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Natural Awakenings Central New Jersey

ASK DR. DESAI ~ Tips for buying green personal care products

Part 5:  The risks associated with Hair Dyes and Tattoos!

Millions of women color their hair routinely every 3 to 5 weeks, but how many stop to ask “what’s in my hair dye.” Whether in the salon or off the shelf you should know what is actually being absorbed, not only into your hair but into your scalp and finally into your blood stream.  There is one class of colorant that I would recommend you steer clear of and that is “coal tar dyes” which may be found in personal care products such as hair dyes. This chemical may also be found in temporary and permanent tattoos.

What are Coal Tar Dye(s)?  Coal tar is a complex mixture of chemicals derived from petroleum.  Coal tar dyes are products that may be sourced from coal tar or synthetically produced.

What is the purpose of Coal Tar Dye(s) in personal care products?  Coal tar dyes such as P-Phenylenediamine (PPD) or 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine (4 MMPD) are used as colorants.

What kind of products are Coal Tar Dye(s) found in?  Coal tar dyes such as PPD or 4 MMPD are found in many hair dyes, hair colorant products or skin tattooing products.

What health risks are associated with Coal Tar dyes?  Several coal tar dyes have been found to cause cancer in laboratory tests.  Also, in a separate study with women who used hair dyes over an extended period of time had an increased risk of Hodgkins Lymphoma. However, there is conflicting evidence of no association with hair dyes and cancer.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer has concluded that personal use of hair dyes is currently “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity in humans.” The European Union classifies P-phenylenediamine as toxic (in contact with skin, by inhalation, or if swallowed), and as very toxic to aquatic organisms.  Some coal tar dye containing products are required to carry warnings on the label such as “Warning - Contains an ingredient that can penetrate your skin and has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” Other coal tar dyes like P-phenylenediamine are permitted only in hair dyes and must be accompanied by a warning that the product “contains ingredients that may cause skin irritation on certain individuals” and if used near the eyes “may cause blindness.”

So try and choose formulas that are coal tar dye free, however, even “progressive” hair dyes (which dye hair gradually after repeated applications) contain lead acetate. These may have other risks such as lead in the bloodstream.  However according to the FDA’s website, the FDA has concluded that lead acetate dyes are safe and may be used as long as they have the warning “Caution: contains lead acetate. For external use only. Keep this product out of children’s reach. Do not use on cut or abraded scalp. If skin irritation develops, discontinue use. Do not use to color mustaches, eyelashes, eyebrows, or hair on parts of the body other than the scalp. Do not get in eyes. Follow instructions carefully and wash hands thoroughly after use.”

This begs the question, “If it’s not safe for other parts of my body why would it be safe on my head?” How does having a warning on the label help consumers choose wisely when most people never read it and in the case of the salon, they never even see the product packaging? So stay tuned and stay safe. Look for my next monthly installation of this series to learn about what else you need to be on the lookout for and avoid.

Join Dr. Desai for an interactive workshop at the MindBodySpirit Expo on Saturday, May 3 in Somerset.  Go to for additional details on his talk called “What’s In Your Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?”

Dr. Vinay Desai is a naturalist and a pharmaceutical scientist with a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences. Through community awareness programs, Dr. Desai has helped educate people in the sustainable practices of using solar power and green personal care products.

Do you have a question about natural personal care products?  Please send your questions to [email protected] or call 908-236-6742. For more information, visit


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