The Effects of Ammonia in Hair Dye + Ammonia-Free Hair Color

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Natural, blonde, and fashion colors — there are unlimited options when it comes to coloring your hair. You can even make a rainbow out of your locks if you want to.

But have you ever heard somebody warn you, “If you keep coloring your hair, you’ll turn bald”?

A woman with red hair is looking at her hair with frustration

Well, we know that hair dye can damage your hair, just like any other chemical treatment may do. So why are people very afraid of having their hair colored?

One reason for their fear is ammonia in hair dye. And it’s not just about the smell. Studies show that ammonia has harmful effects on both your hair and your body.

That’s why some people don’t want to use hair dye.

But what about us who want to use it? Does it mean we need to risk our hair and health? Or do we have other hair color alternatives?

That’s what you’ll find out if you keep on reading.

What Is Ammonia for Hair Dye?

Let’s talk about this chemical and understand why it’s such a big deal when it comes to coloring your hair safely.

Ammonia is a colorless gas that has alkaline properties. It’s produced naturally by the human body and by the environment.

This substance is used in manufacturing fertilizers, cleaning products, water purifiers, and hair dye.

How Does Ammonia for Hair Work?

While hair color and its effect on your hair may seem magical, it actually isn’t. There’s a science behind the hair coloring process.

To understand how ammonia in hair dye works, let’s first talk about pH levels.

According to Khan Academy, the pH scale is used to measure acidity or basicity (alkalinity). Lower pH of up to 5 is considered acidic, and higher pH is basic.

Hair’s natural pH level is around 4.5 to 5.5, making it acidic.

That’s where ammonia comes in.

Since ammonia is alkaline, it can raise the pH level of the hair during the coloring process. When this happens, the strands swell and the cuticles that protect them are lifted.

This creates a passage for the dye pigments to enter the hair cortex (the inner part of the hair).

Because ammonia allows the dye pigments to get deep inside the hair shaft, the new color looks like it comes from within the hair. This makes the color intense and long-lasting.

Ammonia in Hair Dye: Side Effects

Dyes with ammonia effectively color the hair. That’s why manufacturers have used it for ages.

Though the amount of ammonia in hair dye is very small to cause adverse harm, it can still have a bad effect on your hair and on your health.

And that’s particularly true if you use it excessively.

A woman is getting her hair dyed in a salon.

1. Skin Irritation

When ammonia is dissolved in water, it becomes liquid ammonia, which is a potential skin irritant. That’s why when you use ammonia hair dyes, you can feel a burning sensation on your scalp.

Those with sensitive skin have it worse. They not only feel the burning sensation, but they can also see redness or actual burns on their scalp.

To prevent this, we suggest you dye your hair at least two days after washing. That way, natural oils will have covered your scalp and they’ll serve as protection from irritation.

Quick Tip

Another effective way to prevent irritation is doing a patch test with the hair dye you plan to use a couple of days before your coloring session.

If you develop a bad reaction to the color, do not proceed with coloring.

2. Dry, Brittle Hair

Using a hair dye with ammonia too often can cause the cuticles to permanently lift. When this happens, your hair will become highly porous.

What’s wrong with that?

Well, high-porosity hair cannot retain moisture. This can make your hair frizzy and dry, and your hair strands will also lack elasticity.

If you don’t want that to happen, don’t use ammonia hair dye too often. Or if you still want to try that product, you can lessen the damage by using a protective serum before coloring.

You can also follow up with deep conditioning the week after you colored your hair.

3. Health Conditions

When you apply hair dye, there’s a chance that some of it will get to your scalp.

That’s why it’s possible for ammonia to enter your bloodstream. Additionally, its chemical vapors can also be inhaled.

Though there’s a minimal chance, ammonia can cause the following:

  • Sinusitis
  • Eye infections
  • Throat infections
  • Respiratory problems

These health conditions are no joke, so it’s best to not use ammonia on hair too often.

And when you do use a hair dye with ammonia, follow the manufacturer’s instructions very carefully.

Ammonia-Free vs Ammonia-Based Hair Dyes

Because of the potentially harmful effects of ammonia in hair dye, many hair color manufacturers have developed dye formulas without the ingredient.

Nowadays, many products have “ammonia-free” written on their labels.

But are they really safer? And are they also effective in coloring your locks?

What Replaces Ammonia in “Ammonia-Free” Products?

Permanent dyes that claim to have no ammonia still contain an alkaline ingredient that has the same lifting effect on the cuticles.

Ethanolamine (also called monoethanolamine or MEA), diethanolamine (DEA), and triethanolamine (TEA) are commonly used to replace ammonia in hair dye.

They’re closely related to ammonia and almost have the same scent, except ammonia’s scent is stronger.

Their Differences

  • Form
    Ammonia is an alkaline gas, while ethanolamine is an alkaline liquid.

    This means that ammonia goes away on its own as fumes, while ethanolamine needs to be washed away or removed properly after dyeing for it to stop swelling the hair.

    If ethanolamine is not properly removed from the hair, your hair strands end up porous and therefore brittle, dry, and difficult to moisturize. 

