Hair Color With Less Harm: New In-Home Hair Dyes in Skin Deep®

As many hair salons remain closed months into the national shutdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, at-home hair dyes are flying off store shelves. But many of these products may contain potentially harmful ingredients.

To ensure you have the latest product information so you can choose those with the fewest ingredients linked to health harms, EWG recently added more than a hundred new hair dyes and bleaches to the Skin Deep® cosmetics database.

Skin Deep is a free online resource that rates more than 86,000 personal care products based on the toxicity or hazards associated with their ingredients. Skin Deep scores range from 1, for products with the lowest associated health hazard, to 10, the highest.

Using Skin Deep, we assessed more than 300 hair dyes and bleaches and found that only about a quarter of them score 1 or 2. The vast majority contain harsh and potentially hazardous ingredients.

This may not be surprising, since many studies have highlighted a number of ingredients in hair straightenersdyes and a combination of both product types that are linked to an array of health harms, including cancer, scalp and skin irritation and allergic reactions. Researchers have also found that the use of some semi-permanent and permanent hair dyes have been linked to hair loss.

The use of these products may be especially concerning for Black women. In a recent report by the National Institutes of Health, researchers noted an increased breast cancer risk among all women using hair dyes. However, the Black women who participated in the study and used hair dyes had a 45 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer, whereas the increased risk to white women was about 7 percent.

If you’re planning to color or treat your hair at home, whether for the first time or as part of an ongoing routine, here are a few common ingredients of concern to watch for:

  • P-phenylenediamine, a common ingredient in hair dyes, is a strong skin sensitizer and has been shown to induce tumors in rat mammary glands.
  • Although no longer commonly used in hair dyes, lead acetate can still be found in a few products on the market. The use of such products can increase the level of lead in the body – a potent neurotoxicant that has been linked to developmental issues, reduced fertility, organ system toxicity, cancer and other serious health problems. Although the Food and Drug Administration has tried to ban this ingredient, it is allowed for now.  
  • Used in hair dyes, resorcinol can affect the proper functioning of hormones and trigger allergic reactions.
  • Preservatives such as DMDM hydantoin or imidazolidinyl urea slowly form formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, in the product to slow down bacterial growth. Preservatives serve a very important function in cosmetics; however, there are options that don’t have carcinogenic health concerns.
  • Methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone are preservatives that can cause serious allergic reactions, even in people who do not usually have allergies.
  • “Fragrance” can include any number of over 4,000 undisclosed ingredients, including chemicals linked to serious health concerns.

To see how hair color and bleaching products rate in Skin Deep, and whether your favorite was included in our assessment, visit or search for it in the Healthy Living App.

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