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Over 300 million results came up in the Google search engine in response to the keyphrase “organic hair color.” Consequently, it may cause you to think that organic hair dye products actually exist. On the one hand, they do exist because we can see hair color brands with the word “organic” in their names. But on the other hand, is it really possible for a hair color to be organic? Keep reading to discover the answer to this question. You will also learn several interesting facts about some popular so-called organic hair dyes, including Oway hair color.
What does “organic” mean?
To begin with, 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). It should be noted that the FDA does not define or regulate the term “organic.”
Thus, some personal care products meet the USDA labeling standards because of their organic ingredients. That is to say, if the USDA certifies 95% of the product’s ingredients as organic, the whole product can be certified as organic.
However, the USDA organic symbol is hard and expensive to obtain and maintain. Therefore, smaller farmers get their organic certification through local certifying agencies. For example, the California Certified Organic Farmers Organization (CCOF) is a well-regarded organization. It certifies food that meets its standard as being worthy of the “organic” label.
The loophole for organic hair color manufacturers
As I mentioned above, the USDA does not regulate personal care products. This function belongs to the FDA. In its turn, the FDA does not regulate the use of the term “organic.” Hence, there is no law that would prohibit hair color manufacturers from using the term “organic” to promote their products, including organic hair dye, as long as they do not use the USDA symbol.
This means that anybody can say that their cosmetics, skin care or personal care products are “organic” without any legal repercussions. Even if the products contain highly toxic materials, nobody can stop them. As long as they do not display the USDA organic seal on their products or website, they are clean before the law. Therefore, it is up to us as consumers to educate ourselves to be able to understand whether a product is truly worthy of the lofty term “organic.”
The point is that as a society, we have come to a certain understanding regarding the term “organic.” Namely, it means that a product objectively adheres to certain well-understood standards of health and safety. These standards are a fruit of agreement of the representatives of an independent certifying organization. Therefore, it seems unacceptable for a company to use the word “organic” based on its own subjective standard just to sell its products.
In short, if there is no USDA organic seal on an organic hair color product, it is NOT considered organic by the objective standards of the USDA.
Can an organic hair dye have a USDA organic seal?
The short answer to this question is “no,” and here is why.
First of all, for a product that consists of more than one ingredient to receive a USDA organic certification, it must be comprised of at least 95% of ingredients that are themselves certified organic (aside from water and salt which are not counted when making the 95% calculation). That is to say, for a hair color product to be certified organic, at least 95% of its ingredients must have an organic certification individually.
Ingredients eligible for an organic certification
According to the USDA, only ingredients of agricultural origin are eligible for an organic certification, i.e. plants and animals. To receive the USDA organic certification, a product must meet the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) production, handling, processing, and labeling standards. In other words, the operations which produce these ingredients, the handlers of these ingredients, and the manufacturer of the final product must all be certified by a USDA-accredited organic certifying agent.
Normally that means that minimally processed ingredients are derived without adding non-agricultural ingredients. For example, oil derived with hexane, a petroleum solvent, does not qualify as organic. Processes with an organic qualification include cold pressing, filtration, infusion, distillation, grinding, and dehydration.
And examples of certified organic ingredients would be plant oils, such as olive and jojoba oil, and herb or plant extracts, such as calendula and seabuckthorn berry extract.
Thus, an organic hair color ingredient must originate from an organic agricultural plant, vegetable, or fruit. You will see shortly if an organic hair dye consists of such ingredients.
Ingredients not eligible for organic certification
As it follows from the previous section, ingredients of non-agricultural origin do not qualify for an organic certification. One of the examples is a lathering agent, aka surfactant.
For instance, let’s look at the surfactant sodium laureth sulfate. It is claimed to be “natural” because it is derived from coconut oil. Even though coconut oil can be certified organic, the processing chain can alter it beyond recognition.
To clarify, to make sodium laureth sulfate, the processers turn coconut oil into fatty acids that are used to derive lauryl alcohol. Then, they treat the lauryl alcohol with sulfur trioxide gas or chlorosulfuric acid to produce sodium lauryl sulfate. Finally, they treat the sodium lauryl sulfate with carcinogenic ethylene oxide.
As a result, nothing in the end product reminds us of the organically grown coconuts used as the raw material for this chemical. And this is why the USDA requires ingredients to meet organic processing standards.
What does this have to do with organic hair color products?
Well, for organic hair dye products to receive a USDA organic certification, they must be made from organic plant extracts, organic plant oils, and organic plant powders, which they are not.
As you may know, hair color products are made mostly with petroleum dyes and sometimes with mineral pigments. None of these ingredients can be USDA-certified organic, for one good reason – they are not agricultural products subject to the jurisdiction of the USDA.
In addition, pseudo organic hair colors use chemicals to open 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.
Furthermore, there are preservatives, surfactants, and emulsifiers that can never be organic because of their production process. Just like sodium laureth sulfate, they underwent a multistep process that significantly changed the original substance. Even if the latter was a certified organic agricultural product, the end product is far from it. In other words, these ingredients do not meet organic processing standards.
Popular so-called organic hair dye products
While some ingredients of so-called organic hair color products can be certified organic, they have nothing to do with coloring. Those organic ingredients are there for scalp soothing and moisturization.
For example, Organic Colour Systems has five certified organic ingredients, such as hydrolyzed wheat protein, comfrey leaf extract, aloe vera leaf extract, orange peel extract, and grapefruit extract. And this is great! But the product also lists about 30 other ingredients, which makes the proportion of the organic ingredients 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 I am familiar with.
