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How to Dye — and Nourish — Your Hair

Mar 12 2021
7 min read
A red-headed woman getting her hair dyed at a salon.

You’ve decided to go for it: You sit down in your stylist’s chair, look in the mirror, and declare that you want to color your hair.

But, just as the words come out of your mouth, you hesitate and think, Should I really go through with this?

Doubts about changing your shade aside, the coloring process is one that has raised safety concerns. Understanding how it works, what’s involved, and the options available, can help you decide what’s best for you and your hair — in the salon or when using a DIY (dye-it-yourself) kit at home.

Types of Hair Dyes

Temporary dyes: Lasting for one or two washes, these dyes just color your hair’s surface without touching the shaft. They allow you to try out a shade, while not damaging your hair.

Semi-permanent dyes: These dyes partially penetrate the hair shaft and contain no ammonia and very little hydrogen peroxide. Color lasts for up to 10 washes.

Permanent (oxidative) hair dyes: These dyes are the longest lasting since they actually cause chemical changes within the shaft that holds until new hair grows. The coloring agents, called aromatic amines and phenols, react with hydrogen peroxide and ammonia to become dyes. This process of oxidation is used for highlights as well. There are ammonia-free options available, which use an organic chemical compound called monoethanolamine (MEA) instead of ammonia.

Safety Concerns

The biggest worry that’s discussed when it comes to hair dye is whether or not it plays a role in the development of cancer. While this gets a lot of attention, the truth is that most studies have not found a strong link between personal hair dye use and cancer risk — a fact that the American Cancer Society also reminds us about. To be fair, some studies have suggested a possible connection (particularly in blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, as well as bladder cancer), but further research is needed to form any firm conclusions. If you are concerned, though, think about the amount of dye used on your hair, and frequency of your treatments, and decide if you want to limit your exposure.

Damage to your hair, however, is definitely something to consider, especially when choosing permanent dyes. The ammonia lifts your hair cuticle, which weakens it. Additionally, peroxide, which breaks down your hair’s pigment and destroys your current color, can be very drying. Chemical processing also reduces the elasticity of your strands, making them more susceptible to breakage.

Skin reactions, though less common, are also something to be aware of. An ingredient known as p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) — more concentrated in darker shades (brunettes, beware) — can cause contact dermatitis, resulting in rashes around your hairline or even, in rare cases, swollen eyelids. If you’re going blonde, bleach used in dyes can sometimes cause a burning sensation on your scalp, although many new bleaches used in salons don’t contain ammonia, lessening irritation. Consider doing a patch test on the inside of your wrist or behind your ear and look for any reaction over 24 hours; remember, though, that the color you mixed for the test cannot be used the next day.

“Organic” and “Natural” Dyes

When reaching for one of the number of dyes marked “organic” or “natural,” be sure to read the label since some of these products have more natural ingredients than others. Though they’re not 100% chemical-free, since they contain synthetic pigments and stabilizers, most natural options do forego ammonia, have lower PPD levels, and often include nourishing nutrients and antioxidants. Some are vegetable based, which may cause color to fade sooner than a permanent dye containing ammonia and peroxide. Ask your stylist about organic/natural options (and their ingredients) offered at the salon, like Organic Colour Systems (a popular salon-exclusive, vegan dye system).

Smart Coloring Tips: You don’t have to opt for dye to amp up your look. A shine-enhancing treatment (sometimes called a “gloss”), for example, temporarily coats hair in order to increase softness and luster without actually altering your natural hue. And sometimes a just a good cut can satisfy your desire for a change.

If you have decided to move ahead with your coloring plan, you can take steps to protect your locks and keep hair healthy:

Avoid Over-Processing: The more exposed your strands are to chemicals, the more likely they’ll become dry and frizzy over time. Talk to your stylist about pacing dye jobs or getting treatments that require fewer chemicals, like just choosing one shade (instead of a combination) or opting for a half set of highlights, which lighten strands on top, while leaving lower layers untouched. When touching-up roots, be sure you or your salon pro only color newly grown hair rather than adding more dye to already-processed strands.

Stick to a “You” Hue: Although it might be fun to go from a brunette to a redhead, staying within three shades of your natural color will be most gentle on your hair. Likewise, going darker is less likely to damage strands than bleaching or lightening them. If you do want a lighter shade, however, consider adding more highlights over time or lightening up gradually over the course of several months, instead of completely bleaching strands in one fell swoop.

Condition Generously: Coloring your hair can strip away strands’ protective lipid layer, leaving them more vulnerable to breakage. Using conditioners specifically for color-treated hair helps restore moisture and seal the cuticle while protecting your shade from fading. Even if you don’t shampoo, apply conditioner to the ends of hair daily. Choosing sulfate-free products, as well as washing hair less often and with warm (not hot) water, will also help protect your color.

Coloring Your Own Hair

If you’re coloring your hair at home, also consider these safety guidelines from the FDA:

  • Follow the directions in the package, especially when it comes to how long the dye should remain on your hair. Pay attention to all “caution” and “warning” statements.

  • Wear gloves when applying hair dye.

  • Do a patch test for allergic reactions before putting the dye in your hair. (Some people are more likely to experience an allergic reaction to certain ingredients the more they are exposed. You may not have an allergic reaction the first time you use a product but you may the second or even third time.)

  • Rinse your scalp thoroughly with water after use.

  • Never mix different hair color products.

  • Never use hair dye to dye your eyebrows or eyelashes. This can hurt your eyes, and may even cause blindness.