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Hair dye soon to debut in U.S. that has ammonia’s power, sans its odor

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Little about the chemistry of hair coloring has changed since 1909 when a French chemist named Eugene Schuller created the first commercial hair dye. Ammonia has been an ingredient de rigueur for women and men who want to lighten their hair, exposing them to its unpleasant odor. Now, scientists at L’Oréal, which was founded by Schuller, have reinvented the chemistry of hair color and replaced ammonia with an odorless substitute.

The new dye, called INOA for Innovation No Ammonia, is a "revolution" in how hair coloring is formulated, says Jean-Marc Ascione, director for hair color product development worldwide for L’Oréal.

In place of ammonia, INOA relies on a chemical called monoethanolamine, or MEA, which has no odor. But INOA could have some of the same toxicity as ammonia, a scientist for an advocacy group says.

First, here is how it works: MEA is alkaline (as opposed to acidic), like ammonia, so it can accomplish the first step in permanent hair dye, which is to open the hair’s cuticles. In fact, L’Oréal already sells ammonia-free permanent hair dyes that contain MEA in the U.S. and Europe. But because MEA does not open the cuticle as efficiently as ammonia, it does not allow the hair coloring ingredients to penetrate the hair strands as well. For this reason, MEA-based permanent hair coloring was only being used to darken the hair one shade, and not to lighten hair or color gray. So the L’Oréal chemists wanted to give MEA a boost.

"We said we like MEA because it doesn’t have the strong odor of ammonia but what we needed to do was find a new system that would make the performance of MEA higher," Ascione says.

To boost MEA, L’Oréal chemists added a new component to the hair dye formula: a mineral oil gel that has a high affinity for hair but not for MEA. Right before INOA is put on hair, the oil gel, called oleogel, is mixed together with MEA and the other key components for tinting locks—the oxidative hair dye and the hydrogen peroxide that develops the hair dye. Oleogel contains special emulsifying agents that allow the oil to mix with the other water-based ingredients. But, when the mixture is on hair, the oil coats the outside of hair strands and repulses the MEA, driving it to open the cuticle and penetrate the hair. Adding oil changes the ability of MEA to penetrate the hair. "It’s as if you were changing the engine of a car—everything becomes more powerful," Ascione says.

Ascione says it will be no secret to people using INOA that they are not using conventional hair coloring. "We wanted to bring to hair color a pleasure dimension," he says. Besides keeping hair salons and home bathrooms free of ammonia’s harsh household cleanser-like smell, Ascione says that the new formula feels more like a thick skin cream than the conventional, more pasty hair dyes.

Smell aside, however, studies have found an increased incidence of work-related asthma in janitors, nurses and office workers that was linked to their exposure to ammonia and MEA, as well as to the bleach and acids in cleaning products, says Rebecca Sutton, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. Hairdressers could also be at greater risk of work-related asthma, she says, adding: "I can’t say that replacing ammonia-based dyes with those containing monoethanolamine is an improvement for public health, though it will cut down on the noxious odor."

The L’Oréal scientists have observed that people who have sensitive scalps are not irritated by INOA, although this difference could be attributable to any of the number of modified components in INOA, not just the MEA-for-ammonia swap, Ascione says. He adds that INOA does not upset the hair cuticle as much as conventional hair dyes, preserving hair strength.

While other companies use ammonia in their permanent hair dyes, some have created formulas to soften the hair coloring experience. Aveda’s professional line of permanent hair dyes have plant extracts, such as lavender, that help mask the smell of the ammonia and soothe the scalp, says Evan Miller, director of global communications for Aveda Corporation.

So far, INOA has debuted around Europe, but consumers in the United States and Canada should be able to try the new hair coloring within the first three months of 2010, says Pamela Alabaster, senior vice president for corporate communications & external affairs for L’Oréal USA. And the product should eventually be available for home use as well. L’Oréal plans to sell INOA to salons at a 20 percent premium compared to its current professional brand, Majirel, although it is not clear how much more consumers will pay to be part of the new "revolution" in hair coloring.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/powerofforever





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  1. 1. pjh 4:04 pm 03/8/2010

    Has anyone thought to have had an adverse reaction to this product as yet?

