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Ammonia Free Hair Color



Last week, I talked about ammonia and its role in hair color.


More and more manufacturers and brands are coming out with ammonia free hair color, so this week I wanted to dive into what that really means.


We all know that in order to have a permanent hair color lighten and deposit into hair, we need alkalinity.


The most common and efficient alkalizer is ammonia, but what about ammonia free color?


Well, most- if not all- ammonia free colors use MEA as an alkalizer instead of ammonia. So let's talk about MEA.


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 for creating 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, but MEA is an oil/liquid...meaning once it's on the hair it NEEDS TO BE REMOVED from the hair.


MEA does not have the same strength as ammonia to efficiently swell the cuticle layers and fracture melanin to create a sustainable lift.

Also the amount of MEA used in most colors is between 6-10% contrary to ammonia with a maximum of 4%.

MEA is also larger in size than ammonia with a molecular weight of 61. This makes it more difficult for MEA to expand the cuticle layers and get into the cortical fibers.



Is MEA less damaging than ammonia?


Well, it 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 1.5-4%. 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 darken, 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.


I've read a lot of studies, not just with hair color so I know they can be designed to sway you one way or another. And while the results of this study were *in the most extreme case* - to me that's a red flag.


If I'm going to get subpar gray coverage, if I'm not going to get the lightening that I want, if I have to use heat and process for 60 minutes, and use a higher developer to get the results I want - why wouldn't I just stick to ammonia? Why fix something that's not truly broken?


I encourage you to look into this and really weigh your options. I hope this got your wheels turning so you can see the bigger picture of what ammonia-free color is.


As always, take what works and leave what doesn't.


Until next time,


Happy Haircoloring!


- Araz


*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.




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