    Some brands offer a special shampoo to remove ethanolamine, and ironically, some of these shampoos use ammonia to remove ethanolamine.

    The best way to neutralize the side effects of ethanolamine is oleic acid. Look for brands that use this combination.
  • Scent
    As a gas, ammonia’s scent is noticeable upfront.

    Meanwhile, ethanolamine, as a liquid, must evaporate as gas to fully enter our nose, which is why we can’t smell it that much. Also, note that ethanolamine evaporates rather slowly.

    However, now that you know a bit about the science behind both, you should be aware by now that scent does not determine an ingredient’s safety.
  • Molecular size
    Because of the forms they come in, ammonia and ethanolamine differ in molecule size too. Ammonia has very small molecules. Its molecule size is what makes it easier for ammonia to enter the hair.

    On the other hand, ethanolamine and other ammonia alternatives have larger molecules, which is why they cannot penetrate the hair shaft easily.
  • Results
    Because of the way ethanolamine works, the result from dyes that use ethanolamine will be a less vibrant color that doesn’t last that long because the dyes were not fully infused into the hair cortex.

    On the other hand, ammonia has been used in permanent dyes for decades and continues to be used because it makes hair colors last so long and it provides full and even coverage.

    If your problem is the allergic reaction you get when using hair color with ammonia, do take note that ammonia-free dyes may cause this as well.

    You see, the main allergen in hair dye isn’t ammonia but PPD, which is the coloring agent used in permanent hair dyes.

    In addition, if you don’t want to use any of these products because you feel that they can damage your hair, there are more options.

    You can use a hair dye that doesn’t have alkaline ingredients at all.
a woman with bright colored hair wearing a jacket and blue halter top is smiling widely at the camera

Disadvantages of Ammonia-Free Hair Color

Ammonia-free hair dyes are popular in the market because people would go for any product that claims to “not damage” their hair when they color.

But does it really color your hair without damaging it? Well, not exactly. 

Permanent hair dyes that are labeled “ammonia-free” are not any better for your hair than traditional ammonia hair dyes.

In fact, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has rated ethanolamine’s toxicity level at 5 to 6, which is higher than that of ammonia.

What are the negative effects of ammonia alternatives on your hair?

1. Residues

Because the molecules in ammonia alternatives are larger, not all of them can get through the hair shaft. Furthermore, they’re not small enough to evaporate immediately.

That said, they tend to build up on the hair and leave a bit of a residue on your strands. Even if you rinsed your hair thoroughly after coloring, there might still be some left off on the hair.

And these will build up every time you color using ammonia-free hair dyes. As a result, you’ll end up with limp, dull, porous hair.

2. Protein and Moisture Loss

Just like ammonia, ethanolamine works by raising the pH of the hair and causing the strands to swell. 

But unlike ammonia, which exits hair by evaporating, ethanolamine stays on the cuticles. When this happens, the cuticles won’t have the chance to close the gaps because of the consistent swelling from the leftover ethanolamine.

Remember, our hair and scalp are naturally acidic. If pH levels are abnormally raised in our hair and scalp, our hair becomes frizzy, dull, and brittle. It also leads to protein and moisture loss. 

3. Hair Loss

Aside from giving you damaged hair, ammonia alternatives can also make you lose your hair.

Investigative tests show that repetitive use of hair dye with MEA and hydrogen peroxide has caused hair loss in subjects.

4. Irritation

When you use ammonia-free hair dyes, it’s not just your hair that you need to worry about.

Studies have proven that MEA, DEA, and TEA can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, with MEA being the worst irritant and can cause dermatitis.                                                                                                                                                                         

Best Ammonia and Ammonia-Free Hair Dye Alternatives

Now that you know how permanent dyes with or without ammonia can harm your hair and your health, you might be worried about coloring your hair again.

Well, don’t fret, because we’re here to tell you what you can use to color that won’t be as damaging to your locks.

Organic Hair Color

With fewer harmful chemicals and more natural ingredients, organic or vegan hair dyes can give you peace of mind when coloring your hair.

This type of dye is made with herbal or naturally derived ingredients.

But just because the label says “organic” doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe. Even though organic hair dyes are less damaging than synthetic permanent dyes, there can still be some drawbacks.

Sometimes, even henna which is a natural ingredient can be pretty harsh on the strands because of its metallic salts. Moreover, henna can cause an allergic reaction to the skin.

The best 100% natural hair dye for us?

Khadi Natural Hair Color

Some hair dyes labeled as organic, natural, or vegan still have ethanolamine in their ingredients list.

This one? 100% no harmful chemicals. It’s made of only fruit and leaf powders.

Primary Benefits: Gives intense yet natural color; strengthens hair from roots to tips; coats the strands

Features:

  • Permanent hair color
  • Vegan
  • Powder formula
  • 100% gray coverage

Dye your hair permanently with natural ingredients using Khadi Natural Hair Color!

Khadi Natural Hair Color has excellent coverage and is available in 17 natural shades. The longer you let the dye sit on your hair, the more intense the color becomes.

