This post may contain "affiliate links." This means if you click on the affiliate link and purchase the item, I'll receive a commission. I disclose this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255. I only recommend products that passed my strict criteria. Read about my research methods in the Start Here page.
Last updated on February 12th, 2019
Many hair color brands boast they are “ammonia-free,” which makes it sound like you should want your hair color to be ammonia-free. I have been researching hair colors for the past 3 years and want to share with you my discovery about ammonia-free hair color brands that will help you make informed decisions and buy hair color products that you want – not what hair color companies want you to buy.
First of all, why do we need ammonia in a hair-coloring product?
Ammonia is used to open up the cuticles of the hair so hair dyes may penetrate inside the hair. In order to achieve this goal, something corrosive, such as ammonia, has to be used. As you can imagine, this process is damaging to your hair.
All permanent hair colors have to open up the hair cuticles, which is what makes the color stay longer and cover even the most resistant grey hair. In other words, something corrosive is used to make the hair color permanent.
Is Ammonia harmful?
It is damaging to the hair, definitely, because of the process described above. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ammonia may cause the following symptoms:
- eye, nose, and throat irritation
- breathing difficulty, wheezing, or chest pain
- pulmonary edema, pink frothy sputum, and
- burns, blisters and frostbite.
Despite these possible unpleasant symptoms, Canada Environment has classified ammonia as a low health priority.
The Environmental Working Group database has rated ammonia a 4-6 (on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most toxic), depending on the way it is used.
When a hair color brand boasts that it is “ammonia-free,” what does that mean?
First of all, you need to find out if that hair color brand is classified as a permanent hair color.
If it is NOT a permanent hair color (they are called semi- or demi-permanent), ammonia is not needed in the first place. So in a way, it is kind of like saying “plastic-free” on a glass product. Yes, we know that all glass is plastic-free but sometimes manufacturers like to add something meaningless that sounds good because they know we’re all very busy and might not stop to think how silly the claim is. (If that’s all they can say about their product, though, I would be very careful!)
The reason semi- or demi-permanent hair colors do not need ammonia is that they do not need to open up the cuticles of the hair. Instead, they coat the hair, so it is a less damaging process. I recommend using semi- or demi-permanent hair colors if you can.
The downside of semi- or demi-permanent hair colors is that if you have a lot of resistant grey hair, semi- or demi-permanent hair colors might not work for you. I think it is a good idea to try semi- or demi-permanent hair colors before you have to resort to using permanent hair colors, for several reasons. First, as noted, it is not necessary to use ammonia. Also, they typically use less harmful dyes. You can learn more about these topics in my Permanent Hair Color Rating e-book. It will also help you choose safer permanent hair colors if demi- or semi-permanent hair colors do not work for you.
So what about ammonia-free hair color brands that are permanent?
Because all permanent hair colors have to open up the hair cuticles, something else that performs this function has to be used.
In my experience studying each ingredient in many different permanent hair colors, if ammonia is not used, ethanolamine (also called monoethanolamine, or MEA) is used instead.
What is ethanolamine?
Ethanolamine is also a corrosive chemical. It has to be in order to fulfill the same function – opening up the hair cuticles.
It is not surprising that ethanolamine has an ammonia-like odor, too, although it is not as strong as ammonia.
Is ethanolamine safer than ammonia?
Because ethanolamine is a newer chemical, it has not been evaluated for cancer risks yet.
There is evidence, though, that ethanolamine might increase the risk of birth defects, which is a big deal for me. I highly recommend if you are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, avoid using ammonia-free hair colors.
In comparison, ammonia has not been known either to increase the risk of cancer or to disrupt hormones.
Also, Canada Environment has classified ethanolamine as a moderate health priority versus a low health priority for ammonia.
The Environmental Working Group rates it 5-6, which is slightly worse than ammonia’s rating of 4-6.
In this study, researchers applied different methods to measure hair cuticle damage and protein loss and found that there is more hair damage from ethanolamine than from ammonia; in some extreme cases as much as 85% more.
Furthermore, this study found that hair colors that contain ethanolamine versus ammonia are more likely to cause hair loss.
Thus, with the exception of a more pungent smell, a hair color using ammonia might be a better choice than an ammonia-free hair color. In my Permanent Hair Color Rating List e-book, you can find out which brands use ammonia and which are ammonia-free.
Does ammonia or ethanolamine damage the hair more?
You would think that since ammonia has a stronger smell, it would be more corrosive and thus damage the hair more.
This is not the case here.
Yes, because of their corrosiveness, both substances damage the hair. But here is the answer.
However, ethanolamine damages the hair more. In this study, researchers applied different methods to measure hair cuticle damage and protein loss. The researchers found that there is more hair damage from ethanolamine than from ammonia.
In some extreme cases, ethanolamine was found to increase hair damage as much as 85% more than ammonia. Can you believe that?
Yes, I was shocked, too.
You might want to ask a hairstylist who has had experience using both ammonia-containing and ammonia-free hair colors which hair color damages the hair more. Make sure though that the hairstylist is not bound by contractual terms with an ammonia-free hair color brand so they will have an independent opinion. I did, and my hairstylist confirmed the researchers’ findings that ethanolamine is more damaging.
I also noticed an interesting correlation that normally ammonia-free hair color brands claim to be organic, natural, plant-derived, naturally-derived, and even certified organic.
Yes, there is a permanent hair color brand that actually claims to be certified organic. Are you curious to learn how they can do that? Please visit here. The answer may surprise you!
In sum, I advise you to be skeptical of ammonia-free permanent hair color brands. Everything else being equal, I recommend choosing permanent hair colors that use ammonia.
Free 5-Day Hair Color Email Course
You can learn simple techniques to choose safer permanent hair color and make informed decisions about your hair coloring, which may save you from an allergic reaction that may result in irritation, hair loss, or anaphylactic shock.
Sign up for this unprecendented 5-day email e-course today!
P.S. You will also receive 20% off on the Permanent Hair Color Rating List.