Updated April 30, 2021
“Working in a salon over the last 30 years, I’ve often heard clients say, ‘I only want color without ammonia used on my hair,’ and I ask why? Many times, they can’t answer the question. Once I explain the difference between color with ammonia and ammonia free hair color, they are more open to my professional recommendation,” explains colorist Troy Payne.
Let’s take a minute to understand the differences between permanent color (with ammonia) and demi-permanent color (without ammonia) and to help you understand if one is better for your hair.
Ammoniated Hair Dye
“Ammonia has 2 main functions. The first is to swell the hair, lifting the cuticle and allowing access to the cortex of the hair,” (where hair dyes develop). “The second is to react with the peroxide in the developer to produce oxygen that will remove natural melanin in the hair to lighten it as well as fuel the oxidative color reaction of the hair dye.” Joe Kassman, L’Oreal Hair Color Chemist
Hair color with ammonia is the best option in many hair color services such as covering gray, lightening your natural hair, and creating vibrant red results. If you are trying to completely cover your gray hair your best option is to use a color that contains ammonia. The reasons are simple. Gray, or non-pigmented white, hair provides no depth and is often resistant to hair coloring. Ammonia works efficiently to open the hair cuticle allowing the color to be absorbed deep into the hair fiber where hair dyes develop. This gives better gray coverage by providing both depth to the hair and long-lasting results.
Ammonia is natural and is a key ingredient for lightening natural hair and providing vibrancy. It works with peroxide to help remove melanin while hair dyes develop. It’s through this lightening process that hair dyes can provide vibrant results. For example, a bright copper shade will appear as auburn when placed on brown hair, but as a rich vibrant copper when placed on blonde hair.
Permanent color will last multiple shampoos and will grow out with a strong regrowth (roots) that needs to be touched up, on average, every 6 weeks.
Ammonia-Free Hair Dye
“I see ammonia-free permanent color advertised all the time,” you say. That is true. However, there is still an alkalizing agent in those formulas. In most instances, the ammonia is replaced with an ammonia derivative such as MEA. “I think that people often forget that ammonia is a compound that can be found in nature. They read a few articles or see marketing ads and suddenly they believe that ammonia is ‘bad’ and therefore anything without ammonia is ‘good’’, says colorist Deb Rosenberg. When haircolor companies such as Madison Reed or eSalon claim to have permanent haircolor results without ammonia, the first thing that I ask is, ‘What else are they using? What else is in there as the ammonia substitute?’. Chances are whatever it is, it’s not as efficient, effective or easy on the hair fiber as using a low level of ammonia.
Ammonia substitutes will not swell the hair as efficiently as ammonia, therefore the dyes do not have the capability of penetrating as deeply into the fiber. Permanent haircolors without this is key, natural ingredient will often fall short on delivering full gray coverage, lightening the natural hair and providing vivid color results.
So when is it OK to have a color without ammonia? “When you are not looking for permanent hair color results,” explains Rosenberg. “Demi-permanent colors have dyes that are developed for a shorter length of time, with a low-level oxidant, that stay closer to the surface of the hair. For these reasons a demi-permanent color can only blend away gray, will not lighten the hair, and will fade more quickly than a permanent color.”
Demi-permanent hair color is a great option for people who do not have a lot of gray or for people who want to go darker. Plus, it’s the ideal product for highlighted, bleached or chemically treated hair. Generally speaking, demi-permanent hair color fades out of the hair gradually with shampooing and does not create a strong line as the hair grows. This is a major perk for someone new to hair color or who wants something that requires low maintenance.
There are benefits to both hair color with ammonia and hair color without ammonia. It is completely dependent on what your natural hair color is and your desired outcome. When coloring your hair at home, it is always best to connect with one of Color&Co’s licensed expert colorists for a free video consultation to determine what type of hair color is best for you.