Go Gray for Your Health

author with gray hair, go gray for your health

A few years ago, I saw an article about an ingredient in brown hair dyes being linked to lymphoma. It’s called Para-phenylenediamine, or PPD. The article caught my attention, because a girlfriend who was also a holistic health coach, had recently gone through treatment for lymphoma. We wondered if her cancer could have been attributed to dying her hair. At the time, I’d been coloring my hair for about 10 years, and it got me thinking. Could my vanity inadvertently cause me to get cancer?

Growing up, my mother (who has never colored her hair) lost two of her hairdressers in the same salon to lymphoma. Were their cancers caused by toxins from products in the salon? We’ll never know for sure…

However, what we do know is that the FDA does not regulate ANY personal care products for what chemicals they may contain. Shocking, right? Not only that, but there is NO testing to see how multiple chemicals within one product, or from several products combined, may interact with each other. When you stop to think about it, it’s SCARY! So should you go gray for your health?

Compelling reasons to go gray for your health

When my girlfriend’s hair started to grow back after her stem-cell transplant, she decided to go with the gray, and not color it anymore. Because the fact is, no one knows what caused her lymphoma, but Para-phenylenediamine (PPD) has been linked to not only lymphoma, but also bladder cancer, and breast cancer. Another friend’s sister, who was also a hairstylist, recently died from bladder cancer. You can look up all of your health and beauty products on EWG’s database, to see if they contain toxins.

Toxic chemicals in brown hair dye

Here are some other toxic ingredients commonly found in brown hair dyes:

  • Para-phenylenediamine and tetrahydro-6-nitroquinoxaline, both of which have been shown to damage genetic material and cause cancer in animals.
  • Coal tar, a known carcinogen (one investigation found that 71 percent of hair dyes contain coal tar)
  • Formaldehyde, a preservative linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity and more.
  • DMDM Hydantoin, another preservative that is a known immune system toxin (and has been restricted for use in cosmetics in Japan).
  • Eugenol, a fragrance ingredient that’s associated with cancer, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and allergies.

Even after my friend’s ordeal, I had to think hard about going gray for my health. I’ll admit I’m vain. And I didn’t think I’d like how would look with all gray hair—so it was a tough decision! At the time I was going to an “organic” salon, so I thought that maybe my hair coloring was “safe.”

But when I talked to my colorist, he told me that PPD is in every shade of brown hair color, even “organic” ones, because it’s what makes the color stick to the hair shaft. So I thought maybe I could try a “natural” hair color product and went to look for one at Whole Foods—but much to my surprise, all of the “natural” hair color products you can find at your natural food stores also contain PPD. Ugh!

Go gray for your health

And so, in solidarity with my girlfriend—and to protect my own body from toxic chemicals and potential cancers—I decided to go gray for my health. However, I didn’t want to have a solid line of gray as my roots started to grow out. So my stylist foiled (lightened) my hair for a few months as gray grew out, to prevent a gray ring around my head. A few months later, my hair was mostly gray, with a few streaks of brown and highlights from the sun. And you know what? I absolutely LOVED my gray hair!! If I’d known how much I liked it, I would have never started coloring it! Plus the benefit to my health and body was totally worth it.

And in case you are blonde, or bleach your hair, you’re also at risk. Although blonde hair dyes don’t contain PPD, they still contain a whole host of other toxic chemicals. The only truly “toxin-free” form of hair dye is natural henna, which is reddish-brown.

It seems like many women have decided “Gray is the new Black”, and are embracing their gray hair. Who’s willing to join us, and go gray for your health? Please leave a comment and let us know you are going gray for your health!

