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Clean hair, clean air

Looking for a healthier hair-care experience? Ditch the ammonia-based colors — and think about washing your hair just once or twice a week. GreenDAY's Marisa Belger gets these tips and more from hairstylist John Masters.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Having trouble keeping up with our increasingly organic, eco-friendly world? Let me be your guide! From all-natural makeup to the best in eco-conscious jeans, I will test and review the products and treatments that are best for you and the planet.

Some people are born with unbelievably fitting names, and John Masters is at the top of the list. The veteran hairstylist has been a pioneer in the field of organic hair care for 21 years: He is a master of the toxin-free coif.

Masters began his organic career in the 1980s by inviting clients into his home to experience chemical-free styling. He has since translated his expertise into a highly successful “clean-air” salon (more on that below) in Manhattan and an ever-expanding line of luxurious hair and skin care products that are free from all toxins ( Masters recently took some time out of his busy day — he was preparing to teach a group of visiting Danish stylists about organic hair care and perfecting his latest product: a magical leave-in treatment that uses an organic seaweed extract to replenish shine and moisture — to chat with me about natural hair care.

As a hairstylist — a decidedly “unorganic” profession — in the 1980s, what inspired you to seek out chemical-free treatments and products? When I went to cosmetology school in the 1970s, the dangers of what we were using in hair salons wasn’t even a passing thought. Then, in the 1980s [using organic products] was an extension of my lifestyle — I was eating organically and trying to do healthier things. I realized that it didn’t make sense to go into a conventional hair salon and work with toxic chemicals.

I started freelancing in 1987 and just used herbal-based organic color. I dropped perms and everything like that. I also became interested in organic because I saw my friends dying of AIDS. I thought, “Why wait until you’re sick before you change? The younger you start the better.” When I started doing hair this way, people really thought I was weird. Now things are catching up. Twenty-one years later I can’t imagine if I had been in the salon the entire time, four to five days a week, eight to 10 hours a day — that can’t be good for the lungs.

What does it mean to be a clean-air salon? We only offer herbal-based, ammonia-free hair treatments, no hairspray, no nail treatments, and no products that have toxic fumes. Permanent waves and relaxers have a lot of toxic chemicals. Nail polish has toluene and formaldehyde, and conventional hair color has ammonia — it’s not only sitting on your scalp, but you’re also breathing it in.

If you go to the grocery store and pick up a bottle of ammonia it says “Do not inhale.” The fact is, you can avoid these dangerous chemicals and have great results. And there are some things that we won’t do at the salon. If you have black hair and you want to be platinum blond, we won’t do that at John Masters. You would be burning your scalp and destroying your hair.

Let’s talk hair color. Is it possible to color your hair naturally? Yes. The herbal-based, ammonia-free color lines have proven to be safer and not quite as bad as conventional hair color. They have no parabens and a low amount of PPD (p-Phenylenediamine), the coloring agent in conventional hair color that is thought to be carcinogenic. They also contain organic essential oils. You can probably find some of these hair colors in health food stores.

What tips can you share for a safer and healthier hair-care experience?
1) Ask your colorist to use ammonia-free hair color or semipermanent, which usually does not contain ammonia. Just note that semipermanent color can add warmth to dark hair, but it can’t lighten hair.

2) Buy hair color at your local health food store and bring it to your salon. Most stylists should be comfortable with using your color.

3) Use organic apple cider vinegar as a natural softener and clarifier. Put a couple capfuls in eight ounces of water, dump it over your head and massage in. It adds shine and clarifies gunk. After any chemical service, like a perm or color, you should always use apple cider vinegar to bring hair and scalp back to its proper pH level. And using it weekly helps to keep color from fading.

4) Don’t overwash hair. You won’t need to wash your hair every day if you use products that are natural. You will actually dry it out by washing too much and then you’ll need to use a heavy conditioner again. Instead of washing every day, try every other day. You should aim to wash your hair just once or twice a week. If you wash your hair because you need to style it in the morning, try wetting it down when you wake up and running some conditioner through it (conditioner will get out grime and residue).

5) When you do wash your hair, massage your scalp with the shampoo. You don’t need to run it through the hair, which leads to tangles and knots. Concentrate on the roots and the shampoo will clean your hair as it rinses out.

6) Follow with a cold rinse to increase shine — it closes the cuticle of the hair shaft and reflects light better.

Do you think American hair salons will ever follow your “clean-air” model? If people start asking their hairdressers questions and requesting ammonia-free products, eventually salon owners will respond. If they say those products don’t work, it’s not true. I’ve been using them successfully for 17 years.

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.