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09.17.08

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To Dye For

Nontoxic hair products slowly make an in-road to the beauty salon

By Gianna De Persiis Vona


If the maxim "Do unto others" is extended to include the earth, it makes perfect sense that so many people, women particularly, regularly dye their hair. Perhaps this is our private way of commiserating. As we dump toxins into the earth's rivers and oceans, so too shall we dump them onto our own scalps.

I often chastise myself for my hair-dyeing habit. Sometimes I go burgundy, sometimes black and most recently had dual highlights with brown and mocha tones. I don't even "need" to dye my hair, as only recently have I begun to sport that tell-tale sign of necessity: gray. I dye my hair because it's fun, because it's cheaper, less painful and less morally suspect than cosmetic surgery, and because, quite simply,

I can.

I am not alone.

Women across the nation—and, yes, men too—flock to the dye shelf in their local drug store or, if they can afford it, to their local salon, dumping carcinogens into their bodies—and the waterways—at a rate so unprecedented one would think that gray hair were an affliction rather than a natural progression of life.

When I met Lorelei Witte of Dandelion Eco Salon at a photo shoot, we quite naturally started talking hair. Witte found her way to natural hair and body care early on in her career, when attending cosmetology school in her native state of Ohio. The process was excruciating for a chemically sensitive individual. Being surrounded by the burning aroma of chemicals day after day, hour after hour taught Witte all she needed to know about her future: working in a standard salon was not going to be an option.

Even if I am not the one having the treatment, I often leave the hair salon with a headache and burning sinuses. The last time I had my hair done, I had to hold a cold washcloth to my face to mop up the tears streaming from my burning eyes. Witte assures me that there are options out there, that less toxic products are coming on the market that can actually "lift," or lighten, hair (most of the over-the-counter natural hair dyes only darken), and that salons which cater to people who want to get their hair cut without breathing in other customer's toxic applications are cropping up, though sparingly, across the country.

The scalp is porous and sucks up hair color in the same way that skin soaks up lotion. Conflicting information abounds, with one product being touted as less toxic than the next, but there is little regulation. Ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and leukemia are diseases that can be traced to overexposure to environmental toxins, and for many women, their most consistent exposure is through the coloring of their hair.

I took a trip to Fairfax to have my hair done, more out of curiosity than need. I'd already decided to try and break myself of my hair color habit, but, like all true addicts, had convinced myself that one last time couldn't possibly hurt. Witte and I picked out a couple of colors for my highlighting job from her EcoColors catalogue, and chatted hair. The toxins in hair dyes, Witte tells me, are not just the chemicals designed to set and lift, but the pigments as well. Darker colors, black specifically, are especially bad. Many hair colors contain toxic coal tar and an array of complexly named chemicals that carry a long list of devastating side effects along with them: monoethanolamine, ethanolamine, 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine (4-MMPD) and 4-MMPD sulphate.

First Witte washed my hair with John Masters' all-natural and organic hair products, direct from his "clean air" salon in New York City. Next she applied the EcoColors, which Witte claims are as nontoxic as a hair dye can be while still being a hair dye. Witte applied the dye to my hair with a small brush, wrapping each layer of hair in foil, a laborious process that, for those who have never highlighted before, takes upwards of a couple of hours.

As Witte worked her magic, I was very aware of the surprisingly pleasant nature of the experience. My eyes were not burning, my sinuses were not on fire, I didn't have the continuous reflexive desire to hold my breath. In fact, I was able to breathe, chat and relax, without once feeling pain in my temples, burning of the scalp or any of the host of negative side effects I have always accepted as "normal." And the end result? Gorgeous.

 For more information on nontoxic hair color, contact Dandelion Eco Salon at 415.310.4238.


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