With ammonia getting a bad wrap more and more lately, a lot of brands and manufacturers are opting for ammonia free hair color. But please know, ammonia free does NOT mean chemical free. It's kind of like food that's labeled "sugar free" typically still has some sort of artificial sweeteners, and food thats labeled "fat free" has other ingredients that don't necessary mean it's healthy.
With that said, if you choose to use a haircolor that is ammonia free and the alkalizer is MEA, I think it's important to know HOW that color works, what makes MEA different and what results can you expect.
What is an "alkalizer"?
An alkalizer is some type of chemical that is used to create alkalinity in the product. In order for any type of OXIDATIVE color (meaning color that needs developer) to work, an alkalizer is needed to make that coloring process possible. Think of the alkalizer as the catalyst to soften, swell and expand the cuticle layers so that the developer can release its oxygen and the dyes can do their jobs in coupling and developing to the tones that we see. Most often, the alkalizer that is used is ammonia however, in recent years, manufacturers are wanting to get away from the "big bad ammonia" and are marketing for more "natural" hair coloring products. I have nothing against this, except for the fact that mea is not less damaging than ammonia. More on that in a minute.
What is MEA?
MEA short for monoethanolamine, is an odorless, alkaline chemical and is used as a pH adjuster in hair color. It is responsible to create alkalinity so that the cuticle layers can soften and swell...ultimately allowing the haircolor process to happen.It is well known that ammonia is a gas- which dissipates from the hair, MEA is an oil/liquid..meaning once it's on the hair it NEEDS TO BE REMOVED from the hair.
What is the Molecular weight of MEA and why does that matter?
The molecular weight of MEA is 61, compared to ammonia at 17. MEA is 3.5 times larger than ammonia...remember, the alkalinity in the color is what allows the developer to release oxygen and lighten the hair to create undertone. Because of how large MEA is...permanent haircolor that uses MEA as the alkalizer is not as efficient in lightening the hair enough to produce vibrant tones, light bright blondes and def lack in the gray coverage arena. In one way, because of the high molecular weight and less lifting ability to the hair, you are creating less damage internally to the hair, esp the disulfide bonds BUT because MEA is larger, the damage that is being caused to the cuticle is more significant because it's causing the cuticles to swell and spread more. MEA colors can cause more porosity to the hair which will ultimately cause damage to the cortical fibers. When the cuticle layers keep expanding, water can then get into the cortical fibers and break down the ceramides that hold the cortical fibers together..the hair then just begins to break down and unravel.
What about MEA in demi permanent color?
MEA in a demi is more understandable and even justifiable. With demi color, achieving lift is not necessary, so using MEA as an alkalizer makes sense, but you have to remember to wash it all out.
Is MEA based permanent color really less damaging than Ammonia based color?
Well, depends on who you ask. The amount of MEA used in color is where the issue is...anywhere from 6-10% MEA is typically used in permanent, oxidative color versus ammonia at 1.5-3.5%. Also, since MEA is not volatile (meaning it does not dissipate out of the hair) it can remain in the hair even if you shampoo it. The MEA that's left in the hair can cause the color to darker, lose luster and shine and even cause potential scalp irritation. There was a study done that compared the damage to human hair fibers from MEA and ammonia. The results were interesting. I've cited the article at the bottom of this blog, but here were the findings:
*The number of Level 3 hair color products that substitute 2-aminoethanol [monoethanolamine (MEA)] for ammonia is increasing. There is some anecdotal evidence that higher levels of MEA can be more damaging to hair and more irritating than a corresponding equivalent level of the typical alkalizer, ammonia (in the form of ammonium hydroxide). Our interest was to understand in more quantitative terms the relative hair damage from the two alkalizers, particularly at the upper limits of MEA on-head use.
*In fact, all methods show an increase in damage from MEA-based formulations, up to 85% versus ammonia in the most extreme case.
Why you MUST remove MEA from the hair, and HOW?
Like I mentioned above, MEA is an oil/liquid and it can remain on the hair and cause potential issues like fading and irritation of the scalp. Most brands that use MEA as an alkalizer for permanent color will typically have a shampoo that they recommend to remove the color. It is IMPERATIVE to use this shampoo to remove the color. These shampoos will typically contain Ammonium Laurel Sulfate and EDTA. Both of these are very cleansing to the hair and scalp and can be used to eliminate the MEA from the hair.
To wrap this up, here's my take on this. As always, my goal is to offer perspective. In no way will I ever TELL you what to do..I just share what I have learned, read, listened to and experienced first hand. Permanent color lines that use MEA as their only alkalizer are not, in any way, better, cleaner or efficient in hair coloring. The results tend to be underwhelming and knowing that MEA is not better for the hair, in fact can be more damaging to the hair, I'd stay away. The reason the whole "ammonia is bad" campaigns began is because, I think, the smell of ammonia is pretty strong. MEA doesn't have a smell, so it was very easy to convince our industry that because the color doesn't smell...it must be better for the hair.
Remember, non-fat and sugar-free foods...are they actually healthier?
Is MEA actually better?
It's your call to make.
Hope this was helpful!!!
Happy Hair Coloring!
*Bailey AD, Zhang G, Murphy BP. Comparison of damage to human hair fibers caused by monoethanolamine- and ammonia-based hair colorants. J Cosmet Sci. 2014 Jan-Feb;65(1):1-9. PMID: 24602818.