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  2. 2. Sophie 5:32 pm 05/23/2010

    INOA is horrible in my opinion! I tried it a couple days ago and it was a terrible experience. Yes, I had a reaction to INOA. I have a burn/sore and broken hair on the back of my neck at the hairline. I have been coloring my hair with hi-lites & low-lites for many years and had no reactions. I have baby fine hair and I figured I’d give my hair a break and try a product that CLAIMS to have no ammonia, restore your hair back to virgin-like hair after 9 applications. It’s BS! I showed the stylist a pic of what I wanted – blonde hi-lites and low-lites. I ended up with redish-brown, golden crap on my entire head! One color! What the heck?!?! I went to a very top notch salon. The stylist had been doing hair for about 30 yrs. Needless to say, I came home and cried. I know it was the stylist’s fault but the color is crap too. The application process is brutal–once they apply it to your hair and right before they wash it out, they have to "emulsify" it to break down the oil so it washes out. This translates to vigorously massaging (not in a good way) your hair, furthering damaging it..I am now in the process of repairing my hair…I’m applying JF Lazartique’s shea butter mask overnight (I have his hair strengthening shampoo & conditioner too) and Kerastase’s Nectar Thermique to protect my hair from further damage of your dryer, etc. Both lines are AWESOME…and very similar. Good news is I got my money back…and I will be going to someone I know very well that can correct my hair. Just to clarify, there are only a select few salons that are offering INOA since it was introduced to the US in September 2009. It’s a gimmick! If you like blonde hi-lites, this product will not give it to you. The stylist also put "low-lites" in…both colors ended up meshing together and my hair just looks so dark and homely. Getting it fixed in a few days…just want to give it a break before I put it through more processing.

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  3. 3. pillbox1@charter.net 6:04 pm 06/13/2010

    Since using Inoa, I have found breakage in the hairline by my temples and forhead. Has there been evidence of Inoa causing this problem?

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  4. 4. pillbox1@charter.net 6:11 pm 06/13/2010

    Since using Inoa, I have found breakage in the hairline by my temples and forehead. Has there been evidence of Inoa causing this problem?

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  5. 5. hairMD 12:36 pm 01/20/2012

    Hello. I am a hair colorist and have used very close to every brand of color available in the US for the last 25 years. I have witnessed many changes in several lines of hair color. Because we are in an age of information, all of us can read about what is in our hair color. I am very well read on the chemistry of hair care and color. I have educated myself on the chemical terms and how these chemicals effect the hair.
    I recently tested INOA hair color on a client with 75% grey hair and colored her with INOA level 4. I was impressed on how well the MEA worked on the grey hair and the texture was very soft and shiny after drying. The entire process from start to finish is very different from other hair color i have used. the formulation, mixing ratios and manipulations are not typical. If a stylist is not schooled on the proper procedure of INOA, I can tell you, you will not have good results.
    To be fair, I have not used this product for lightening the hair.
    To address Sophie. I am always so sad to hear when a client has a bad experience with hair color. 99% of the time it is due to carlessness or miss information on the part of the colorist. Unfortunately, our industry does not have the standards that one might expect when chemicals are being mixed and used on the human body. Before using this product, I had to take the class and follow detailed instructions and become CERTIFIED. Had I not, and was given the color and mixed it as usual hair color, I would have made a serious mess of someones hair. It really sounds to me that your colorist did not know how to use the color.
    As far as breakage at the temples and hairline, that hair is very delicate hair and can break easily from a high alkaline color. One usually will find that on bleached hair. Most regular haircolor is just not strong enough to do that kind of damage, especially INOA. Many times when women lose hair due to natural bouts of shedding it will be in these areas. Look closly at the ends of the hair, are the like a blade of grass that seems to thin towards the end? or is it crumpled or split? many times those short hairs that you see are actually brand new hairs growing in.
    hope this helps.

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