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Are Ammonia-Free Hair Dye Really Better?

In the ever-evolving world of hair color, one ingredient that has been a subject of debate is ammonia. The rise of "ammonia-free dyes" has led many to believe that ammonia should be avoided at all costs. However, contrary to popular belief, ammonia plays a crucial role in hair coloring, and ammonia-based products may actually offer superior benefits for hair health in the long term. In this comprehensive guide, we'll uncover the truths about ammonia-based hair dyes, debunk some myths, and explore the advantages they offer compared to their ammonia-free counterparts.

Lady contemplating if shes due for coloring

The Prevalence of "Ammonia-Free" Claims

As the beauty community embraces natural and organic products, "ammonia-free" hair dyes have gained popularity. These products are marketed as gentler and safer alternatives to ammonia-based hair color, leading to misconceptions about ammonia's role in hair coloring.

Understanding Ammonia's Function in Hair Color

Ammonia or similar alkaline substances are often found in hair dyes for specific chemical and performance reasons. Ammonia's primary role is to open the hair cuticle and enable effective color penetration. But do note this is the case when we are using permanent hair dyes. To understand more about all the different types of hair dyes there is you could read up my previous article.

Hair Cuticle Opening

The hair cuticle, the outermost layer of the hair shaft consisting of overlapping scales, must be lifted or opened for the hair dye to penetrate and deposit color effectively. Ammonia's alkaline nature raises the hair's pH level, causing the cuticle scales to swell and open up, allowing access to the cortex—the inner layer where natural hair pigment is located.

Effective Color Deposition

By opening the hair cuticle, ammonia ensures that the hair dye reaches the cortex, where the natural melanin pigment resides. The hair dye then interacts with the melanin, either depositing color or lightening the natural pigment to achieve the desired shade.

Long-Lasting Color

Ammonia-based hair dyes generally provide longer-lasting color results compared to ammonia-free formulations. The lifted cuticle allows the hair dye to penetrate deeper into the hair shaft, making the color more resistant to fading.

Coverage of Gray Hair

Ammonia-based hair dyes are particularly effective at providing full coverage for gray hair because the opened cuticle allows the color to penetrate gray strands effectively.

Color Intensity and Vibrancy

Ammonia helps hair dyes achieve vibrant and intense color results. It enables the hair dye molecules to react efficiently with the hair's natural pigment, resulting in a richer color outcome that is consistent and predictable.

Understanding Ammonia Health Effects

Ammonia in hair dyes can have some effects on both the hair and scalp

Scalp Irritation

Ammonia can be harsh on the scalp and may cause irritation, redness, itching, and a burning sensation. Some individuals may experience allergic reactions, leading to more severe symptoms. To understand more about scalp irritation and what can we do to help alleviate the itchiness you might find an article I wrote earlier helpful. "Scratch No More: How to Relieve Itchy Scalp After Coloring."

Hair Damage

Ammonia can contribute to hair damage by breaking down the protein structure in the hair shaft. This can make the hair more porous, leading to dryness, brittleness, and increased susceptibility to breakage.

Strong Odor

Ammonia has a pungent smell, and its presence in hair dyes is often associated with the characteristic strong odor that many people find unpleasant.

So What Happens When You Remove Ammonia From Hair Dyes?

To eliminate ammonia from hair dyes, an alternative chemical is required to perform the function of opening hair cuticles. Many prominent brands have replaced ammonia with ethanolamine (also known as monoethanolamine or MEA).

What Is Ethanolamine?

Ethanolamine, like ammonia, is a corrosive chemical and serves the same function of opening hair cuticles. It is produced by reacting carcinogenic ethylene oxide with aqueous ammonia, which gives it an ammonia-like odor, though less pungent.

Is Ethanolamine Safer Than Ammonia?

Ethanolamine has been classified by the HSA as a moderate health priority compared to a low health priority for ammonia. Ethanolamine's cancer risks have not been thoroughly evaluated as it is a newer chemical. In contrast, ammonia no evidence of increasing the risk of cancer or disrupting hormones. On the other hand, there is evidence that ethanolamine may increase the risk of birth defects, making it a concern for pregnant individuals or those planning to start a family. Additionally, studies have found that hair colors containing ethanolamine are more likely to cause hair loss.

So Are Ammonia-Free Hair Dyes Really Better?

Ammonia-free hair dyes have gained popularity for their milder formulations and reduced potential for hair and scalp damage. However, they do come with certain downsides and limitations. Here are some drawbacks of using ammonia-free hair dyes:

Limited Color Lift

Ammonia-free hair dyes are generally less effective at lightening or lifting the natural color of the hair. If you're aiming for a drastic change in hair color, such as going from dark to light, ammonia-free dyes might not be the ideal choice.

lady looking in mirror realizing shorter interval to touch up roots

Shorter-Lasting Color

Ammonia-free hair dyes may not penetrate the hair shaft as deeply as ammonia-based dyes, resulting in color that tends to fade more quickly. Frequent touch-ups and maintenance may be required to retain the desired color.

Reduced Gray Coverage

While ammonia-free dyes can cover gray hair, they might have limitations in providing full coverage for resistant gray strands, especially in more stubborn gray areas.

lacking vibrancy after just coloring with ammonia free hair dye

Color Intensity

Ammonia-free hair dyes might offer more subtle and less vibrant color results compared to ammonia-based dyes. If you desire highly intense and vibrant color, ammonia-free options might not deliver the same level of intensity.

Processing Time

Some ammonia-free hair dyes may require longer processing times than their ammonia-based counterparts, which could be inconvenient for those seeking a quicker hair coloring process.

Patchy Color Results

Due to the absence of ammonia's strong lifting properties, ammonia-free hair dyes might lead to more uneven or patchy color results, especially if you have multiple shades in your hair or have previously colored hair.

Here's a comparison table showcasing the key differences between ammonia-free and ammonia-based hair dyes:

A table comparing non ammonia  with regular hair dye.

In the ever-evolving world of hair color, the debate over ammonia rages on. But remember, the effectiveness and performance of hair dyes, whether ammonia-free or ammonia-based, vary widely based on brand, formulation, and individual hair type and condition. Embrace your unique journey, make your decision with care, and remember that consultations are just a WhatsApp Message away for exploring the endless possibilities of hair color. Happy coloring!


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