Ammonia has always seemed as inextricable from permanent hair dye as graying is from middle age. Yet ammonia dries and fries hair, dulling it in a different way than those steely intruders.
That’s why companies have labored for years to create a concoction that wouldn’t rely on ammonia to blow open the hair shaft to deposit the color and excise gray. It’s also why, when word got out that beauty behemoth L’Oreal had succeeded, it was big news globally.
The L’Oreal Professionnel line was rolled out for testing last year and launched nationally in May.
It’s called Inoa (pronounced in-oh-uh), and the process and results are nothing short of revolutionary, said Jason Backe, head colorist for the New York and Washington, D.C., salons owned by celebrity stylist Ted Gibson. Backe has used Inoa on clients such as Anne Hathaway, Ashley Greene of “Twilight,” some of the “Real Housewives of D.C.” and Kate Gosselin, whose locks have turned from tiger-striped to blond via Inoa.
There’s about a 20 percent price premium for Inoa over other permanent hair coloring. But even non-celebrity clients aren’t complaining, Backe said.
“I’m not working for L’Oreal right now, but I’m just obsessed with Inoa,” Backe said. “It’s the first really predictable 100 percent ammonia-free hair color on the market. … There’s no burning on the scalp; even the most sensitive scalps are totally comfortable. There’s no odor. It smells like clay. And when you’re painting it onto the hair, it feels like a hair masque. It has this Greek yogurt texture. It’s funny how women will tell me that they didn’t realize how uncomfortable they used to be during hair coloring, until they used Inoa.”
Traditional permanent hair color is in a water and ammonia base. Because color molecules cling to water, ammonia was used to open the cuticle almost explosively, to force the color molecules out of their comfort zone and into the hair.
Inoa, which stands for Innovation No Ammonia, substitutes oil for water, and uses some MEA, or monoethanolamine.
MEA, often used in demi-permanent hair color, cracks opens the hair shaft gently, with less damage.
“Color molecules hate, hate, hate being in oil,” Backe said, “so color molecules will force themselves through a much smaller opening because they want to get out of oil and inside the hair shaft.”
A couple of smaller companies have come up with ammonia-free permanent hair colors. But they sometimes weighed down hair and didn’t deliver Inoa’s shine, said Tina Deeke, a color specialist at Maxine Salon in Chicago, a L’Oreal Professionnel flagship that was one of 200 salons nationally to test Inoa.
Some demi-permanent colors, which wash out gradually, also are ammonia-free. But demi-permanent formulas aren’t an option if you want to go blonder, only if you want to stay the same shade or go darker. Also, demi-permanent formulas don’t fully cover gray.
“I have 70 percent gray, and Inoa covers it 100 percent,” said Maxine Kroll, the mink-haired owner of Maxine.
Inoa, which will lighten color three levels and can be used for highlights, doesn’t stain the skin — as some ammonia dyes do, Kroll said, adding, “We feel clients are getting a week or two longer out of it.”
Like other permanent dyes, Inoa leaves a line of demarcation as roots grow out, so some clients still may prefer demi-permanent color formulas for gradual fading.
But Inoa wins over many clients with not only its gray coverage but also the youthful texture it gives hair, Kroll said.
“There’s a softness, which is not to be confused with limpness,” she said. “L’Oreal is saying that after nine applications, your hair will feel like virgin hair again.”