Whether we buy it from a drug store or salon, hair dye can make a huge difference in how we feel about how we look – but how safe is it?

There are always questions about whether or not hair dyes increase the risk of cancer. At least two studies link permanent hair dyes to an increased chance of breast cancer in black women. There are also significant allergy risks associated with hair dye, and many people are affected by the fumes from the chemicals.

For this reason, postdoctoral fellow Claudia Battistella and researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago set out to invent a new type of hair dye with synthetic melanin that her laboratory has already tried for other uses such as skin protection.

“The idea of ​​using synthetic melanin as a hair dye came to my mind when I was talking to a friend and colleague, a visiting scientist from Italy. I started joking about it, but a few minutes later I was in the lab preparing the first experiment, ”she told Medical Daily.

Our body produces the pigment melanin, which gives us color in our hair, skin and iris. The loss of melanin with age leads to gray or white hair. So it stood to reason that the dye would have a much lower risk of allergic reactions and could avoid some of the harsher chemicals (like ammonia) that are often used as a base if the team could make synthetic melanin that would “stick” to the hair in traditional hair dye.

Lead researcher Nathan C. Gianneschi, PhD said, “The same molecules that your cells use to make these pigments can now be used outside of cells with our method. These are amino acids that are the building blocks of life. We use these amino acids and an enzyme to create pigment particles that are very similar to natural melanin. “

They recently published the results of their experiments in the journal Chemistry of Materials.

The process is similar to a normal salon dyeing process (although the paint may take longer to set), but it is milder and takes about 18 washes. The synthetic melanin coats hair fibers and can protect them from sun damage because melanin acts as a natural sunscreen. The research team has managed to make dramatic light-dark changes (from blonde to brown and red), and it can also be tinted from dark to light by adding a small amount of hydrogen peroxide to the mixture.

This color palette offers an advantage over henna, another more natural alternative that is limited to reds and oranges. While synthetic melanin can’t create green or blue, it can create a full spectrum of natural hair colors.

After perfecting their process and completing the trials, the researchers’ next step is to seek FDA approval to market these hair dyes at salons. This new generation of hair colors may be a safer alternative that can help those who have responded poorly to traditional dyes or just want a more natural approach to beauty.

Jenna Glatzer is the author or ghostwriter of more than 30 books, including Gratitude in Motion with Colleen Kelly Alexander.