With growing concern over the long-term health implications of exposure to ammonia and other chemicals associated with permanent hair color, use of natural henna and indigo to color hair has been on the rise in local salons. But these natural dyes are limited to darkening or coating hair with a reddish-brown or blue-black. They do no color lifting, leaving those who want lighter hair having to choose between health or vanity.
L’Oreal Professionals has introduced a new form of permanent hair color called INOA, short for "Innovation No Ammonia." It’s being called a game changer by local hairstylists who attended a launch demonstration this month at the Hawaii Design Center, because it not only colors without the stinging smell of ammonia, but is also said to leave hair stronger and healthier.
Given the plethora of hair weakened by color, perms, straightening and other processes, "virgin" hair is a prized commodity, and Salon Blanc co-owner Alan Vuong immediately posted the information to his Facebook friends, saying, "Nine applications (of INOA) will turn your hair back to its natural state."
After the demonstration he said, "Every client I’ve converted has said they love the feeling of their hair being so soft. It’s been a while since I’ve been as excited about color like this."
Vuong’s salon and Kailua’s Fix salon were the first in Honolulu to be certified to use INOA. Unlike other pro products that can be openly purchased by salons, L’Oreal requires INOA users to be certified – involving a half-day, hands-on workshop – because INOA’s oil-delivery system differs from products currently on the market.
After the demo, many others started signing up for certification. Etch Salon’s Richie Miao said, "I heard about it but wanted to see it. I like that they focus on the integrity of hair. It really makes it nice and soft."
Performing demonstrations at the design center was visiting colorist Jet Rhys, an international educator and eponymous owner of a San Diego salon, who was the former color director for Vidal Sassoon, working in New York and London, including on the hair of Sassoon himself.
Her salon was among 200 nationwide chosen to test INOA before the product’s release.
"I’ve been teaching for many years, and this is a revolution in hair color," she said. Hair color and ammonia have gone hand-in-hand for 101 years, she explained, and it’s only recently that technology has advanced far enough to make ammonia-free permanent hair color possible.
"If people have a choice between ammonia and ammonia-free and it works, they want the ammonia-free," she said. "There’s no itching, there’s no tingling, there’s no smell."
She said she had a new client three years ago who developed an allergic reaction to permanent hair color, and Rhys made it her mission to stay on the lookout for a color product that would work for her.
"I was so happy to be able to call her up and say I found something she could try. She was nervous, but we went through all the patch tests and nothing happened. When she left, she was floating. She felt and looked 15 years younger."
ALTHOUGH INOA has similar limitations to henna and indigo, covering a range of natural hair colors – meaning no crazy purples, pinks or blonds, unless you’re already blondish – it will take hair up to three levels lighter or darker. To compare, the change from black to blond represents a change of 10 levels. Depending on the salon, the cost of INOA is generally about $10 to $20 more than your normal cost of color.
Salon Blanc co-owner Mia Kim said she stopped using permanent hair color on clients and herself 2 1/2 years ago while pregnant with her daughter. That’s when, on the advice of her doctor, she switched to using gentler semipermanent color, although it still works with a small amount of ammonia.
At that point she had been coloring her hair for about 13 years, since moving here from Korea.
"This country is amazing. You can do anything you want," she said. "In Korea if I wanted to change my hair color, everyone would be shocked. I wanted a blond brown, aggressive color, so I did that and it was so painful. That’s all I remember. I thought my hair was gonna fall out. But I got the color I wanted and thought that to get the color, you just have to expect (some suffering) and put up with it.
"I’ve been doing color for 10 years, and all of a sudden some of my clients are complaining about sensitivity and I’m thinking it may be because of the ammonia," she said. "We’ve used ammonia for a hundred years, and most people are doing just fine, but everyone is moving in the direction of being environmentally friendly and safer. I was so thrilled and excited when I heard about INOA, I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to try it.
"It’s even better than I thought because each time you use it, your hair becomes better, and that’s my dream come true," Kim said. "I care about preserving and maintaining my clients’ hair. It doesn’t matter if you have a beautiful haircut or a beautiful color; if your hair’s frizzy, it doesn’t look nice."
AMMONIA CAN be found in household cleaners and is toxic to aquatic animals. In humans it can irritate eyes and mucous membranes.
In hair color it serves as an aggressive way to blast open the hair’s cuticles to receive color, the equivalent of swinging a door open. Over time it leaves hair brittle.
In place of ammonia, INOA uses MEA, or monoethanolamine, to gently open the hair’s cuticle. Although other products have used MEA, those have been water-based, which attracts colorants, causing pigment to stay with the water instead of moving into the hair’s cortex. In recent years, L’Oreal learned to combine colorants with oil, which repels the colorants, pushing it into the hair’s cortex.
"Before, when we rinsed out the hair, I would see purples, reds, all the colors coming out," Kim said. "With INOA the water is milky white. As a colorist that’s what I like to see, because it means all the color is going into the hair, not going down the drain."