Blame it on society’s obsession with youth or ubiquitous marketing campaigns that tell us “we’re worth it,” but now more people than ever are dyeing their hair with products that are harmful to both humans and the environment. Medical studies have linked hair-dye use with certain types of cancer, and allergic reactions — ranging from eczema to facial swelling and bruising — are on the rise. However, with the increased availability of high-quality, nontoxic dyes (no henna here), salons around the country are beginning to offer safer, eco-friendly services without sacrificing style.

One of the first stylists in the U.S. to use only eco-friendly dyes was John Masters, who opened his eponymous “clean air” salon in New York’s SoHo neighborhood in 1994. A cozy, eclectic space filled with reclaimed, free-standing mirrors and shelves made from salvaged beams from 18th-century homes in upstate New York, the salon uses only clay-based, ammonia-free dyes, most of which Masters imports from Italy.

“Traditional dyes use ammonia to dilate the hair, which makes it easier for the color to penetrate the cuticle,” explains Masters. “Our dyes get the same effect without the chemicals.” Instead, they use a moisturizer to soften and open the cuticle rather than forcing it to lift, and the result is colored hair that’s much less damaged. In fact, the dyes are so gentle they can be used on pregnant women (who increase their unborn child’s cancer risk if they use traditional dyes), which explains the parade of expectant mothers who regularly fill his salon’s chairs. And, living up to its “clean air” promise, the salon does not perform any treatments that use harmful chemicals — no manicures, no pedicures, no facials—so patrons can breathe easy.

Other salons around the country have been following his lead. MODE Salon in Seattle also only uses nontoxic dyes, and adds environmentally-friendly permanent hair waves and texturizing treatments to its roster, too. The system is free from harsh chemicals like ammonia and thioglycolates, and curls hair without changing its pH (which leads to damage and a strawlike texture). “It has a pleasant fragrance, like apples, and is able to cope with most hair types using only one lotion,” says Joe Carling, owner and master stylist at MODE. “The results are incredible, and leave the hair soft and beautifully curled.”

For Julie Ebner, owner of Juju Salon & Organics in Philadelphia, her motto—“Find a better way to beauty” — applies right down to her shop’s floor. Not only does she offer all organic, sulfate- and paraben-free products and chemical-free dyes, but she also hired a local green contractor to make sure renovations to the salon were eco-friendly and that the paints used were fume-free. “I’m committed to providing a natural experience every way I can, from organic ways to treat hair problems to using flea-market furniture,” says Julie. “The result is healthier hair, healthier people, and a cleaner environment — everyone wins.”

Story by Lisa Stasiulewicz. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2006. This story was added to

Copyright Environ Press 2006.