Hair Dye and Health: One Woman’s Journey

Marcia G. Yerman
Jun 21 · 4 min read

Hair has always played an outsize role in cultural mores throughout history. In today’s society, where the advertising world has successfully intertwined and cemented the relationship between an individual’s tresses and their youth, vitality, sexuality, and identity — there are unlimited options for controlling how to present ourselves to the world.

Unfortunately, the quest most often involves the use of harmful chemicals.

Women may have thought they were getting liberated during the 1960s when the hair-sprayed and shellacked helmet was ushered out for the newer cuts featuring a “natural look.” However, they should have known better.

The beauty industry wasn’t about to give up that easily. Rather, a whole new group of chemicals became available (along with the older ones that remained). No one asked any questions at the salon, or when the top companies made at-home coloring, perming, and straightening an option.

In her new book, True Roots: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me about Health and Beauty, eco-activist Ronnie Citron-Fink writes about her struggle to let go of a quarter-century of hair coloring, allowing herself to go naturally gray. The more she learns about hair dye ingredients, bleaches, and related products, the harder it is for her to turn a blind eye to the greater wellness issues.

The book operates on two levels. One follows the personal path of Citron-Fink, as she is forced to examine the conventional wisdom that confronts her at every turn. She categorizes these beliefs as, “beauty, choice, aging and femininity.”

For her, the conundrum has pitted looking “young” to herself and others, against the body of information she collects about the toxicity of hair products and the potential ramifications.

The second level is the down and dirty stats about the chemicals actually in products, many of which have been outlawed in the European Union. These include “carcinogens, suspected endocrine disruptors, lye, and neurological and developmental toxicants.”

Forget for a moment the gray question. Consider all the young women who start experimenting with hair color in their mid-teens!

Darker shades of dye are also singled out as being more harmful. Citron-Fink notes that after the deaths of Jackie O and Elizabeth Taylor, their hair coloring habits were mentioned as potential links to their illnesses.

A key culprit is a chemical that comes from petroleum called para-phenylenediamine (PPD). When it’s not be used in hair dye, it can be found in antifreeze. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a website where innumerable hair products rate seven out of ten on the hazardous scale.

African-American women are the most over-exposed demographic when it comes to personal beauty products. This results from both darker hair dyes and the use of chemical relaxers.

Citron-Fink describes her own travails with “unexplained allergies,” which developed a few years after she began using coloring products, as well as a facial rash and migraines. (If you look at an at-home kit of hair dye closely, you will see a cautionary notice instructing consumers to do an allergy test.)

While traversing the “two-toned stage” of growing out her long hair, Citron-Fink used the mantra of “the upkeep, the cost, the chemicals” to keep herself on track. She found a sympathetic stylist to cut away the lethal locks on a regular basis, until she achieved her goal.

Along the way, readers learn that the hair straightening brand, Brazilian Blowout, contains formaldehyde. Men who choose to cover gray were in a similar boat up until late 2018, when legislation was passed to eliminate lead acetate from their products.

There is plenty of drill-down in the book about how hairdressers and salon help are exposed to daily doses of noxious fumes. In addition, Citron-Fink puts on the table the question of what happens to all those hair dyes and other chemical concoctions when they get rinsed out of hair. She writes, “They are flushed down the drain and eventually end up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans.” This is where they cause harm to marine life, pollute waterways, and make their way into groundwater.

Unfortunately, not all consumers are adequately savvy. I have a friend who will only eat organic produce but touches her roots up regularly with a product branded prominently as having eight certified herbal extracts. While reading the book, I asked her if I could look at the packaging. On a side panel, in small print, it offered the information: Contains phenylenediamine and hydrogen peroxide.

Citron-Fink presents the facts and her experience without judgment on anyone’s hair choices. She does mention Hairprint, a non-dye method to cover gray. It works for those who are brown-haired, but doesn’t have efficacy for those who are blonde, redheaded, or have over 50 percent gray.

As a baby boomer, Citron-Fink has made her choice — in tandem with a growing number of other women who are making the same decision to embrace gray. The rite-of-passage for Citron-Fink wouldn’t have been complete if she hadn’t checked out the products developed to counteract specific challenges of gray hair, from yellowing tones to hard water. She finds out about Violet #2…the hard way. When trying a purple shampoo to enhance her gray, she discovers that she has made a complete circle back to “a synthetic dye produced from petroleum or coal tar sources.”

“I can never unlearn what I’ve discovered about the matrix of hair color and health,” Citron-Fink writes at the conclusion of her narrative.

Ironically, the day I finished the book, I turned on the television and saw Lizz Winstead talking emphatically about women’s reproductive rights. She was rocking a medium long cut with feathered bangs…in pewter gray.

Marcia G. Yerman

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Marcia G. Yerman, based in NYC, writes profiles, interviews, essays, & articles focusing on women’s issues, human rights, the environment, arts & culture.