In the first installment of our “frequently asked questions” series, I will be shedding a little light on the rather confusing subject of ammonia and the increasingly popular option of ammonia-free color. We will discuss the good and the bad of both, delving into a bit of the science behind the subject. Living in a world of increasing consumer awareness, hopefully this helps feed your curiosity.
Generally recognizable as a cleaning agent, a lot of people are wondering what ammonia is doing in their hair color in the first place. I hope you have some protective goggles on hand because a whole lot of science is coming your way. Ammonia (known to her friends as NH3) has a lot going on, but the hair industry loves her because she is alkaline. If your memories of high school chemistry are a little fuzzy, alkaline refers to any medium between seven and fourteen on the pH scale. Still with me? The pH level of your hair naturally hovers around four, raising of the pH causes your hair shaft to swell. This swelling action opens up the hair cuticle (cuticle = outer/protective layer of hair shaft) and allows access to the cortex (cortex = inner/structural portion of hair shaft). To put it plainly, ammonia helps coloring agents gain entry into the cortex of your hair, which is where the magic of hair coloring takes place.
While raising your hair's pH is necessary to ensure saturated, long-lasting color - it can also be damaging. This is the reason for Ammonia's bad rap in the hair community. Essentially, ammonia does its job too well and lifts your hair's pH beyond the level required for color penetration. Ammonia-free colors attempt to eliminate unnecessary damage by replacing ammonia with a less-intense alkalizing agent (typically monoethanolamine). These ammonia-free options are able to open the cuticle of your hair just enough for coloring agents to sneak through, which does not eliminate damage altogether but does diminish damage considerably. You may be wondering, "If ammonia-free colors are so great, why to salons bother with 'regular' color?" good question!
Ammonia-free colors accomplish their goal of saving your hair from damage - but not without sacrifice. It is important to note the higher your hair’s pH is raised, the more open your cuticle becomes. Therefore, while ammonia-free colors are able to reduce the risk of damaging your hair by not raising its pH levels as high as ammonia, the same action also reduces your hair’s ability to absorb and retain the color. Ammonia-free color formulations have changed from their early days, many colors can now achieve up to 100% white coverage - which is quite a feat. However, without ammonia, coloring agents have a more difficult time nestling into the cortex of your hair meaning color may fade more quickly and may not adhere to stubborn hair.
Unfortunately, the hair community has yet to find a sacrifice-free option for hair coloring, but we still have our fingers crossed! “Regular” and ammonia-free colors have their advantages and disadvantages, which is why our salon decides to carry both. For those of you with a dry, easily irritated scalp or brittle, over processed hair; ammonia-free color may be the best option for you. If you have stubborn hair (you know who you are) “regular” color is still going to be your best bet. Luckily, this is a decision you do not have to make on your own, our expert hair stylists can help assess your hair and determine the fit for you!