Taking on Hair Color’s Bad Guy
Deidre Schoo for The New York Times
BREATHE INOA, the new L’Oréal Professionnel ammonia-free permanent hair dye, is massaged prior to shampooing at the Ted Gibson Salon in the Flatiron district.
By CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS
Published: March 10, 2010
PERMANENTLY dyeing hair goes hand in hand with damaging it. The process dries out hair and leaves it jagged. Ammonia — used to open the hair fiber so that dye molecules can nestle in — is as delicate as a can opener. It also smells horrid and sets delicate scalps afire.
A Second Solution (March 11, 2010)
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Deidre Schoo for The New York Times
THE MIX A batch of INOA dye, which is odorless and very oily.
So it’s not surprising that makers of lasting hair color have long sought an ammonia-free alternative that offers thorough gray coverage and a less unpleasant experience. Now, L’Oréal Professionnel is touting INOA, which stands for Innovation No Ammonia, as that game-changer, one on par, they say, with the advent of DVD’s or GPS.
With INOA, “hair is as smooth as it was before hair color,” said Paul Schiraldi, the vice president for marketing of L’Oréal Professionnel in the United States. If INOA catches on to the extent the company’s executives hope, Mr. Schiraldi said, “damage with coloring will be a thing of the past.”
Some salon colorists, who used to be skeptical that an ammonia-free dye could offer enviable results, adore INOA (pronounced in-oh-uh). A few celebrity hairstylists like the pink-shirted Ted Gibson switched to L’Oréal Professionnel partly to get first dibs on bringing INOA to their clientele. Even Eva Scrivo, a colorist and spokeswoman for Wella, a dye maker, is testing INOA in her Manhattan salon as part of the initial rollout to 200 handpicked salons. Come May, INOA, which can cost about 15 percent more than other lasting dyes, will be more widely available.
But is it truly an innovation for the roughly 38 million women nationwide who have their hair dyed professionally? Only time will tell if ammonia fumes in salons will go the way of smoking in Manhattan bars. INOA bills itself as a “revolution,” but it is not the first ammonia-free permanent color to grace these shores. So why hasn’t the idea gathered steam before?
It could be that L’Oréal Professionnel is the first to “remove ammonia and deliver amazing results” as Mr. Schiraldi put it. Or the company may just be the first with enough marketing muscle and broad distribution to get the graying masses (and colorists) to embrace a sea change.
“To say we don’t need ammonia in permanent hair color is a big deal,” said Lotus Abrams, the executive editor at American Salon magazine, a trade publication. For 50 years — if not longer — it’s been a given that lasting hair dye requires ammonia, so its ghastly odor must be endured. “When you go to the salon and it doesn’t smell, it’s just better for the customer, it’s better for salon staff.”
Some demi-permanent hair dyes “claim to be ammonia-free,” said Ms. Abrams, who tried INOA at no charge on Feb. 11 and reports that her golden brown hue has stayed true. “But they aren’t permanent.” That is, they gradually fade and don’t uniformly cover gray.
Demi-permanent dyes often use an ammonia alternative called MEA, or monoethanolamine, to more gently open the hair shaft. With MEA, it’s as if the cuticle is a door that’s slightly ajar, not swung wide open as it is with ammonia. That translates to less damage, depending on quantity.
Two colorists of note, Ms. Scrivo and Beth Minardi, urged women not to discount a demi-permanent ability to banish gray. For clients with dark brown hair with interspersed gray, Ms. Minardi, the color director at her namesake salon in Manhattan, has used a demi-permanent dye to turn the gray to a light brown. “It makes you look like you have $500 worth of highlights,” said Ms. Minardi, who is a spokeswoman for Joico, a maker of hair dyes. Ms. Scrivo said of demi-permanents, “There are many things a trained colorist can do to make a formulation a bit more lasting.”
As for permanent color, INOA, which uses some MEA and is applied to dry hair, looks like an oily yogurt once mixed. Its color dye molecules “don’t like oil” and are attracted to the water inside the hair, said Jo Blackwell-Preston, a color educator for L’Oréal Professionnel and owner of Dop Dop salon in SoHo, so they “force themselves inside your hair.”