your hair, your strands will be left dry and damaged.
Blonde Hair dyeing Process

Photo Credit: Pixabay

What Are the Dangers of Hair Dye?

Taking into consideration this group of harsh chemicals, is hair dye bad for you? Yes and no.

What we mean by this is that most of these chemicals, although harsh, typically don’t have strong consequences when not used excessively. However, if they’re used carelessly, they could have harmful effects, like hair damage and health issues.

Health Effects

When it comes to the effects of hair color on your health, it’s important to take the necessary precautions.

As these chemicals, especially PPDs, can sometimes cause allergic reactions on the skin, it’s recommended you check how sensitive you are to the dye before coloring your hair. “The absolute best way to protect yourself is to come in for a consultation at least 48 hours before your coloring service to get a patch test,” Knights told StyleCaster.

In regard to carcinogens, it’s still unclear how strong the link is between cancer and hair dyes. According to the American Cancer Society, studying the effect that hair dyes have in relation to the illness can be complicated because each hair dye may have different ingredients. Therefore, although many of these chemicals are considered to be carcinogens, hair dye itself is not classified as a cause of cancer.

Hair Damage

Now that we know how hair dye affects health, do we know whether hair dye damages your hair as well? The answer is simple: It does.


Exposing your hair to the chemicals mentioned above will most likely leave your hair feeling not only dry and frizzy but also flat and with rough ends. Dr. Joe Cincotta, PhD cosmetic chemist for Color Wow, explains that this happens because those chemicals could potentially damage the lipid layer of your hair.

Dyeing your hair may also cause the bonds that link the keratin in your hair to break, which causes damage to the hair. “These bonds are key to your hair’s strength and elasticity, and breaking them weakens the hair’s internal structure,” says Dr. Cincotta. “This makes your hair more prone to breakage and can cause serious hair damage.

Are You Dyeing Your Hair Too Often?

The biggest mistake related to coloring your hair is not waiting the appropriate amount of time to color again.

As we’ve learned, dyeing your hair and exposing it to such a harsh chemical process can be hard on your locks; therefore, it’s important not to expose your hair to these chemicals too often.

The norm is usually four to eight weeks, but this can depend on your hair type and what color process you’re using. “When going lighter, you should wait four to six weeks in between color services to maintain it and avoid too much regrowth, which can leave banding in the hair,” says Redken artist Sean Godard to StyleCaster.

For example, dyeing your hair darker is not as damaging as lightening it. Jason Backe, founder of Ted Gibson Beauty, says that when you’re going darker you’re depositing the color rather than removing it, meaning you might get away with not waiting too long to color it again. But keep in mind that darker dyes are more likely to carry the PPD chemical, which as we know might be rough on your skin.

You also want to make sure you don’t overdo coloring your hair as this can cause breakage and make it even more difficult for the hair strands to pick up the color.


Dyeing Your Hair Professionally vs. Box Dyes

Using a box dye to color your hair might be cheap and easy to access, but is it reliable?

When you get your hair colored by a professional at a salon, the stylist will make sure to personalize the formula specifically for you and your needs and can properly apply it. With a box dye, you’re not getting that customization and personal treatment.

Box dyes tend to contain a lot of pigments with ingredients for protection that are either absent or simply not as prominent as they may be in salon dyes. Not coloring your hair properly can result in extreme damage or hair loss and could ruin your hair.

Going to a specialist will allow them to properly examine the current condition of your locks and follow protocols to create the look you want in a way that will not harmfully impact your hair.

Are There Safer Alternatives to Hair Dye?

If you feel uneasy about using harsh chemicals in your hair but still want to color it, then there’s no need to worry. There are plenty of options for coloring your hair in a way to avoid major hair damage, by using techniques or products with fewer chemicals, or completely natural colorants.

Shadow Roots

If you don’t want to completely part ways from dyeing your hair, ask your hairdresser about shadow root technique. This process results in roots with lighter hair towards the bottom. Although you’re still dyeing your hair, the trick is not to go deep into your root; therefore, you can wait longer between coloring sessions as you’re exposed less to the chemicals. It’s also quite the dreamy look!

Coffee or Tea

If you’re looking to go darker with your hair, then coffee or tea could be the best natural option for you. Simply brew a strong coffee or tea, let it cool, and mix with your leave-in conditioner. Once you’ve got your mix prepared, add it to your hair, and let it sit for an hour or so. Depending on the color of your natural hair, certain teas may work better than others. For example, chamomile tea can help lighten your blonde hair whereas black tea can help darken it.



There are many herbs that can help you achieve the color you want based on your natural hair color. For instance, hibiscus works best to deepen red shades. But if you’re looking for something more vibrant and impactful, try mixing turmeric with conditioner for a bright, almost neon yellow, as seen below.

Beet Juice

This natural ingredient can help provide your hair with a natural red tint. You could even mix it with carrot juice for a more orange tone. Mix the juices with coconut oil, apply to hair, and wait for about an hour before rinsing. If you want the color darker, you can always reapply. The beauty of natural dye is that there are no harmful effects, and you can repeat the process as often as needed.

Lemon Juice

Who would apply lemon juice to their hair to lighten it up when they head to the beach? Well this trick is true! Brushing lemon juice through your hair and sitting in the sun for a few hours will lighten your hair naturally little by little.

Natural or Less Chemically Harmful Dyes

Although these natural resources like beet juice or herbs are great alternatives, they don’t always have the same effect on everyone’s hair and might not leave you with a strong enough color. If these options don’t work for you, or you want something a bit stronger, find a product that is natural and free of chemicals such as the ones below:

  • Herbatint: This brand prides itself on being the most natural permanent hair coloring gel that’s free of ammonia and other harsh chemicals. The products are made with herbal extracts that will provide nourishment and protection to your locks and scalp.
  • Original & Mineral: This Australian brand was formulated with no harsh chemicals, but instead with natural and nourishing active ingredients they claim are sourced from the outback and ocean. It was one of the first brands to have professional products that were free of chemicals like resorcinol, PPD, and ammonia.
  • Logona Herbal Hair Color: This product is 100 percent botanical and was designed to cover gray hair while providing your hair with the nourishment it needs. It’s vegan-friendly and may contain henna, jojoba oil, and rhubarb root powder.
  • ONC NATURALCOLORS: This natural dye claims to provide your locks with the color you’re looking for without exposing your hair to harsh chemicals. It does require heat to open the cuticles of your hair (something that ammonia would normally do) for the color to fully penetrate the hair and not fade.

So, yes, coloring hair can be damaging. The key is to get your hair colored properly and with moderation in frequency to avoid harm. Staying on top of the ingredients used in dyes and taking the necessary precautions before and after dyeing your hair will help minimize the harmful effects of hair dye. And remember that there’s a wide range of natural options you can consider next time you dye your hair!

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