Here are a few resources where you can read more about toxins in hair dyes:
American Cancer Society
Natural News
National Cancer Institute


  1. Lavinia on May 24, 2014 at 4:01 am

    I too decided, after 45 years of highlighting and/ or dying my “dirty blonde” locks, to stop. I had no idea what color my hair was, but I was seeing some white hairs more and more interspersed through my own fine hairs and wanted to see it – au naturel. I felt I’d “earned it just by reaching 62! We were planning a retirement and cruising lifestyle and I didn’t want to deal with the mess of dying my hair aboard our boat – in that tiny head – and money for salon coloring was not in the budget!
    I was amazed at how most of my women coworkers and friends said: “DON’T!! – you’ll be sorry!” And in fact many of my friends have STARTED coloring their hair – and are proud of how they think it makes them look younger.
    I haven’t dyed my hair for two years now, and it still is “dirty blonde” – just with a fine blend of white. It still gets sun bleached – but – really I don’t look much different. Some days, when I’m influenced by the media, I find myself wishing to add a few blonde highlights,as I had done for so many years before…. But it passes.
    I have since met quite a few women who have gone gray – strong-minded, intelligent and capable women, who look great grey and have been an inspiration to me. Thank you for this blog entry – it reinforces everything I believe!

    • Heidi on May 26, 2014 at 10:53 pm

      Thanks for your comment Lavinia, I’m glad you found the info helpful. As a live-aboard for the past 12-years, I can totally relate to the mess of trying to dye hair in a tiny head too. That probably influenced my decision as well. 🙂

  2. Anita Akin on May 24, 2014 at 5:45 am

    I also have decided to go gray. Reading this article was the right message for me as I’ve been struggling with my decision. My hairdresser will do the exact same thing with my hair, by infusing blondes to make the transition easier. I am a dark brown hair type so hopefully this will work. Besides I won’t color when we are sailing the ICW anyways! Thank You for this very informative article.

    • Heidi on May 26, 2014 at 10:54 pm

      Hi Anita, thanks so much for leaving a comment. I’m glad that my post resonated with you. Fair winds and following seas!

    • Barb Spellman on June 12, 2014 at 3:21 pm

      Heidi, your comments echoed my sentiment so well. I have taken the steps with the foiling/highlights and already like it very much. I am TRUSTING that by summer’s end I, too, will continue to like this step AWAY from the dye!!!

      • Heidi on June 15, 2014 at 9:11 pm

        Thanks for the comment Barb, I’m so glad you’ve taken the first step to go gray. I’m with you all the way! 🙂

  3. Sandy on May 25, 2014 at 2:47 am

    I think you will discover that your gray does go with your skin tone and with your clothing. When I look decided to stop coloring my hair years ago it was because I had noticed how beautiful it was on others.

    • Heidi on May 26, 2014 at 10:55 pm

      Thanks for your great message Sandy, I hope you’re right – maybe once my skin gets a bit more coloring from the sun I will feel like it goes better. 😉

  4. Sally S on May 25, 2014 at 7:06 am

    Ooh. Have been thinking about this for a while, in terms of the chemicals I am washing down the drain. Do you have info. on henna?

    • Heidi on May 26, 2014 at 10:58 pm

      Hi Sally, thanks for your comment! I don’t have any personal experience w/ henna, (partly because I don’t care for how my hair looks when it gets “reddish”, so I’ve not looked into it.) But my understanding is that it’s a natural form of die that doesn’t contain toxins. I’ll see if I can find some more info for you and send you an email. Thanks cuz! xoxo

  5. jean on May 27, 2014 at 5:22 am

    Hi Hon, This from you white haired Mom — I’m pleased and proud of your decision, thank you! As my very straight brown hair turned gray and white I was delighted to discover that it had some wave in it. I used to wear it long in a pony tail but while sailing frequently in the Caribbean realized I didn’t swim as often as I liked ‘cuz of thinking of dealing with the hassle of the long hair afterword. I thought that was pretty dumb! Maybe someday you’ll try “short” too. — Remember Grandma Wini didn’t look too shabby either. 🙂 Love you!! Mom

    • Heidi on May 28, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      Thanks mom — you and grandma are both beautiful how ever you wear/wore your hair… and my hair IS short (at least for me ;-), it’s 1/2-way between my ears and my shoulders… 🙂

  6. Teri on May 28, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Timely article, Heidi – great information and support and it’s nice to see a fresh topic for a blog! I’ve been playing around with letting mine grow out as well – it’s easy to be bold in the spring and summer when we feel healthier and have that natural glow about us but for those of us in the NW (I’m sure you can relate) when the weather sets in and we are feeling gray in sympathy with the surrounding skies for so many months on end … it’s easy to reach for the bottle! Thanks for the reinforcement on such an important health topic and I agree – if 60 is the new 40 then gray is the new black. I Like it!

