Harmless Hues
Avoid the downside of highlights with natural hair-dye alternatives

By Linda Knittel

At about age 30, Pepper Gibson noticed a few strands of gray poking through her rich brown hair. Quickly, two strands became ten and then 20. Five years later, she now has it professionally colored every eight weeks to keep from looking older than her age.

Gibson is one of the millions of women who may want to rethink that trip to the salon or hair-color section of the grocery store. Conventional coloring products contain a number of ingredients with questionable reputations. And as tough as your scalp may seem, the dye you put on it will eventually make its way into your system.

Color Me Beautiful
Experts believe continued use of conventional hair coloring products can lead to serious health problems. Natural alternatives offer similar aesthetic benefits to beautify your tresses without the risk. "You really have to think about what you are applying so close to your brain," says Diana De Luca, herbalist and author of Botanica Erotica: Arousing Body, Mind, and Spirit (Healing Arts Press, 1998). "The skin of the scalp is really thirsty, so it will drink in whatever chemicals you put on it." Just like progesterone creams and nicotine patches, hair care products are vehicles that deliver chemicals to the scalp. Whether they are pharmaceutical agents, synthetic additives, or organic contaminants, these chemicals all eventually end up in the bloodstream. Because research indicates that the long-term effects of absorbing such ingredients can be dangerous, you may want to play it naturally safe.

Shades Of Gray
In the late 1970s, researchers conducting studies on animals found that certain ingredients derived from coal-tar and used in conventional hair-coloring products were not only absorbed through the skin but were associated with increased cancer risk (British Journal of Cancer, 1977, vol. 36, no. 4). As a result of these findings, the Food and Drug Administration proposed that a warning label be placed on products containing these compounds. While legal action on the part of hair-dye manufacturers kept mandatory warnings off labels, most companies eventually removed these compounds anyway, replacing them with similar chemicals such as para-phenylenediamine (PPD).

Luckily, there is a category of hair dyes made from plant materials that are completely free of synthetic chemicals. More recent research on the safety of hair-coloring products indeed shows cause for concern. In 1994, researchers published results of a trial showing that women who use deep-colored dyes, such as black, for a prolonged period of time may have an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 1994, vol. 86, no. 3). Also, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health's department of epidemiology found that women who use hair dyes five or more times a year have twice the risk of developing ovarian cancer than women who never use hair dye (International Journal of Cancer, 1993, vol. 55 no. 3).

In addition, results of a study published in the International Journal of Cancer (2001, vol. 91) suggest that women who use permanent hair dye experience a 2.1-fold risk of bladder cancer compared with nonusers. Although the cause of these connections is still unclear, one theory is that hair dye's hydrogen peroxide oxidizes certain molecules in the product and may set off precancerous reactions in the body.

Because of potential risks to fetuses and newborns, product literature warns pregnant and lactating mothers not to use hair-coloring products. "There are many chemicals based on phenylenediamine that are found in hair-dye products, and frankly, no one knows whether it is the individual chemical or the group of chemicals together that's most dangerous," says David Steinman of Topanga, California, a recognized expert on the toxicity of hair-coloring products and the co-author of The Safe Shopper's Bible (John Wiley & Sons, 1995).

Scratching The Surface
In addition to potential cancer risks, other problems may surface when you use conventional hair colorants. Most of these products contain soaps, detergents, conditioning agents, and dyes that are strong eye irritants and that also can cause allergic reactions, as can overly alkaline (high pH) hair dyes.

Although many hair colorants on the market claim to be natural, Steinman sounds a warning. "[Manufacturers] may infuse [products] with some herbs, but the herbs don't negate the toxic properties of the other chemicals," he says. "When you see a phenylenediamine-based ingredient on the product label, that should be a tip-off." To really know what you're applying to your scalp, read the label carefully and educate yourself on what the words mean.

Safer Options
Luckily, you can find natural hair dyes that are completely free of toxic synthetic chemicals. These products use color-rich plants to enhance hair color, bring out highlights, and tone down gray. However, what is not contained in these products does limit what they can achieve. Forget about going from dark brunette to blonde—you can't bleach or significantly lighten with such natural products. And because they don't contain permanent-dye chemicals, natural products may require more frequent application; according to Steinman, results are semi-permanent to temporary at best.

Natural hair colorants can do more than simply enhance the shade of your hair; they can also improve its health and shine. Henna, a powder created from the leaves and roots of the Lawsonia alba plant, comes in many shades that can be used to darken or highlight your hair (the color washes out over six months). You can also mix other plant ingredients to bring about an array of coloring options. For example, adding rhubarb to henna enhances red tones; walnut shells boost brown shades; and lemon and chamomile enrich blonde highlights. For even better results, manufacturers have created unique application recipes, such as adding boiled coffee rather than water to a medium-brown henna to get chestnut brown. Look for these tips inside the product box or contact the company's toll-free hotline.

Natural hair colorants can do more than simply enhance the shade of your hair; they can also improve its health and shine. To achieve this, some companies add essential oils as well as powdered jojoba and hydrolyzed wheat protein to deep condition hair during coloring.

Ultimately, coloring one's hair should not be a frightening process. Consider natural alternatives to avoid risks associated with conventional hair dyes. Changing your hair color affects your appearance and often your outlook, but it shouldn't jeopardize your health.

Freelancer Linda Knittel once accidentally dyed her hair purple. She has stuck with her natural color ever since.