What you should know about your hair dye


While ‘staying at home’ remains in full effect, it’s safe to assume that as soon as the mandates are lifted, the one person more un-reachable than your doctor is your hairdresser. The trend of #QuarantineHair has not only become a source of comedy on social media, but it has also sparked protests to try and re-open the country. Recently, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon released a statement that ‘we’re in the hair color phase of panic buying’ due to the increase of consumers purchasing hair dyes. As a result of the transition of people doing their hair maintenance, there has been an increased awareness of whether the dyes we’re using are safe to use.

According to the FDA when it comes to any product that uses a color additive, the FDA must regulate it, however, there is a loop-hole in that certain hair dyes are considered ‘coal-tar hair dyes’ in which they do not need FDA approval. The ‘coal-tar hair dyes are typically the hair dyes available at stores and more accessible to consumers for a lower price, not the ones often used in salons. The FDA’s liability with regulating these hair dyes are limited by the law.

In short, ‘Coal-tar hair dyes’ are hair dyes that were once coloring materials that were once by-products of the coal industry back in the industrial period. Today most coal hair dyes are made from petroleum, yet they still use the original name. Typically, this type of hair dye is used for permanent, semi-permanent, temporary dying of hair. Coal-tar coloring is often referred to as ‘synthetic-organic’ color dyes. The reasoning behind this is because according to a chemist, a “synthetic” compound is one formed from simpler compounds and an “organic” compound is one that contains carbon atoms.

As mentioned before, the FDA runs into some regulation limitations when it comes to regulating Coal-tar hair dyes due to Federal Laws. In 1938 Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) which required the FDA to regulate and approve color additives in products including cosmetics. However, not all cosmetic ingredients require FDA approval before hitting the market. Through this law, the FDA can take action against any cosmetics on the market if it contains a poisonous or deleterious ingredient that may make cosmetic products toxic for consumers. At the same time, the law doesn’t require cosmetic companies, including hair dye manufacturers, to share their safety data or consumer complaints with FDA (such as allergic reactions, skin irritations, etc).

In the sense of Coal-Tar hair dyes, even if there are ingredients that make the hair dye toxic to the consumer, the FDA actually cannot take any action with regulating or taking it off the market if the hair dye includes a caution statement or directions for a skin test before use. Coal-tar hair dyes do not need FDA regulation or approval before hitting the market, unlike other color additives. The only exception to this rule in that the FDA can take action with regulating coal-tar dyes is if the dye does not include a warning label or adequate instructions for a skin test.

Since most commercial hair dyes are considered and regulated as coal-tar hair dyes it’s important to be safe while using them at your ‘stay at home salon’. When using hair dyes the FDA urges to follow the instructions carefully as mentioned in the caution labeling. It’s also suggested that before even applying the hair dye to your hair it’s important to perform a skin test. A skin test is just applying a small amount of dye to a patch of skin and letting it dry for 48 hours to see whether a rash arises.

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