More and more people are coloring their hair these days, causing the range of colors and types of dye to rapidly expand. Sadly, the dangers of certain additives in the dye are also growing at the same rate.
Ammonia is still a chemical that is widely used in many dyes. It is an increasing danger not only to you, but to the stylists, their other clients, the local environment, and even the ocean. With roughly 60% of women coloring their hair regularly, along with an increasing number of men, ammonia-based dyes are corrupting our systems and those of the ecosystems that surround us.
The Dangers of Ammonia in Hair Dyes
When dissolved in water, ammonia forms ammonium hydroxide, which is highly irritating and damaging to the skin. Ammonia in hair dyes is applied directly to the human’s scalp where it will be absorbed through the skin and eventually enter the bloodstream. Direct contact with skin can result in skin irritation and allergic reaction. Symptoms may include redness, itching, burns, and discomfort.
Exposure to ammonia vapors during the application of ammonia-based color can irritate your eyes, throat, sinuses, and lungs. It can cause breathing difficulties when inhaled as well as exacerbate pre-existing respiratory tract conditions.
Besides the very strong smell, ammonia is also detrimental to human crops, forests, and other flora. When it eventually washes away into the ocean, it is also poisonous to aquatic organisms.
Choosing dyes and colors that are ammonia-free, you can rest assured that you are not inadvertently releasing pollutants into the environment.
Why is Ammonia Used in Hair-Coloring Products?
Looking at the packing of many different hair-coloring kits, you will notice that ammonia is a primary ingredient. In hair coloring products, ammonium hydroxide is necessary for the lightening action of hydrogen peroxide and preparing hair to accept color. Alkaline properties of ammonia enable it to raise the cuticle and let peroxide and dye molecules from color formula get to the cortex.
In the past, ammonia has been necessary for significant and permanent color changes. It has been highly effective in lightening or darkening locks without fading away after a few shampoos. It also has been the only option for providing full coverage of gray hair.
How does Ammonia Damage the Cuticle Layer?
Ammonia is used in hair dyes to open the hair’s cuticle, preparing the shaft to accept dye molecules. However, after repeating coloring with ammonia-based dyes, the cuticle layer is disrupted in such a degree that the scales cannot close completely and hair becomes dry, porous, and brittle. Natural moisture will continue to escape due to raised cuticles, while the external moisture can easily enter and swell the hair shaft, leading to frizzy and unmanageable hair.
At the same time, the new dye doesn’t last as long as the color can escape due to raised cuticle. As a result, the hair color will wash out more quickly, and may even turn into a different and undesirable shade. As a result, you will need to apply color more often.
How does Ammonia Affect the Hair over the Long-Term?
Coloring your hair multiple times irreparably damages the hair shaft. The hair cuticle cannot lay flat because the ammonia makes the pH level more acidic. This worsens your hair texture and leaves the strands porous and more fragile.
The corrosive features of penetrated ammonia cause the destruction of an amino acid called tyrosine in the hair shaft. Tyrosine regulates the production of melanin, and it is responsible for holding onto color—both the new and old. When tyrosine is destroyed, the hair’s ability to hold onto color is significantly reduced.
Choosing dyes and colors that are ammonia-free helps preserve the natural structure of your hair, reduce hair susceptibility to lose color, and makes the hair appear silky and shiny.
Problems of Using Ammonia Substitutes
Depending on the brand, the ingredients used to replace ammonia are:
- Ethanolamine (also called monoethanolamine)
- Cocamide MEA
- Aminomethyl propanol (AMEA)
Ammonia-free dyes are not as natural as the manufacturers lead buyers to believe. The non-ammonia catalyst increase pH is popular because they don’t release a strong smell during the coloring process, but they are also just chemicals that act the same way as ammonia.
Ammonia replacement used in non-ammonia formulas such as ethanolamine can also be damaging to the hair when used at high levels.
How to Achieve Vibrant Hair Color without Using Ammonia Based Hair Dyes?
- If you want to try color without fully committing, use temporary or semi-permanent hair dyes.
- If you are going darker, use a demi-permanent color.
- To correct/refresh the tone, apply hair gloss or hair glazing treatment.
- To combat brassiness, use purple hair shampoos.
- To prolong the time between salon visits, use temporary root touch-up products.
- Try ammonia-free permanent hair dyes.
The following brands don’t use ammonia in their formulation and are advertised to give you a long-lasting color without using harsh chemicals:
Light Mountain Natural Hair Color & Conditioner is an all-natural hair color and conditioning program free of ammonia, peroxide, and other synthetic ingredients. The formula utilizes organic Henna and other organically grown botanicals. Be prepared that the application is messy and time-consuming.
Shea Moisture Hair Color System doesn’t contain ammonia and includes natural and certified organic ingredients such as Organic Shea Butter, Flax Seed Oil, and Soy Proteins to minimize damage and improve hair manageability and appearance. This permanent color system provides full gray coverage and can lighten hair a few shades.
Naturtint Permanent Hair Colors contain active plant-based ingredients and use ethanolamine as the alkaline medium to open the cuticle and to create a space for the micro-pigments to penetrate. The formula is claimed to provide gray coverage in one application and to give you vibrant color for up to 5 weeks.
Bigen Permanent Powder Hair Color provides lasting, rich color with excellent gray coverage without ammonia, peroxide or other damaging chemicals. This deposit-only color contains seaweed and oriental berry extracts and leaves your hair looking smooth and shiny. The powder formula is activated by water and the entire process takes only 20-30 minutes. It works well for covering stubborn gray hair.