More and more people are coloring their hair these days, causing the range of colors and types of hair dyes to rapidly expand. Sadly, the number of harmful substances in hair dyes is also growing at the same rate.
Ammonia is one of these harmful chemicals that is widely used in hair dyes. This chemical is a growing danger to the stylists, their 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 negatively affect 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 scalp. Direct contact with the skin can result in skin irritation and allergic reaction. Symptoms may include redness, itching, burns, and discomfort. Once absorbed through the skin, ammonia will eventually enter the bloodstream.
Exposure to ammonia vapors during the application of ammonia-based color can irritate your eyes, throat, sinuses, and lungs. Ammonia can cause breathing difficulties when inhaled as well as exacerbate pre-existing respiratory health conditions.
In addition to a strong offensive smell, ammonia is harmful to crops, forests, and other flora. When eventually washed away into the ocean, it is poisonous to marine life.
Choosing dyes 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?
In hair coloring products, ammonium hydroxide is used to support the lightening action of hydrogen peroxide and to prepare hair to accept color pigments. Alkaline properties of ammonia raise the cuticle and allow peroxide and dye molecules to penetrate the hair shaft.
Ammonia is highly for permanent color changes. In the past, it 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 back completely and hair may become 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 long because the color molecules can escape through the raised cuticle. That is why the color washes 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?
Frequent coloring may cause irreparable damage to 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 feature of ammonia causes 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 the color is significantly reduced.
Switching to ammonia-free dyes helps preserve the natural structure of your hair, reduces hair susceptibility to lose color, and makes your locks 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.