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Is organic hair colouring possible?

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

We all know that everything organic is on fashion… and that it will stay. Beyond being the latest trend, eating organic and using organic products is healthier for you, for the professional servicing you, and for the planet.

But there are a lot of questions associated with organic hair colouring:

· are organic colours and products completely natural?

· are “organic” and “natural” the same?

· so they don’t have any chemicals at all?

We will try to address all these questions, and more, in this blog post. Grab a cuppa and let’s dive on this interesting topic together!

What is “natural” and “organic”?

There is no consensus about this, as it is almost a philosophical question very difficult to solve.

The terms 'natural' (nor 'organic') are not specifically regulated under the EU or the UK Cosmetic Products Regulations, which controls the safety of cosmetic products. Oh, no! What then?

The ISO Standard 16128 provides guidance on the definition of 'natural' and 'organic', and how to calculate the % of "naturalness" of ingredients in finished cosmetic products. However, there is no legal requirement to comply with the ISO guidelines, it is a company decision. So, let’s move on for now.

Other bodies that have definitions are Soil Association (UK), BDIH (Germany), COSMEBIO and ECOCERT (France), ICEA (Italy)… These bodies worked together to develop COSMOS, a natural and organic certification for manufacturers and producers: they define the criteria that companies must meet to ensure consumers that their products are genuine organic or natural cosmetics produced to the highest feasible sustainability practices. So let’s use some of the definitions they proposed:

  • “Natural origin”: water, minerals and ingredients of mineral origin, physically processed agro-ingredients, chemically processed agro-ingredients (and parts thereof) derived wholly from the above. The following are not of natural origin: petrochemical moieties, preservatives and denaturing agents from petrochemical origin.

  • “Organic content”: that part of an ingredient (or product) coming from an organic production system where the ingredient is certified in accordance with Regulation No. (EC) 834/2007 or an equivalent national or international standard or this Standard by a duly constituted certification body or authority.

In conclusion:

  • Only certain products are considered natural, and this depends on their origin.

  • For something to be organic, it needs to have been produced following certain standards. So something can be natural but not organic.

Then, as opposed to that… what is a “chemical”?

A component can be natural, organic AND a chemical! Nature is full of chemicals, plants are full of chemicals. For instance, essential oils are full of potent chemicals that give these oils their powerful properties. Even natural chemicals can be harmful: that is why some essential oils are contraindicated for pregnant women.

There are other chemicals that are not naturally-derived (so synthetic, made in a lab), or naturally-derived, but in such a big quantity in a product that is not considered natural anymore.

Therefore, what we want to avoid are HARMFUL chemicals.

These are commonly called “contaminants” or “pollutants”. Let’s see the definition by COSMOS:

  • “Contaminant”: a substance that is:

    • not naturally present in the material, or

    • present in quantities greater than those that exist naturally which could lead to pollution (persistence, residues) and toxicity risks.

  • Contaminants may be: heavy metals, aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides, dioxins & PCBs, radioactivity, GMOs, mycotoxins, medicinal residues, nitrates, nitrosamines.

We really hope that we have not lost you already. It took some time for us to understand all this as well. We needed to read it several times, believe me.

Now, as a salon, there are other factors that are important for us:

  • Biodegradability: is the capacity of a substance for degradation by living organisms, down to the base substances such as water, carbon dioxide, etc. Therefore, if a substance is biodegradable, usually it is not considered a pollutant for the environment. This is why plastic is such a big problem: it is not biodegradable (although there are researchers working on it!).

  • Toxicity for aquatic life: is defined as the study of the effects of a substance to aquatic species, which is usually determined on organisms representing different levels in the food chain: vertebrates (fish), invertebrates (crustaceans as Daphnia) and plants (algae). There is acute toxicity, long term toxicity, etc. As you know, hair products are rinsed and go down the sink and end up in rivers and the sea, that is why these studies are important,

​After all these facts… does 100% organic hair colour even exist?

Actually, yes, and all of us have heard about it. We are going to talk about the different options that are in the market and in our salon RIGHT NOW. As you can imagine, this is in constant development.

100% natural, organic (or not), biodegradable and non-toxic hair colour

To our knowledge: only herbs like henna, indigo, walnut hull, …

They are 100% natural if they only contain roots, bark, flowers, leaves… of plants.

They can be organic OR NOT, depending on how they plants have been grown. If they have been grown without pesticides, or with pesticides catalogued as organic, then the herbs can be natural AND organic.

These herbal colours work differently than the colours that we find in most salons nowadays (that will explain below):

  • Herbal colours do not penetrate till the cortex of the hair strand, but stay in the outer layer.

  • Therefore, they don’t alter the hair or affect the scalp like other types of colouring. They actually protect the hair, as they create a protective layer, and this stops aggression like sun, chlorinated water, etc.

