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Organic Hair Color: Buyer Beware!


organic hair color buyer beware

If you type “Organic Hair Color” into Google, it will retrieve over 14 million results. You will see the phrase “organic hair color” repeated over and over again. You might start thinking that maybe there really are organic hair color products. But wait a minute. Is it really possible for a hair color to be organic? Let’s talk about organic hair color products.


What does “organic” mean?


In the U.S., some agricultural products are certified as organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) under its National Organic Program (“NOP”). However, cosmetics, skin care and personal care products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), which does not define or regulate the term “organic.”


With this said, some personal care products meet USDA labeling standards because the USDA certifies 95% of their ingredients as organic. This allows some personal care products to be certified as organic by the USDA.


Organic Hair Color USDA organic sealFor example, as we will see below, there are some facial balms that carry the USDA certified organic symbol. This means that the product has met USDA standards. However, because the USDA does not regulate personal care products, and the FDA (which regulates personal care products) does not regulate use of the term “organic”, there is no law prohibiting other manufacturers of facial balms from using the term “organic” to promote their own facial balms, as long as they don’t use the USDA symbol.


In other words, this means that anybody can say that their cosmetics, skin care or personal care products are “organic” – even if they are made with highly toxic materials – without any legal repercussions (as long as they do not display the USDA organic seal on their products or website). Nobody is stopping them; it is up to us as consumers to become educated about whether a product is truly worthy of the lofty term “organic.”


Organic hair color CCOF seal

Because the USDA organic symbol is hard and expensive to obtain and maintain, a lot of smaller farmers are certified organic through other means. For example, the California Certified Organic Farmers organization (“CCOF”) is a well-regarded organization that certifies food that meets its standard as being worthy of being called “organic.” Its symbol looks like this. 


There are other certifying organizations, as well.


The point is that as a society, we have come to understand that the term “organic” means that a product objectively adheres to certain well-understood standards of health and safety that have been agreed upon by thoughtful people comprising an independent certifying organization, and that the term “organic” should not be something a manufacturer simply decides on its own to call its product, based upon its own subjective (and often undisclosed) standard – or no standard at all – in order to sell its products.


In short, if you do not see the USDA organic seal on an organic hair color product, that means it is NOT considered organic according to the USDA’s objective standard.


Can organic hair color have a USDA organic seal?


No, for reasons that follow.

I am not aware of any hair color products that carry the USDA organic seal. The only possible exception is that certain henna has been certified organic. Henna is a fine powder of dried and crushed leaves of the lawsonia inermis plant that apparently works for some people as a hair color treatment. You can read about my experience with it here.


Why don’t organic hair color products carry USDA organic seals?


First of all, know that for a product that consists of more than one ingredient to receive USDA organic certification, it has to be comprised of at least 95% ingredients that are themselves certified organic (aside from water and salt which are not counted when making the 95% calculation).


Take soup, for example. If 95% of its ingredients (setting aside water and salt) are themselves certified organic, then the soup can also receive USDA organic certification.


How does this apply to so-called organic hair color products? In order to determine whether a hair color product (the “soup”) can be certified organic, we first have to see if at least 95% of its (non-water, non-salt) ingredients themselves have been certified organic.


As stated by the USDA, for a hair color product ingredient to be eligible for organic certification, it has to be “an agricultural ingredient that meets the USDA/NOP organic production, handling, processing and labeling standards.” (Source). Notice that to be eligible for organic certification, an ingredient has to meet organic production and processing standards. Here is what the USDA/NOP states: “The operations which produce the organic agricultural ingredients, the handlers of these agricultural ingredients, and the manufacturer of the final product must all be certified by a USDA-accredited organic certifying agent.”


This means that a personal care ingredient has to originate from an organic agricultural plant, vegetable or fruit.


Normally that means that minimally processed ingredients are derived without adding non-agricultural ingredients. For example, oil derived with hexane, a petroleum solvent, would not be qualified as organic. Processes that are qualified to be organic include cold pressing, filtration, infusion, distillation, grinding, and dehydration.


Examples of certified organic ingredients would be plant oils (e.g. olive oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil) and herb or plant extracts (e.g. calendula extract, seabuckthorn berry extract).


Here is an example of the ingredients in a USDA certified organic facial balm (made by Badger).

hair color Irina Webb

Do you have chemically treated hair?  Consider using these healing hair treatments!  

