Ethanolamine, Ammonia, or Sodium Carbonate in Hair Color

While salon clients only come into contact with ammonia in hair color about once every few weeks, hair colorists work with it on a daily basis. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry categorizes ammonia as a known toxic and carcinogen. It is a common leading cause of respiratory disorders, cardiovascular disease, and many types of cancer. The average salon professional’s career will only last 8 years because it will be cut short by illnesses related to breathing, depression, obesity, or chronic fatigue syndrome; which all have been closely related to chronic exposure to ammonia.

Ammonia is used in hair color to lift the cuticle of the hair allowing the pigments to penetrate into the hair shaft and oxidizes to create a permanent color effect. All permanent hair dye contains such an alkaline agent to allow the hair color to penetrate the cortex of the hair. However, ammonia is a caustic corrosive that irreversibly damages the cuticle during the hair color process. It also damages the hair’s tyrosine protein that is responsible for regulating the production of melanin, which is the hair’s natural color pigment. Damaging the tyrosine protein makes it impossible for hair to “hold” both its natural and any artificial color, which is why the use of ammonia-based color inevitably leads to color fade. Finally, ammonia corrodes both the sebaceous glands and hair follicles in the scalp leading to brittle, thinning hair.

Although many salon professionals have accepted ammonia as a “necessary evil” in permanent hair dye, there are actually very good alternatives. Two such alternatives alkaline agents are ethanolamine and sodium carbonate. These two alternatives, while substantially more expensive as raw ingredients, are options that are far better suited and safer than ammonia in hair color. While many manufacturers have embarked on full-scale campaigns to raise doubt about the safety of these two ingredients, these efforts have been driven entirely by their preference towards the cheaper ingredients that provide them larger profits rather than their honest concern for health or wellbeing.

It is interesting to note that both ethanolamine and sodium carbonate have been used in demi-permanent hair dye for decades. The purity, or grade, of either ethanolamine or sodium carbonate that is needed to sufficiently lift the cuticle is much higher in permanent hair dye than demi-permanent color, making the cost burden greater. However, the health, performance, and pleasantness (neither ethanolamine and sodium carbonate share the same putrid, noxious, smell of ammonia) compare to ammonia cannot be ignored. The following benefits of ethanolamine and sodium carbonate should be considered when selecting a healthier and better performing alternative to ammonia-based hair color:

Ethanolamine: Ethanolamine is by far the safest alkaline agent available for hair dye today. Ethanolamine is an organic compound that is naturally found in coconut oil and is a primary amine and primary alcohol. While some accuse ethanolamine as a “silent substitute” to ammonia because of its lack of odor, this is simply a misinformed categorization. Ethanolamine actually has the same odor of ammonia. However, some innovative hair care companies have developed advanced hair dye technologies that suspend the ethanolamine molecules in a soy oil base. By doing so, they are able to soften the cuticle and prevent ethanolamine from vaporizing as a gas thus eliminating both the odor and any damage to the cuticle. It is ethanolamine’s primary alcohol characteristic that makes it possible to be suspended in a soy oil base as neither sodium carbonate (a primary salt) or ammonia (a primary base) will dilute with oil.

Ethanolamine has a tendency to gently swell the hair cuticle open rather than causing any corrosion associated with ammonia. It will not destroy the hair’s tyrosine protein, disable the hair’s ability to “hold” either natural or permanent pigment, damage hair follicles or the scalp’s sebaceous glands, or otherwise irritate sensitive scalps. Ethanolamine does not pose any health risk, has a molecular weight large enough to be too large to be absorbed through the scalp’s pores and follicles and into the bloodstream, and (when suspended in an organic oil such as soy) will not vaporize and actually have a deep conditioning effect on the cuticle.

Hair dye grade ethanolamine, of the quality necessary to produce a permanent hair dye effect, is cost prohibitive for most hair color manufacturers. As such, the only permanent hair color lines that use ethanolamine as their primary alkaline agent are advanced professional-only hair color lines.

Sodium Carbonate: more commonly known as “soda ash” or “washing soda” is a strong based commonly used in swimming pools to neutralize the acidic effects of chlorine and also used as a water softener. Sodium Carbonate is a sodium salt, so its use in hair dye has been limited to demi-permanents because its damage to the hair cuticle is almost as bad as ammonia. Although sodium carbonate is a much healthier choice than ammonia has enabled several demi-permanent colors to be manufactured and mass-marketed to younger populations. However, because sodium carbonate does not improve the overall performance of hair dye, and the concentrations necessary to lift the cuticle enough to produce a permanent hair color effect, sodium carbonate has not been adopted in any professional grade permanent hair dye today.