  • They are actually permanent. In some cases, like super bright red, they may fade a little. But they will only go away when you cut your hair.

  • Herbs have been used since ancient times to colour hair, specially in India, Morocco and the middle East. So actually this way of colouring has been around waaaaaaaaay longer than the colouring techniques that are more extended in our society nowadays!

  • The caveat: covering 100% white hair is not always possible. The coverage can be 70-80% in some cases. But we currently are researching if we can achieve 100%.

  • The bad news: after talking with at least a dozen brands of herbal colours, I can assure you that there are a lot of brands that adulterate herbs by adding harmful chemicals (like sodium picramate), to make the process more similar to the traditional hair colouring. They can be very tricky to spot, as brands don’t want to disclose their secrets!

Conclusion: this is the most respectful and eco-friendly hair colouring, for you and for the planet. If you are not too worried about covering 100% of your white hairs, or you have very few, we totally recommend it. Actually, Alex (one of the owners) has decided going for this, and she hasn’t looked back!

Our news: we are working very hard to be able to offer you excellent and affordable herb colouring at our salon. Keep the eyes peeled!

Not 100% natural, not 100% organic, not 100% biodegradable and not 100% non-toxic hair colour

Here we have the rest of the so called “natural and organic” hair colours, including the ones in our salon.

Do not despair: they are still waaaay better than other big and famous brands like L’Oreal, Wella, Redken, etc. Let us explain you more things:

Non-herbal hair colours can be semi-permanent, or permanent.

Semi-permanent colours will stay on the cortex of your hair and will wash away quicker.

To dye with permanent hair colours, opening the cuticles of the hair strand is needed, otherwise the colour won’t penetrate in the hair and won’t last. This is achieved with synthetic chemicals, that act increasing the pH of the hair:

· Ammonia

· Monoethanolamine (MEA)

· Ethanolamine

· Cocomide MEA

· Aminomethylpropanol (AMEA)

· and its derivatives

MEA vs. ammonia, which one is better?

Ammonia is a harsh chemical but very common ingredient in hair colours. MEA is a replacement of ammonia, fulfilling the same purpose. The irritancy levels of Ammonia and MEA are comparable. However, ammonia is also an irritant to mucous membranes (eyes and nose) because it is volatile. Working with ammonia-based colours can therefore be an unpleasant experience which is why both customers and professionals prefer to work with MEA. High levels of MEA can be very damaging for the hair, and will open the cuticles irreversibly.

What about other ingredients inside of hair colouring products?

Apart from opening the cuticles, for the colour to get inside the hair, we want hair colours to cover 100% of our white hairs. Is it possible? 100% it is.

Many brands, to make hair colours to cover grey hair, add P-Phenylenediamine (commonly referred to as PPD). PPD is another synthetic chemical substance, derived from petroleum. It is a known skin sensitizer, that is why it leads to allergic reactions in some people (and that is why patch testing is important!). When ingested, PPD is highly toxic (often referred to as hair dye poisoning). Allowed up to 2% in hair products, approved in the EU and UK.

If you are unfortunately allergic to PPD you can use hair colours with PTD (toluene-2.5-diamine): it is a phenylenediamine as PPD, performs well, but it is less aggressive. The maximum amount of PTD allowed in hair colours is 4%.

In the case of resorcinol, in order for permanent hair colours to provide the correct level of performance, many brands chose to use it. Like all oxidation dyes (both primaries and couplers) resorcinol can be a potential sensitizer. The E.U. Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety is of the opinion that the use of resorcinol as an ingredient in oxidative hair dyes, will not pose a risk to the health of the consumer, apart from as a potential sensitizer (but this will only affect a small number of users, like PPD, PDT).

If you are not allergic to PPD, PDT or resorcinol, you can definitely use colours that contain small amounts of those. If you want 100% effective grey hair coverage, hair colours that contain them are inevitable, to our knowledge.

To wrap-up:

  • The most eco-friendly and healthy way of colouring the hair is using 100% herbal colours. Only be aware that white hair may not be covered 100%.

  • If you have scalp issues, sensitivities, allergies, cancer,… we would recommend going for herbal colouring and products as natural as possible.

  • Run away of brands that contain high levels of ammonia (most of the most famous brands), MEA, PPD, PTD and resorcinol. That is why in our salon we have researched the marked to find brands that contain low levels of them; we are always researching to offer you the best we can find.

  • Based on the information that is available nowadays, and if you are not allergic or sensitive to them, low levels of ammonia, MEA, PPD, PTD are not going to harm you... immediately. What will happen after 50 years of using them, we cannot tell.

  • Be aware that ammonia, MEA, PPD, PTD and resorcinol are harmful for the natural environment. Therefore the less often and the less amount we use, the better.

  • Because PPD, PTD and resorcinol are potential sensitizers, you should perform a patch test before applying any permanent hair colour.

If you are very interested in the topic and would like to read further, we recommend you:

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