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“Is hair dye safe?” is a question that comes up frequently. It’s one of the things you’re told to stop doing during pregnancy, and a number of studies link it to certain cancers, so by that logic, it seems like the answer is a resounding no. 

However, once you start digging into the research, you quickly begin to realize that it’s a bit more complicated than that and it’s difficult to generalize all hair dye as bad or unsafe. A number of other factors should be considered, like how often you’re coloring your hair, how long you’re leaving it on and, perhaps most important, what ingredients are in your dye.

We spoke with Pia Theresa-Budde, senior manager of R&D product development for Clairol, and celebrity stylist Priscilla Valles for some clarity. 

What are some ingredients to look out for in hair dye? 

“The primary chemicals to avoid in your hair dye are ammonia, parabens, PPD (or para-phenylenediamine) and PTD (para-toluenediamine),” says Valles. Ammonia is one of the more commonly used ingredients in hair dye, and it works by penetrating the shaft and opening up the cuticle to deposit the color. Beyond its health implications, it is also incredibly drying and one of the main culprits behind that pungent scent many of us have come to associate with dyeing our hair.

What about natural or organic hair dye? Are those safer to use?

Ah, here’s where things get a little tricky. Technically, there is no such thing as an all-organic hair dye—yet. (Here’s to hoping that changes someday soon.) “In order for hair dye to work, a chemical process has to take place so that there is a change in color,” explains Valles.

As far as “natural” options go, “the only hair dye that could be considered completely natural is henna,” says Theresa-Budde. “However, the performance of henna may not be ideal [editor’s note: the dye can fade quickly], and it can come with a range of other challenges in the coloring process [the saturation of color is often inconsistent].”

Your best bet, until further research is done, is to look for less toxic hair dyes with fewer harsh chemicals like the ones listed above.

A final note: As with any hair dye, be sure to read the fine print on the box and follow the instructions. Those rubber gloves? They’re not just a suggestion. The suggested wait times? They’re there to guide you. And if you want to take extra precaution, it’s always a good idea to do a patch test beforehand.

That said, here are three safer options to consider:

organic hair dye madison reed radiant hair color kit
Ulta

1. Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit

This at-home color kit is a fan favorite for being one of the most comprehensive options available. Each box comes with everything you need to get the job done—including two pairs of gloves, a cap, barrier cream (to avoid staining your hairline and neck), a cleansing wipe (in case you do get dye on your skin) and color-protecting shampoo and conditioner. The thick, creamy color doesn’t drip or have any abrasive scent and it’s 6-free with no ammonia, parabens, resorcinol, PPD, phthalates or gluten in the formula. Choose from 34 shades. 

Buy it ($27)

organic hair dye clairol natural instincts
Ulta

2. Clairol Natural instincts

This cult classic underwent a major makeover last year, including adding more shades to the already extensive range and putting more naturally derived ingredients, like aloe and coconut oil, into the formula. In fact, it now boasts 80 percent naturally derived ingredients and a new dye molecule called ME+, which significantly reduces the risk of developing a new allergy. The result? Shiny color that’s gentle on your hair and scalp. Plus, the outer packaging is FSC registered and the plastic bottles are PVC-free. Choose from 37 shades.

Buy it ($8)

organic hair dye Herbatint Permanent Color
iHerb

3. Herbatint Permanent Color

A longtime staple of the health food aisles, this herbal dye features eight organic plant extracts,including aloe vera, meadow-foam, white birch, witch hazel and walnut to protect your hair and scalp while depositing color. Fans claim good coverage of grays and an even color application that leaves your strands soft and well conditioned (which isn’t something you typically associate with dye). The other big selling point for Herbatint’s dyes is that they’re very easily mixable (in fact, mixing is encouraged by the brand), so you get a more dimensional custom shade that’s better suited to your skin tone. Choose from 36 shades.

Buy it ($12)

RELATED: 7 of the Easiest Hair Colors to Maintain (That Don’t Require Constant Touch-Ups)

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