A Brief History of Hair Dying: From Natural to Synthetic

Throughout history, various cultures have utilized different methods to dye their hair, often using natural ingredients found in their surroundings. One of the oldest known methods of hair dyeing dates back to ancient Egypt, where henna was used to achieve a red-orange tint. Henna, a plant-based dye derived from the Lawsonia inermis plant, is still popular today for its natural and conditioning properties.

In ancient Rome, people would use a mixture of ingredients such as ashes, nutshells, and earth to create different shades for their hair. In Asia, indigo plants were commonly used to achieve blue-black hues, while in India, amla (Indian gooseberry) and black tea were used for darkening hair. In more recent history, synthetic dyes have become popular due to their wide range of colors and long-lasting effects. However, climate change and health concerns are compelling reasons to avoid the chemicals in synethic colorings and revive our use of natural hair dyes.

Chemical Reactions: The Health and Environmental Impact

Chemicals found in hair dyes can have various effects on both human health and the environment, contributing to climate change. One common group of chemicals found in hair dyes are called aromatic amines, such as p-phenylenediamine (PPD) and toluene-2,5-diamine. These chemicals have been linked to environmental pollution and can be toxic to aquatic life when they enter water systems. Additionally, the production of these chemicals can release greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.

Resorcinol (or benzene-1,3-diol) is another chemical often used in hair colour and hair dyes. It reacts with the peroxide-containing developer to give the required colour or shade. Particularly colours with more yellow tones use resorcinol, though it can exist in any coloring product. Resorcinol can damage hair follicles, cause skin irritation and in high concentrations (or if consumed orally) is acutely toxic. Potentially disrupting the function of the central nervous system leading to respiratory problems.

Another harmful chemicals commonly found in hair dyes is ammonia and hydrogen peroxide. Both can lead to skin irritation, allergic reactions, and even respiratory issues in some individuals. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals may also increase the risk of more serious health concerns, including cancer.

When it comes to climate change, the impact of hydrogen peroxide is minimal compared to other greenhouse gases and pollutants. However it can contribute to water pollution if not properly disposed of. Ammonia on the other hand, is a volatile compound that can be released into the air during the coloring process, contributing to air pollution. It can also react with other chemicals to form harmful byproducts that are damaging to the environment.

Aerial surveys by the Reef Authority and Australian Institute of Marine Science confirm widespread coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef due to heat stress. The Reef’s resilience is being tested, emphasizing the importance of Reef management actions and addressing climate change. 

How Your Chemical and Carbon Footprint Impacts the Climate

Greenhouse gases are gases in Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat from the sun, acting like a blanket around the planet. This trapping of heat is essential for keeping Earth’s temperature stable and sustaining life. However, human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation, have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to more heat being trapped.

The excessive buildup of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, intensifies the greenhouse effect, causing global temperatures to rise. This phenomenon, known as global warming, contributes to climate change, resulting in more frequent and severe weather events, rising sea levels, and disruptions to ecosystems and wildlife. To curb the effects of greenhouse gases, it is crucial to reduce our carbon footprint by using renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and preserving forests that absorb carbon dioxide.

Chemicals themselves do not directly increase greenhouse gas emissions. However, the production and use of certain chemicals can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions through various processes. For example, the manufacturing of chemicals often involves energy-intensive processes that rely on fossil fuels, leading to carbon dioxide emissions. Other chemicals can indirectly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions when they are released into the environment and react with other compounds to form greenhouse gases like methane.

It’s important to note that the impact of chemicals on greenhouse gas emissions can vary depending on the specific chemical, how it is produced, and how it is used. Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from chemical production and use include improving energy efficiency, transitioning to renewable energy sources, and implementing sustainable practices. By considering the environmental impact of chemicals and adopting natural alternatives, we can help reduce their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

How to Properly Dispose of Hair Dye Products

How we dispose of hair dye chemicals can potentially contaminate water sources and harm aquatic life. The packaging of hair dye products can also generate waste that ends up in landfills, adding to environmental concerns. Safely disposing of hair dye is crucial to prevent environmental pollution. One way to dispose of hair dye is to check if your local waste management facility accepts hazardous waste like hair dye. If they do, follow their guidelines for disposal. If not, you can mix the remaining dye with a thickening agent like sawdust, flour, or kitty litter to solidify it before throwing it in the trash. Make sure to rinse out the dye containers thoroughly before recycling them. Avoid pouring leftover dye down the drain as it can contaminate water sources. By taking these steps, you can help protect the environment from harmful chemicals.