The pigments won’t penetrate your hair shaft, so this dye isn’t recommended if you want a lighter and/or permanent color.

However, the good thing about the dye only coating the strands is that it won’t damage your hair structure.

Semi-Permanent Hair Dye

Instead of lifting the cuticles and penetrating the strands, semi-permanent dyes deposit color on the hair without lifting the cuticles.

However, the color payoff doesn’t always work well on dark hair, and it won’t last that long since the dyes only coat the strands.

Nevertheless, this type of dye is made from gentler ingredients and most don’t contain PPDs, so you can use it to prevent getting allergic reactions from the dye.

Here are the most recommended semi-permanent hair dyes that have no alkaline ingredients.

1
Arctic Fox Semi-permanent Hair Color

Getting rainbow hair without damage is possible! Thanks to Arctic Fox, fantasy colors can be used on your hair in a gentle way.

Primary Benefits: Leaves a vibrant color; gives extreme hydration; conditions hair

Features:

  • Cream, direct-dye formula
  • Formulated with natural ingredients
  • Vegan and cruelty-free

Condition and color your hair at the same time with Arctic Fox Semi-permanent Hair Color.

Arctic Fox gives intense color without intense chemicals.

There are no

  • PPDs,
  • ammonia,
  • peroxide,
  • parabens,
  • sulfates,
  • silicones, and
  • phthalates.

It’s also newly designed to bleed less and prevent staining your hands, sink, and pillows.

As this is a direct dye and won’t lift your color, a naturally dark base may not take the color as well as pre-lightened hair.

2
Lime Crime Unicorn Hair

This dye has a gentle conditioning formula with fatty acids and vitamins that leave your hair in better condition than before you colored it.

Primary Benefits: Gives vibrant color; leaves hair soft; easy to use

Features:

  • Paste formula
  • Vegan and cruelty-free
  • No harsh chemicals

If you’re looking for a DIY-friendly, fun-colored hair dye, Lime Crime Unicorn Hair is perfect for you!

 

Lime Crime is a direct dye, so there’s no need for mixing. This makes this dye easy to use at home. Plus, the color easily washes off from your skin but won’t easily wash off from your hair.

There are also 26 vibrant, sugary-scented shades to choose from. You can surely embrace your uniqueness and stand out from the crowd!

3
Clairol Professional Beautiful Collection Advanced Gray Solution

If you’re not a fan of fantasy colors or you just want to cover your gray hair, you can use this hair dye. It offers natural shades of blonde, brown, black, or red.

Primary Benefits: Retains moisture in your strands; gives shine and softness to your hair

Features:

  • With advanced O2 Technology
  • No alkaline ingredients
  • 2x gray coverage
  • Cream formula

For long-lasting, deep conditioning color, use Clairol Professional Beautiful Collection Semi-permanent Color

This hair dye is the perfect semi-permanent hair color to cover gray hair without the fear of damage caused by ammonia and its alternatives. This will leave you with hair that’s soft and full of shine.

In addition, you don’t need to mix it with peroxide because it uses the oxygen in the air to develop the color. Simply apply it to your hair after you shampoo and process for 25 minutes, then rinse.

A young woman with pink hair and a smile on her face.

FAQs About Ammonia-Based Dyes

Can Hair Dye Be Permanent Without Ammonia?

Yes, hair dye can still be permanent because it can use an ammonia substitute that has similar effects on the hair when used.

Do Professional Hair Dyes Have Ammonia?

Salon dyes have ammonia as an ingredient because it offers effective, long-lasting coloring. But now, more and more brands opt to replace ammonia with alkalizing alternatives.

Does Ammonia in Hair Dye Cause Hair Loss?

Coloring your hair can weaken the hair shaft by damaging the protein within. This then results in the breakage of the strands.

But ammonia isn’t the only culprit. Hair coloring products are loaded with other strong chemicals that can cause damage to the hair and scalp.

Use Non-Damaging Hair Color

When you’re a fan of getting new colors for your hair every few months, you should use a hair colorant that’s gentle on your hair.

When applied to the hair, ammonia dyes can damage the cuticle and cause health problems. And even a hair dye that has no ammonia can potentially cause similar damage to your hair.

Your better option for coloring your hair may be conditioner-based dyes or organic hair dyes.

What else should you know about hair dye?

Here are articles for helpful information:

Authors

  • Rachelle Velasco

    Rachelle, is a sought-after freelance hair and makeup artist, shines particularly in the world of hair color. From subtle ombres and balayages to vibrant hues and intricate root work, she crafts unique styles tailored to individual preferences. Beyond her artistic talents, Rachelle also holds a Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education, showcasing her diverse skill set and dedication to learning.

  • Madeline Hall

    With ten years in hairstyling, Madeline Hall has trained with elite colorists Naomi Knight and Lupe Voss and assisted celebrity stylist Alex Chases. From building a solid clientele at San Francisco's Code Salon to impressing Nashville's finest, Madeline is a force in the industry. Passionate about educating clients and staying updated on trends.

One Comment

  1. Sarah Magezi says:

    Recommend some natural flowers/plants that can dye African grey hair with less/no damage

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