The same is true for Oway hair color. It lists four organic ingredients: hydrolyzed cottonseed protein, hydrolyzed wheat protein, hibiscus flower extract, and date seed oil. However, the rest of the ingredients are nowhere near being safe, in my opinion.
As of now, I have not seen any evidence demonstrating that plant extracts can offset the risks of an allergic reaction from coal-tar hair dyes. Nor have I seen proof that they can preserve their beneficial properties when they come in contact with corrosive and highly alkaline chemicals such as ammonia or ethanolamine and oxidative hair dyes.
Ammonia and ethanolamine in organic hair color products
Normally a permanent hair color, including a permanent organic hair dye, works in the following way. First, the developer removes the existing hair color. Then, the alkaline agent helps to open the hair cuticles so the colorants can penetrate the hair. Next, the colorants penetrate and adhere to the hair. The alkaline agents in this process are usually ammonia or ethanolamine.
If an “organic” or “natural” hair color brand boasts about being ammonia-free, it typically means it has replaced it with ethanolamine. This is true for both Oway hair color and Organic Colour Systems.
However, both ammonia and ethanolamine are highly corrosive substances and may irritate the skin and the lungs. Because ethanolamine is a newer chemical, it has not undergone the evaluation for cancer yet. There is evidence, though, that ethanolamine may increase the risk of birth defects. On the other hand, there is no evidence that ammonia can either increase the risk of cancer or disrupt hormones.
Therefore, I consider ethanolamine more harmful than ammonia. You can read more about it in my post about ammonia-free hair color brands.
Oxidative hair dyes in organic hair color products
To begin with, all colorants are suspect for increasing the risk of cancer and for other negative impacts on health. Some of the common ones are p-phenylenediamine (PPD), toluene 2,5 diamine sulfate, and n-phenyl-p-phenylenediamine sulfate. They are notorious allergens and sensitizers that you can find even in so-called organic hair dyes.
To clarify, a sensitizer is a “chemical that causes a substantial proportion of exposed people to develop an allergic reaction in normal tissue after repeated exposure to the chemical” (source). The key here is “repeated exposure”. It means that you may not experience an allergic reaction immediately. But the next time you use the same brand, you may have an allergic reaction. In addition, the symptoms range from skin irritation to hair loss, shortness of breath, and even anaphylactic shock.
Hence, in my e-book Permanent Hair Color Rating List, to indicate the toxicity of an ingredient, I used a scale from 0 to 18 with 18 as the most toxic. So, I gave toluene 2,5 diamine sulfate and n-phenyl-p-phenylenediamine sulfate a rating of 14 because they are extreme sensitizers. And PPD got a rating of 18 for being the most dangerous extreme sensitizer.
It should be noted that both Oway hair color and Organic Colour Systems contain all three of these colorants and extreme sensitizers. You can learn more about these brands in my posts OWAY Hair Color Review: The Truth You Need to Know and Are Organic Color Systems Products Truly Organic?.
Are organic hair colors better than others?
No, they are not. Remember that we are talking about organic hair color brands that call themselves “organic” but have no organic certification. Besides, a few organic plant extracts and proteins in the formulations of organic hair dye brands cannot mask the negative impact of the other harmful ingredients.
Indeed, the Institute of Environmental Medicine of Sweden published the results of a survey in 2016. Their research showed that sensitizing substances were very common in permanent hair dye products with “organic” or “natural” labels. In fact, they did not differ significantly from conventional permanent hair coloring products. Moreover, 50% of the permanent hair color products marketed as “organic” or “natural” contained p-phenylenediamine (PPD) (1).
In my own investigation conveyed in my Permanent Hair Color Rating List e-book, I surveyed 22 brands. And the brand with the best rating was not organic or natural – i.e., it did not market itself as such. At the same time, the brands that advertise themselves as “organic” and “natural” have all three extreme sensitizers we discussed above.
In addition, I discovered that the “organic” or “natural” brands rarely disclose all of their ingredients. And some refuse to provide any ingredients at all.
You can read more about which brands, in my opinion, are safer and which to avoid by picking up a copy of my Permanent Hair Color Rating List e-book.
Conclusion about organic hair color
In conclusion, no – organic hair dye products are not organic and cannot be. The only exception is plant powders (such as henna) with a USDA organic seal on the packaging. To be able to function properly as hair dyes, they need non-agricultural ingredients – and lots of them. For this reason, they cannot meet the USDA organic standards. Unfortunately, this does not stop many manufacturers from marketing their products as organic. It seems that they are trying to cash in on the “green” movement.
So, is there a way out for those of us who dye our hair? Well, yes. There are plant muds that contain natural henna, indigo, coffee, and cassia and, thus, can be USDA certified organic. Look for the familiar USDA seal on the packaging. You can read about my experience with henna here. There is also Hairprint hair color restorer as a safer option for brunettes.
Feel free to visit my shop to find the best hair color or other skincare and home items. Also, do not hesitate to book a consultation with me if you need help with healthy living. Finally, consider joining the community of like-minded people in the Savvy Consumer Circle to go deeper with non-toxic healthy living.
(1). Thorén, S., & Yazar, K. (2016). Contact allergens in ‘natural’ hair dyes. Contact Dermatitis, 74(5), 302-304.)
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