    • Heidi on May 28, 2014 at 4:27 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment Teri, I’m glad you liked the post! Just got your VM, and will reply shortly, I look forward to talking with you…

  7. Tim on June 17, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Heidi… how could grey make you look anything other than beautiful. It’s your personality that shines through what ever color hair you have. I’m proud of my daughters for NOT wanting to dye her hair – allowing the natural beauty of healthy hair to exist. Now I know why that is/was a smart decision. Thanks

    • Heidi on June 18, 2014 at 11:44 pm

      Thanks so much Tim, glad to hear your daughters are also in the “gray-hair club”! 🙂

  8. Leslie on June 17, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    Thanks Heidi~
    Great info. It makes me very concerned for my teenaged daughter and all the other kids who
    are dying their hair in multiple colors. I’ve never really
    given much thought to what’s in hair dye because we don’t eat it. Duh! Time to take a closer look.

    • Heidi on June 18, 2014 at 11:47 pm

      Thanks Leslie… you aren’t alone, most people don’t stop to consider what is IN the products they are putting on their skin and hair. Hopefully my posts will shed some light on the importance of how what we put ON the body’s largest organ, the skin, may be absorbed.

      • Barb Spellman on June 19, 2014 at 6:14 am

        Just a check in to update that I haven’t changed my mind and at this point certainly don’t intend to. Heidi,was it your hint to do this initial step during the summer months when your skin takes on more color and, thus, really helps with the transition? It’s working!!! I do have a question regarding the care of gray. I do want my hair to stay soft and smooth. Don’t care for many products!!!! Thanks!

        • Heidi on June 19, 2014 at 11:16 pm

          Hi Barbara, thanks so much for your comment! I didn’t intentionally plan to go gray during the summer, it just sort of worked out that way — but you are right, great timing w/ the sunshine and tan skin! 🙂 Here is a link to my favorite hair care products that keep my hair soft and smooth. I have very curly hair, so use the Coconut Curls and love that product. <https://www.desertessence.com/coconut-products> Best of luck to you and please keep me posted.

  9. Maria on April 17, 2015 at 2:28 am

    Thanks for the article. I found it very interesting. I used to dye my hair (brown) and I also had it chemically straightened twice (a process that keeps your hair straight for up to 6 months). However, I once saw a post on Facebook warning about the possible dangers of straightening your hair because one of the chemicals used could possibly cause healthy cells to mutate into cancerous cells. Well, I don’t know if the hair straightening or dyeing had anything to do with it, but I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. I had a mastectomy, did chemo and radiotherapy, and am currently doing hormone therapy (for at least 5 years). When my hair started to grow back, I suddenly realized how much of it was gray! 🙂 And I have been thinking about leaving it so, especially after reading this article and having gone what I went through. I must say, I’ve had lots of compliments on my short, gray hair. There should be more news on personal care products that are potentially harmful to us. Many thanks for doing your part!

    • Heidi on April 17, 2015 at 9:22 pm

      Maria, thank you so much for your comment. So sorry to hear about your cancer. Too many of my friends are going through cancer right now, at much too young of ages. Sadly, there are a lot of undisclosed toxins in our environment. See my post Are Your Cosmetics Killing You? It’s a little known fact that the FDA doesn’t regulate any health and beauty products for harmful ingredients. It is estimated that the average woman puts 512 toxic chemicals onto her skin before she walks out the door in the morning. Because of this, I’ve recently started selling Neil’s Yard Remedies Organic. These UK-based organic health and beauty products are toxin-free, sustainable, fair-trade, and cruelty-free. Please visit my NYR Organic website. Or Contact me if you would like to try some free samples. Best of luck to you Maria.

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