The Choice of Color: Is one more toxic than another?

When it comes to hair dye colors with the most chemicals and negative impact on the environment, it’s important to consider factors like the presence of ammonia, peroxide, and synthetic dyes. Darker shades of hair dye, such as jet black or deep brown, tend to contain higher levels of these chemicals compared to lighter shades. These chemicals can not only be harsh on your hair but also have a greater environmental impact due to their manufacturing processes and disposal.

As for vibrant and unconventional colors like neon greens, bright blues, and vivid purples often contain more synthetic pigments and additives, which can be damaging to both your hair and the environment.

The Solution to Pollution: Natural Hair Dyes

Whether you’re looking to cover gray hairs, enhance your natural color, or experiment with a new shade, natural hair dyes offer a safe and environmentally conscious way to beautify your hair.

Natural hair dyes have been used for centuries as a safe and chemical-free alternative to synthetic hair dyes. These dyes are derived from various plants, flowers, fruits, and herbs, offering a range of colors from blonde to black. Besides, the reddish-brown hue of Henna or the deep blue of the indigo plant (as mentioned earlier), other natural ingredients like chamomile, black tea, and beetroot can also be used to dye hair in shades of blonde, brown, and red.

One of the biggest advantages of natural hair dyes is that they are gentle on the hair and scalp, making them suitable for individuals with sensitive skin or allergies to synthetic chemicals. These dyes often contain nourishing ingredients that can help condition the hair, leaving it soft and shiny. They also tend to fade more gracefully than synthetic dyes, resulting in a natural-looking color as they gradually wash out.

While under pressure, the Great Barrier Reef remains a vast and beautiful ecosystem, its outstanding biodiversity is one of a kind. We all have a role to play in its protection.

How You Can Have your Color and Create a Positive Impact on Climate Change

Choose products that are free from aromatic amines, ammonia, and other harmful chemicals—instead otp for dyes made with more natural and sustainable ingredients. Be mindful of how you dispose of any hair coloring and look for minimal or recycalble packaging.

Bio-ethical Blonde: The Botanical Option

They say blondes have more fun so, I wanted to test how a natural option would fare when it came to lightening my hair.

Tints of Nature is a natural hair colour and hair care range that is as clean as it can possibly be without compromising performance. There products contain no ammonia, resorcinol, propylene glycol, parabens, DEA, gluten, SLS, SLES, silicone, salts or GMO ingredients. They use the lowest possible levels of colour pigment to expertly colour your hair.

Their 3 in 1 Lightener Kit is an ammonia-free lightener which uses a potassium derivative in the place of ammonia to remove pigment from the hair. The Lightener Kit also contains active wheat proteins and keeps the hair at an optimum pH level, leading to intense bleaching action, whilst being gentle to the hair and leaving it smooth. Formulated with nourishing botanicals of aloe (a soothing agent), comfrey, sunflower and black oat to condition and moisturize your hair and scalp.

The verdict: From grizzly bear brown to soft yellow cactus flower

Rather than an offensive chemical smell, the formula had a gentle botanical aroma and formed a paste that was easy to apply (no drips or need to wear a plastic cap). It’s important to note that if you have long hair, you do need more than one box for full coverage (or you could use one to create highlights or cover a stray grey—which it does very well).

About the Brand and their Philosophy

For over 30 years Tints of Nature have been making everything themselves so that they know exactly what goes into their products. Visibility from field to follicle ensures there’s no dodgy dealings or bad behaviour along the way.

Inga Yandell
Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.