By Ivory King
If you have ever had your hair color treated at a salon, or used boxed permanent dye at home, you know there are plenty of chemicals involved. Aside from natural henna and other DIY recipe colors - which are often only effective on lighter hair anyway - it’s difficult to find a way to significantly lighten or change the color of your hair without using harsh ingredients. But recent research has yielded some possibilities for those of us who want to cover gray or just change our look - and they potentially be safe enough to use while pregnant or nursing.
The main reason that lightening or permanently dyeing hair is so chemically intensive is due to the nature of hair’s structure itself. The outside layer of hair, the cuticle, must be penetrated so that the inner layer, the cortex, can be stripped of its original melanin and re-deposited with new pigment. The cuticle is shaped somewhat like scales, and ammonia is used to lift these scales to allow dye to get inside the shaft. Hydrogen peroxide is used to fix the dye to the cortex of the hair, and a substance called paraphenylenediamine (PPD) carries the dye itself and is packaged separately from the other ingredients - nearly all home hair color kits include two bottles that must be mixed together right before use. The process that lifts the color and deposits new pigment is what can cause the damage that often is experienced as fragile, brittle or dull hair.
These common ingredients in hair dye not only have a harsh odor and damage hair, they can be rough on the scalp and skin as well. Even the most resilient of skin may itch or get red when exposed to the ammonia and other ingredients in conventional hair color. PPD in particular is a potential allergen, and people with contact dermatitis or eczema should probably avoid products containing it altogether.
While people have been using products like henna, lemon juice and tea to change their hair color for generations, these often produce a limited palette or subtle results. Some, like henna, are natural but not necessarily non-toxic. Yet there are still untapped sources from the plant and mineral kingdom that are just now being experimented with. One of these options could be used both for toning natural hair or making vibrant colors.
A study from the University of Leeds has resulted in blackcurrant waste being converted into dye. Dr. Richard Blackburn is head of the Sustainable Materials Research Group in the School of Design, where his team is working on chemical-free and toxin-free hair color. “Because of issues and concerns around conventional dyes, we wanted to develop biodegradable alternatives that minimize potential risks to health and offer consumers a different option,” explained Dr. Blackburn. The team discovered that the pigments in blackcurrants, as well as those found in other fruits and vegetables, bind strongly with proteins like hair, and in this case can create hues like pink and purple. These pigments abound in all parts of the fruit, and can be collected in a water-based process from the berry skins left behind from being pressed for juice.
The berry dye will be marketed as a semi-permanent dye - it can stick around for about 12 washes, but a more permanent solution could come from graphene.The black mineral can be formed into thin sheets that adhere to the hair’s surface, instead of needing to be chemically introduced to the interior of the shaft. It can stay on for at least 30 washes, giving it permanent dye status, and is effective enough to turn blonde hair black. The way that it alters the color means that it can be used without damaging hair, and since graphene is a conductor, it’s also resistant to static electricity. Though most graphene is black, it can be applied in different ways to create a variety of shades.
Whether you’re trying to limit exposure to chemicals and possible allergens, or you’re pregnant or nursing and want to protect your baby, there are a few significant reasons to avoid conventional hair color. But dyeing your hair might be an important part of your identity or professional image, and it doesn’t have to be explained away as a meaningless cosmetic. Since 75 percent of women dye their hair, it’s likely that these improvements in dyes can affect quite a few people, whatever the motivation to do it.
Written on 5/31/2018