How Do We Define "Non Toxic" in the Hair Industry?

What do words even mean?

How Do We Define "Non Toxic" in the Hair Industry?

What do words even mean?

What does “non toxic” actually mean?

To answer that accurately we have to not only define toxic, nontoxic, and toxicity, but we need to understand these terms as well. Obviously there are loads of contexts that these words can be used in but the context here is hair care, hair services, hair products, and salon industry marketing.


non·tox·ic /nänˈtäksik/1
adjective: non-toxic
not poisonous or toxic
“nontoxic waste”
“a nontoxic varnish”

synonyms: nonpoisonous, innocuous, harmless, benign, safe, nonirritating, hypoallergenic

antonyms: toxic

tox·ic /ˈtäksik/2
adjective: toxic
1 poisonous.
“the dumping of toxic waste”
1.1 relating to or caused by poison.
“toxic hazards”
1.2 very bad, unpleasant, or harmful.
“a toxic relationship”

synonyms: poisonous, venomous, virulent, noxious, dangerous, destructive, harmful, unsafe, malignant, injurious, pestilential, pernicious, environmentally unfriendly;

antonyms: nontoxic, harmless, safe

tox·ic·i·ty /täkˈsisədē/3
the quality of being toxic or poisonous.
noun: ‘the toxicity of a drug depends on its dosage’
count noun: ‘no toxicities or adverse reactions have been reported’

Understand Toxic Effects

Essentially non toxic would be something that does not create a toxicity response, reaction, or disruption with your body’s systems, acute or chronic in a typically situation of usage. But most toxic products do produce an acute or chronic symptom, some we may haven’t even thought to attribute to chemical use and exposure.

This information should be shared with every human, not just hair stylists, it is valuable to know that simple house hold products could literally be the reason to your weird symptoms or chronic illnesses. I would have been more careful and made the switch to non toxic sooner if I had known the side effects of exposure.

While researching this topic I found a very well written and easy to understand article from Cornel University on what Toxicity actually is and the different categories of toxicity. I would try to explain it but truly I feel like I wouldn’t do it justice so here is an excerpt from it. (Emphasis mine)

Toxicity is a general term used to indicate adverse effects produced by poisons. These adverse effects can range from slight symptoms like headaches or nausea, to severe symptoms like coma and convulsions and death.

Toxicity is normally divided into four types, based on the number of exposures to a poison and the time it takes for toxic symptoms to develop. The two types most often referred to are acute and chronic. Acute toxicity is due to short-term exposure and happens within a relatively short period of time, whereas chronic toxicity is due to long-term exposure and happens over a longer period.

Most toxic effects are reversible and do not cause permanent damage, but complete recovery may take a long time. However, some poisons cause irreversible (permanent) damage. Poisons can affect just one particular organ system or they may produce generalized toxicity by affecting a number of systems. Usually the type of toxicity is subdivided into categories based on the major organ systems affected. Some of these are listed in Table 1. Individual Toxicological Information Briefs (TIBs) are available which more fully explain skin and reproductive toxicities. Another is available which covers the formation of tumors and cancer.

Because the body only has a certain number of responses to chemical and biological stressors, it is a complicated business sorting out the signs and symptoms and determining the actual cause of human disease or illness. In many cases, it is impossible to determine whether an illness was caused by chemical exposure or by a biological agent (like a flu virus). A history of exposure to a chemical is one important clue in helping to establish the cause of illness, but such a history does not constitute conclusive evidence that the chemical was the cause. To establish this cause/effect relationship, it is important that the chemical be detected in the body (such as in the blood stream), at levels known to cause illness. If the chemical produces a specific and easily detected biochemical effect (like the inhibition of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase), the resulting biochemical change in the body may be used as conclusive evidence.

People who handle chemicals frequently in the course of their jobs and become ill and need medical attention should tell their physicians about their previous exposure to chemicals.

Table 1. General toxicity categories4

CategorySystem AffectedCommon Symptoms
respiratorynose, trachea, lungsirritation, coughing, choking, tight chest
gastrointestinalstomach, intestinesnausea, vomiting, diarrhea
renalkidneyback pain, urinating more or less than usual
neurologicalbrain, spinal cordheadache, dizziness, behavior confusion, depression, coma, convulsions
hematologicalbloodanemia (tiredness, weakness)
dermatologicalskin, eyesrashes, itching, redness, swelling
reproductiveovaries, testes, fetusinfertility, miscarriage

Your Use & Knowledge of Chemical

So many of us stylists were not at all taught how to use chemicals safely, I never had heard or seen an educator using a respirator, or gloves when they should have been. Any time I’ve brought that up most stylists reply, “I don’t want to scare my clients” — shouldn’t they be scared though? Shouldn’t you be scared if you don’t know how a chemical could effect you? We are working with chemical that can literally alter our life forever and clients lives. They can give us cancer with chronic use, they can re-write our DNA.

Now take a minute and reflect on your use of chemicals in your career, and every little stomach ache, headache, flu, hormone imbalance, weird random symptom that has at some point disrupted your life.

Have you ever told your Doctor that you work with chemical?

This should be asked by doctors, no ones ever asked me that though. Even though I had debilitating endometrosis that lead to a hysterectomy, chronic migraines, and unexplained hives over my stomach and shoulders. I didn’t ever think to bring this up to my doctor, because I didnt know these ingredients were even in my color, and at the time I was using lines within lines that were marketed as “organic, natural, vegan, ammonia free”.

I had been working with Resorcinol, PPD, Ammonia, synthetic fragrances, all toxic chemicals!

Synthetic fragrances carry such a heavy load because of the chemicals that various manufactures hide in their “proprietary” blends under the label of fragrance. These are chemicals other countries in Europe have ban from similar use.

The FDA cannot enforce the ban on these chemicals because they legally don’t have the right to know which chemicals are in a companies fragrance. And get this companies that are looking to get their product on the market for mass sale and want the FDA to approve it are the ones that pay for their own study on their products, yup! If you thought they were independent studies its quiet a disappointment to find out that if you have money, you can get away with murder, quite literally.

I hope to write another article on synthetics soon because its a huge subject, with a lot of opinions and perspectives. But until then I’ll just say if a company can’t be transparent about their product ingredients I avoid them. I get you don’t want someone to steal your signature scent, but thats not worth a life. I only use products that are essential oil based. And if I have to use a synthetic I make sure I protect myself as best as I can from it.

One of my major frustrations is companies like Davines, Kevin Murphy, Aveda, Wella, Schwatzkopf, Kenra, Toni & Guy, Goldwell, Joico, I could go on… Use buzz words like “natural, organic, naturally derived, ammonia free” but still have resorcinol, and ppd’s even in their sub-lines, you know the ones you thought were better that were totally geared towards us holistic stylists.

If your looking for a cleaner color line I will be sharing more about the color line I am currently using and have had amazing results with, better than all the lines combined that I have used in the past.

Where are you at in this? I’d love to hear from you below 👇🏽

It’s not just hair, it’s people.

Whitney Murphy
Educator, Salon Owner, BTC

Changing the industry through education and community. It’s more than hair, it’s people.