Damascus Rose Beauty Balm Ingredients: *Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil, *Ricinus Communis (Castor) Seed Oil, *Cera Alba (Beeswax), *Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Flower Oil, *Rosa Canina (Rosehip) Fruit Extract, *Hippophae Rhamnoides (Seabuckthorn) Fruit Extract, *Rosa Damascena (Rose) Flower Oil, *Calendula Officinalis (Calendula) Flower Extract, *Anthemis Nobilis (Chamomile) Flower Oil.


On the other hand, lathering agents (aka surfactants) can not be certified organic, because they are not “an agricultural ingredient that meets the USDA/NOP organic production, handling, processing and labeling standards.”


For example, let’s look at the surfactant sodium laureth sulfate that is often claimed to be “natural” because it is derived from coconut oil. Yes, it can be made from, or derived from, certified organic coconut oil.  To make sodium laureth sulfate, though, the coconut oil is first turned into fatty acids that are used to derive lauryl alcohol. Then, the lauryl alcohol is treated with sulfur trioxide gas or chlorosulfuric acid to produce sodium lauryl sulfate.  And finally, the sodium lauryl sulfate is treated with carcinogenic ethylene oxide.


It seems to me by the time organically grown coconuts have traveled the distance to become sodium laureth sulfate, there is not much left in it to remind us of coconuts, and this is why the USDA requires ingredients to meet organic processing standards.


What does all of this have to do with hair color products?


In order to receive USDA organic certification, so called organic hair color products have to be made solely from extracts, oils, sea salt and water. Are they?


No. As you can imagine, hair color products are made with mineral pigments and petroleum dyes (mostly petroleum dyes). None of these ingredients can be USDA-certified organic, for one very good reason – they are not agricultural products subject to the jurisdiction of the USDA.


In addition, pseudo organic hair color products have chemicals that open up hair cuticles and push mineral pigments and petroleum dyes into the hair. These include, for example, ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, 2-methylresorcinol, and resorcinol. None of these even remotely resembles agricultural products.


And then there are preservatives, surfactants, and emulsifiers that can never be organic because they are made in a way similar to sodium laureth sulfate – in a multistep process that significantly changes the substance, even if it was originally derived from a certified organic agricultural product; i.e. they are not ingredients that meet organic processing standards.


Some so called organic hair color products contain a few certified organic ingredients that moisturize and sooth the scalp. For example, Organic Color Systems has 5 certified organic ingredients such as alcohol, symphytum officinale, comfrey root, aloe barbadensis, aloe vera leaf, citrus aurantium dulcis, orange peel, citrus grandis, and grapefruit seed. Great! However, the product also lists about 25 other ingredients, such that the proportion of the product that is comprised of organic ingredients would be much less than 95%. This means that Organic Color Systems is not organic, either by USDA standards or by any other objective standard set by any independent organization.


In conclusion, no – organic hair color products are not organic and can’t be organic. In order to function properly as hair dyes, they need non-agricultural ingredients and lots of them. For that reason, they cannot meet USDA organic standards.


And this makes me sad. A lot of people (think pregnant and breastfeeding women) see the word “organic” and think this means that the product will not harm them or their baby, when there are a lot of ingredients whose safety is questioned or unknown.


Yet manufacturers persist because the USDA is powerless to stop them (as long as they don’t use the USDA symbol), and the FDA (which has jurisdiction over hair color products) has not implemented an objective standard as to whether something is organic. This regulatory loophole means that manufacturers are free to use the term “organic” wholly unfettered by our reasonable expectations as consumers that the word “organic” has objectively verifiable meaning.


This is yet another area where the phrase caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) applies.

Organic Hair Color Buyer Beware


Share this post with your friends.  Let them know about pseudo-organic hair color products that may trick them.


By the way, if you use hair dye, I understand.  Trust me, vanity is not a stranger to me.  I just want us to make informed decisions based on the truth.  

hair color Irina Webb

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34 thoughts on “Organic Hair Color: Buyer Beware!”

  1. Thank you Irina for all you do! So is there any dye that is better to use than another. My hair stylist uses
    Organic Colour Systems.

