Ammonia vs. Ammonia-free hair color

Q. Dr. Said, I have been using ammonia color for as long as I can remember and neither I nor my clients have had any problems with it. Recently many hair colors appeared on the market with the claim of being ammonia-free. I have tried one product and I did not like the results. Some clients started asking me about ammonia free color, and I am confused and don’t know how to answer them. What is the difference between ammonia and ammonia-free hair color, How much ammonia is needed, and if the color does not have ammonia, how does it work? Thanks for your help. Allison, Fargo, ND

A. Allison, you need not be confused any longer. Ammonia is a chemical agent that provides alkalinity and raises the pH of hair colorants. It swells the hair and allows for more penetration of dye inside the hair shaft to achieve deeper and more permanent hair color. It also helps the action of peroxide in lightening melanin and natural hair color. It is a very small molecule, which evaporates rapidly (hence the strong odor) and rinses out quickly from the hair.

Hair coloring products labeled as “Ammonia-Free” utilize other chemical agents to provide alkalinity, and it is important to remember that “ammonia-free” does not mean “alkalinity-free”. These other chemical agents are close relatives of ammonia, and include monoethanolamine (MEA) or aminomethylpropanol (AMP) which are larger than ammonia, do not swell the hair as well, and therefore do not allow as much dyes to diffuse deep into the hair. Hence the less than ideal results you observed with these products. They are less volatile (they do not evaporate as rapidly and therefore they do not smell as strongly), but they may take longer to wash out of the hair than ammonia.

By most scientific evidence available today, ammonia presents no serious health risks to hairdressers when used according to instructions and under normal salon conditions (which include some form of ventilation and controlled salon temperature). Nonetheless, a few people may develop some degree of allergy or other reactions to ammonia, in the same manner that some individuals develop allergies or reactions to certain foods or medications. Because of the relatively short track-record of MEA and AMP in hair coloring products, it is not possible to judge their long-term safety. Ammonia levels in hair color vary not only among different manufacturers’ lines, but also within the same manufacturer’s line. In general, deposit shades require as little as 4% of the ammonia solution, while the high-lift shades of permanent hair color may go well over 10%. On the other hand, demi-permanent (or deposit-only) color lines use little or no ammonia (or other alkalizing agents) at all. But their permanency is not as good as their alkaline counterparts.