Melanie Spina
Updated on February 13, 2024

For many years, women have been coloring their hair, and every season there are more and more trends and colors to experiment with. Despite the extreme popularity of hair dyes, 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 explore how damaging hair dye can be, go over the ingredients (which most people don’t even know about), and look at how to avoid the negative effects a hair dye can have on your hair and health.

Harmful Chemicals in Hair Dye

In general, hair dye isn’t thought to be harmful. Naomi Knights, a colorist for celebrities such as P!NK and Scarlett Johansson, says the way hair dye is used and how often it’s used determines whether any bad effects will follow. At the same time, many still wonder whether hair dye can be linked to cancer.

To 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 can potentially cause harm to your hair and overall health.

  • 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 is minimal and should 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. High doses of this chemical can be toxic and cause health issues, but it’s believed that only a small amount of resorcinol penetrates the skin during the hair-dyeing process.
  • 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, that is remove 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 after you bleach your hair, your strands will often be left dry and damaged.

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. However, if they’re used carelessly, they could have harmful effects, like hair damage and health issues.

Blonde Hair dyeing Process

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Hair Dye Side Effects for Health

First of all, chemicals, especially PPDs, can sometimes cause allergic reactions on the skin. This is why it’s recommended to check how sensitive you are to the dye before coloring your hair. The absolute best way to protect yourself is to have a color consultation at least 48 hours before your coloring service to get a patch test.

In regard to carcinogens, it’s still unclear how strong the link between cancer and hair dyes is. According to the American Cancer Society, studying the association between hair dyes and 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.

To minimize the potential damage, it is vital to follow the safety precautions like wearing gloves and going through the coloring sessions in well-ventilated premises. Specific coloring techniques that do not presuppose application of hair dye close to the scalp are safe even during the most sensitive periods of pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Related Post: Can You Dye Hair While Pregnant or Breastfeeding?

Does Dyeing Your Hair Damage It?

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 chemicals can potentially damage the lipid layer of your hair and increase hair porosity.

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 structure, making your hair more prone to breakage. To prevent serious hair damage, bond building treatments should be part of any major color transformations.

How Often Can You Dye Your Hair Without Damaging It?

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 the type of hair dye you are using. The longer the color is expected to last, the more impact on the health of your locks it makes:

Temporary:Temporary colors sit on the surface of your hair and come out during your next hair wash, so you may reapply them again and again.

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 that are more gentle to your hair structure.

Permanent:This is the most damaging, yet the most popular type of hair dyes, as its chemicals will produce a lasting change that will remain until the hair begins to grow out.

The normal frequency of dyeing will also depend on your hair condition and what color process you’re using. Staying within two tones from your natural hair level is a safer option compared to drastic color transformation. Going lighter is more damaging and you cannot postpone touch ups either: you should get color services every four to six weeks to maintain the color, as too much regrowth can leave banding in the hair.

Jason Backe, founder of Ted Gibson Beauty, says that dyeing your hair darker is not as damaging as you’re depositing the color rather than removing it. This means that 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.

Second, coloring requires a good understanding of underlying tones and pigments. Lack of knowledge about what hair dye does to your hair can lead to an array of color mistakes that will be much more expensive to correct than pay for the color service in the first place. Box dyes may also not have or have a minimal amount of ingredients for protection that salon dyes have. This can lead to extreme damage and can 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. It is also common that stylists refuse to help clients go blonde until their hair is fully restored and healthy.

How to Avoid Hair Dye Dangers?

As mentioned above, taking good care of your locks, using professional services, following the safety precautions, and maintaining a normal frequency of coloring will help you avoid any hair dye problems.

If you want to further minimize the damage, consider using natural hair dyes to tone your hair. Another option may be using a shadow root technique. This process results in natural roots with lighter hair towards the bottom. Although you’re still dyeing your hair, the dye does not contact the scalp, so you’re less exposed to the chemicals. Also, you can wait longer between coloring sessions.

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.

Featured Image via Instagram

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