    1. From what I have seen, all permanent hair dyes use the same pool of ingredients. You can see my review of Organic Color Systems, here. Since we can’t avoid potentially harmful chemicals in hair dyes, I recommend knowing the risks of hair dyes and use them according to the risks. Opening detox pathways through healthy diet and stress management and mitigating exposures to toxic chemicals where you can control them (e.g. using non-toxic shampoos, soap, toothpaste, cookware, furniture, etc) becomes very important. I also believe that choosing hair dyes based on the companies’ honest marketing practices is a key to affecting a change for safer products. ~Irina

  2. Hi Irina,
    Have you looked into the Elumen line by Goldwell, or their other products? I found a stylist in San Rafael that uses this line and she explains it to be the best choice she has found (though not perfect) – I believe it’s a German company manufacturing to EU standards, which she stated are much safer than US standards. She seems very informed on this issue so I’m hoping this is a good choice!

    1. Hi Joy, is it Becky? Yes, I looked into Elumen, and it is safer that permanent hair dyes simply because it is not a permanent dye hence the major offenders in permanent dyes are not needed. If non-permanent hair dye works for you, you are going to love a revolutionary hair treatment I am going to review next. Stay tuned! ~Irina

      1. Hi Irina, yes, it’s becky! (@ pin up salon, for anyone else interested….) Thanks for your input, and I look forward to your revolutionary treatment 🙂 happy holidays!

  3. Please advise which hair color is the least toxic to use. I have been using Organic Color Systems for a few yrs thinking it was vegan/organic …to find that it is now. I have been reading your website and cannot find anywhere where you advise readers which is the best to use, if they insist on coloring their hair …and cannot use henna as they have been coloring their hair for years with chemical products. Also I am in Canada and hoping to find a product that has a Cdn distributor. How about Natulique? Thanks very much for the courtesy of your impending reply.

    1. Hello, Rhonda: I am glad you are looking for safer products. From what I have seen, all permanent hair dyes use the same pool of ingredients so the differences in safety are not prominent. You are not first one who asked about Natulique so I sent them a message to request a list of ingredients and will write a review when I can. I am one concerned mom behind this blog so as much as I want to do everything I can’t. If you’d like to hire me to review Natulique, I will make this review my priority. In the meantime, have you read my review of Organic Color Systems and Madison Reed? Also, next I am going to publish a review of a revolutionary product treatment that I used on my hair three times over the course of 9 months and like it a lot. Stay tuned. ~Irina

    1. Hi Lesley, I can’t get any information from Natulique. They do not disclose ingredients on the website and only licensed hair stylist can contact them. If somebody sends me a full list of ingredients, I am happy to review. Thanks! ~Irina

      1. Hi Irina, I used to use and stock Natulique and I still have some of the products at home. I can send you a list of the ingredients for colours, shampoo, conditioner and styling products if you like. Please send me an email with your email address. Many thanks.

  4. Hello!
    I’m currently shopping for a colour range for my salon and was wondering if you could please share your opinion on Oway vs Natulique? I’m struggling to make a decision between the two. Thanks for your time 🙂

  5. Hi Irina, I have encountered the same problem with not being able to get a list of ingredients. I have about an inch of untouched growth and the op of my hair is growing in white and the back looks to be salt and pepper. It is not a look that I feel I can pull off happily. Sigh. I am “dyeing” to try hairprint, but they do not have colors for blondes, and they just told me that they have halted in research since blondes are more complicated than they thought…. FRUSTRATING, especially since I can;t use henna because it goes red and I have not found any that can give me great color. I have tried Surya Brasil, and It did improve my hair condition & seemed to be safe, but my fussy taste (the perfect honey/wheat blonde “Jennifer Aniston”) could not be achieved. Please help list the ones in order of best to worst if possible. I have to chose something and I’m desperate! Here is a list: Madison Reed, Oway. Organic Hair Systems, Surya, herbatint, tints of nature, Original & Mineral, Keune-So Pure, Simply Organic, ecocolors, naturacolor, Saach Organics, Natralique, Lagona, Natrigin, shea moisture, Palette by nature, Radico Colour Me Organic, and any others I could have missed! Also, Has anyone tried ways to color their hair naturally? Camomile did not work for me… I don’t want my hair to look weird! Thanks, Brenda

  6. Hello, i am a licensed hair stylist and have been doing research on gentler options for ‘organic” color systems. I recently spent some time on the phone with a rep from Natulique. Natulique was designed in Denmark, where the standards and certifications are much much higher than the United States. Carbon foot print to them is of the uttermost importance.

