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Woman dyeing her hair

Ammonia in Hair Color

Professional, permanent coloring products and their DIY counterparts often rely on ammonia, a noxious chemical compound that opens the hair cuticle so that the new, desired shade can penetrate thoroughly. While effective, its harsh nature sometimes causes irritation and a burning sensation that makes a color appointment seem like torture to some. But even if you’re not prone to allergic reactions, the tinting process is still a major cause of dull, frizzy strands. “Ammonia can weaken hair and make it dull by stripping the outer layer of each shaft,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D, a Washington, D.C., dermatologist.

To soften the blow, L’Oréal Professionnel debuted INOA (which stands for Innovation No Ammonia) in 2011. It was a game-changing alternative to traditional coloring products, thanks to its use of an odorless chemical, monoethanolamine (or MEA), to open the hair shaft. While groundbreaking, the gentler version had certain limitations—being able to darken strands only one shade, not to lighten or conceal grays. Since then, L’Oréal chemists have discovered a way to boost the efficacy of MEA, giving ammonia-averse consumers more options and a wider color palette. This new technology, appearing for the first time in an at-home color, is in Garnier (which is owned by L’Oréal) Olia at-home color line. It incorporates MEA and an oil gel (dubbed Oleogel) that coats and conditions the outer layer of hair strands to preserve strength.

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Monoethanolamine (MEA)

According to the company, Olia—which includes 24 shades and is infused with fragrant, flower-based oils—can lift color up to three levels. “It’s an exciting option that delivers softer, shinier, healthier-looking hair,” says Kyle White, a New York-based celebrity colorist with Garnier who has used the line on his clients. “Think of it this way: If ammonia is sugar, MEA is Stevia.”

In addition to ammonia, some companies have also eliminated PPD (also known as PTD)—petroleum-derived dyes commonly used in hair color pigments that can cause severe allergic reactions—from their formulas. Instead, they use plant- or vegetable-based versions to tint hair. Though less effective (the pigment, more like a rinse, lasts only six or seven shampoos, as opposed to four to six weeks with a semi-permanent dye), they are a health-conscious option for men and women simply looking to mask grays. Aubrey Organics Color Me Natural is one such brand that conceals silvery roots on dark brown strands. Lush Henna Hair Dyes come in four shades to gently cover grays sprouting on redheads and brunettes while conditioning and imparting shine. “Plant-based dyes are healthier for the hair,” says Melissa Harvey, a New York-based consulting trichologist (hair scientist) with hair growth company Bio Follicle. “But since they go deeper into the cuticle with each application, it does make it difficult for anyone looking to go lighter.”

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