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Organic Hair Color: Buyer Beware!

Written by Irina Webb

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.

Organic Hair Color_ Buyer Beware. A picture of a woman with organic hair dye hair.

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.

If you are using or consider using Natulique, you will benefit from my Natulique Hair Color post.  Also, learn about the Tints of Nature Hair Color and Aveda Hair Color Ingredients.

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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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. Yes, I have. However, I was unable to get a list of ingredients to look at. Would you be able to contact them and ask for a complete list? Thank you, Amy!

    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.

        1. Thanks, Debbie. I got a list of ingredients already and included Natulique into my Permanent Hair Color Rating List.

  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


    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. You will limit the absorption of chemicals significantly but not 100% as the freshly dyed hair will lie on your skin. ~Irina

    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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