    After speaking with her she told me her woes in finding a hair color as a stylist as well that didn’t cause reactions, long term issues, or everyday complications for her hair. After researching outside of he US she found Natulique. She then worked towards becoming the first Rep in the US…the company is still held by the same standards as it is in Denmark but is now being distributed in the US through her.

    She is a wonderful women and the company is splendid; solar powered, they use a form of limestone instead or tree paper, all of there containers are recyclable and better yet they received the ECO stamp from Denmark which is a higher standard than our USDA, but the line is also USDA certified organic. The PPD contained in their darker colors is under .0% or a register-able amount which allows them to say it is PPD free, they also carry a line that is completely 100% free of any and all PPD. PPD is used in color in higher amounts for darker colors and in almost every color line. Here they use other sources to gain the depth in color they need.

    I fully support and stand by this color line. For the health of the planet, the client, and the stylist.

    1. Hi KJ: I am sorry to inform you that Naturlique hair color is not certified by the USDA. It can’t be simply because the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) by definition certifies only agricultural products. I recommend looking into what they use instead of PPD. I know a lot of people make the same mistake, getting excited about the absence of a chemical and forgetting to ask about what is used instead. I highly suggest reading my ebook which will help understand how permanent hair colors are formulated and what type of questions we should be asking to protect our hair and health. By the way, Naturlique is included in the ebook: Thanks! ~Irina

      1. They use cocomide a coconut derived catalyst that opens the cuticle. To be honest I have done a lot of research and I appreciate your feedback, but as a liscensed professional. I dont suggest people toy too much with pure form agents such as henna unless your a chemist/biologist, the results can be incredibly hard to reverse and unless your using completely organic/pure hair care products the chemicals in the hair products can react with the ‘natural’ color products as well, So basically what i am saying is i think if people want to color their hair, they should look to the most “natural” source they can, but if you are looking for a professional hair color it will have some form a catalyst to open the cuticle, and allow the color to drive in, color lines like Natulique do just that just using a ‘naturally’ occurring agent to do so. They are several catalysts found in nature, it doesn’t make them bad it is how they are used and the process of creation that makes them poisonous. I as a hair dresser feel good bringing my clients the most natural and effective source of color that I can. Your site is very helpful but also leaves people feeling that they have absolutely no choice for a safer version of color and that’s saddens me for my industry, I will continue to research and bring my clients the very best and effective options. Finding a color line that can remove the MEA, PPD, and amonia is impressive but something has to replace these chemical catlalysts in order to allow the color to work, even if it is a naturally occuring catalyst. Thank you again for our feedback.

        1. What do you mean by “natural source”? And why would it matter? I understand that some people might feel sad after reading my reviews. However, I believe the more we talk about hair colors, eventually, companies will listen and produce safer products for us. ~Irina

  7. Hi – I would love to be placed on your mailing list, and to find out how I can see the PERMANENT HAIR DYE RATING LIST. How would I be able to view this?

    Jan Marie Wall

  8. I did a patch test for OWAY hair dye and I have a raised, itchy, red sore that is still itching 5 days later. That product claims to be “chemical free”. I don’t think so…

  9. Hi, sounds like you like hairprint, though since they make no hairprint for
    very blonde hair what do you recommend? It can be semi perm or permanent.
    Really appreciate your thoughts on this.

    1. Hi, Lily: It would depend on your health, hair condition, and tolerance for taking risks and aptitude for beauty. 🙂 I provide private consultations. By the way, Hairprint does not work for every brunette. Let me know if you need further assistance. Have a great Thanksgiving!

  10. Great info! Thanks e-1! Now I’ll be searching for good ways to blend my gray gradually to no hair color soon. My question: If I use semi-permenant color temporarily with foiling in high and low lights and DON’T DO ANY ROOTS…besides the inhaling of chemicals, WILL THE COLOR ON MY HAIR STRANDS ENTER MY BODY?
    Thanks all!

    1. It depends. Generally speaking, semi-permanent hair colors are safer in terms of allergic reaction risks and hair damage but not completely safe. Thank you for asking, Kecy. ~Irina

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