Researchers Develop Melanin-Based Non-Toxic Natural Hair Dye

The new type of dye is non-toxic, sustainable, and is made using synthetic melanin.
Chris Young
The photo credit line may appear like thisArtem Makovskyi/iStock

Northwestern University researchers have developed a new spectrum of natural-looking hair colors by using enzymes to catalyze synthetic melanin.

Published on October 30 in the journal Chemistry of Materials, the researchers' new paper details their use of readily available melanin to create a healthier alternative to traditional hair dyes.


The power of melanin

"In humans, [melanin is] in the back of our eye to help with vision, it's in our skin to help with protecting skin cells from UV damage," Northwestern's Nathan Gianneschi, research lead for the paper and associate director for the International Institute for Nanotechnology explained in a press release.

"But birds also use it as a spectacular color display—peacock feathers are made of melanin entirely," he continued.

Melanin is produced by every type of organism, meaning it is a versatile and readily available material that can be easily experimented with in the lab.

In the typical hair dying process, stylists use bleach to remove melanin from hair. They then add ammonia and dye to penetrate the hair cuticles for permanent color.

A new, less toxic method

The researchers decided to try a different method: they replaced melanin with a synthetic version instead of removing it and deposited color on the surface instead of within the hair. They say that this is a more sustainable method for creating lasting colors. Preliminary tests revealed the potential for the colored layer to persist through several washes.

"The dyeing process is similar from a stylist's point of view, but these conditions are milder, so they take a little longer," Claudia Battistella, the paper's first author, explained. "Though it could be combined with a base, it's not necessary to use one, and there is no need for chemical pigments. Because we already have melanin in our bodies, we believe we won't have allergic reactions to it."

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The research provides the hair styling industry with an opportunity to move away from its reliance on chemicals that can be toxic and even carcinogenic to our bodies and cause allergic reactions in a large number of the population.