I have a confession to make… I used to be obsessed with dying my hair. From the age of about 13 until I was in my mid-20’s I was frequently changing my hair color. I grew up listening to Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and I loved how they have both always been fashion chameleons. Switching up my look was fun and kept things interesting.
As fun as this was what I didn’t realize at the time was that the dyes I was using contained some harmful ingredients that were having a pretty big impact on my health. The more I dyed my hair the more I began to realize that the skin and scalp irritation, hair fall out, low energy, etc that I was experiencing was partially due to the ingredients in my hair dye. Most commercial hair dye contains harsh chemicals that are absorbed through the scalp and right into the bloodstream.
Just as with natural cosmetics the trend towards more natural dyes is not some fad or passing phase. There are reasons why more and more companies are beginning to change their formulations and the ingredients they have been using in favor of more natural ones.
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Types of Hair Dye
I wanted to quickly go over the different types of dye for anyone that is new to coloring or has never colored their hair but is considering it.
This is pretty much just as it sounds. Semi or demi-permanent hair colors just kind of stain the hair and are temporary. It does not contain ammonia and does not require being mixed with a developer. It usually lasts for about 4-12 shampoos. These dyes are a good option if you don’t want to make a long-term commitment to coloring your hair or if you just want to try out a certain shade. This type of dye is usually less harsh than permanent dyes.
Semi-permanent dyes only deposit color and cannot be used to lighten the hair as it does not contain any bleaching agents.
Permanent hair dyes provide full-coverage long-lasting color. This type of dye is especially ideal for covering grey hair. Most commercial brands contain ammonia and it does require a developer (a product that contains hydrogen peroxide, which is what opens up the hair cuticle and allows the color to be deposited). In general, a permanent color will remain on your hair until your hair grows out, exposing the roots. Usually, this takes 4-6 weeks before you need to get your roots done. During this 4-6 week window(usually after or around 28 shampoos), is when the permanent color will begin to fade.
Natural vs Chemical Dyes –
Most hair coloring products rely on the use of harsh chemical agents like hydrogen peroxide or ammonia to first strip the hair which allows it to “take”, or absorb, the chemical color that has been applied to it. These harsh chemical agents weaken and destroy the hair shaft over time. In addition, many of the chemical hair colorants use various petroleum or coal tar-based ingredients that have been found, over time, to increase the long-term risk of various forms of cancer.
On the other hand, natural and/or organic hair color products are made with plant pigments, oils, and extracts such as –
- Black Tea
- Madder Root
- Jojoba Oil
However, the word “natural” on a bottle of hair color doesn’t necessarily mean chemical-free; some brands commonly found in natural food stores rely on peroxide to prepare the hair for their colorants and they may still contain artificial dyes. So, just to be sure – always check the ingredients!
Bad Ingredients to Avoid
If you regularly color your hair here are some of the key ingredients that you should avoid especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. These are the worst offenders when it comes to the ways that they can impact your health.
Paraphenylenediamine (PPD) –
This is a chemical substance that is commonly used in permanent hair color and other dyes. PPD in hair color is most often used in the dark shades because it provides long-lasting color. PPD hair dye is used in both professional salon and at-home color because it is an effective ingredient in coloring darker hair and for making the darker colors really take hold of and last longer. It is also commonly used in temporary tattoos, dark-colored cosmetic products, and even in textile dyes and printing inks.
Despite how effective it is in coloring hair, PPD has a longstanding reputation for negative side effects. Most commonly, these reactions can range from mild skin irritation to more severe allergic contact dermatitis. Sensitive individuals may experience — skin inflammation and irritation commonly referred to as eczema.
These symptoms may first be noticed on the upper eyelids or rims of the ears after application of the hair color. This was one of the first things I noticed when coloring my hair. These symptoms often calm down or go away after the dye is fully oxidized, but any type of rash and swelling is uncomfortable, and unnecessary even if only for a brief period of time. In more serious cases, there may be a significant amount of reddening and swelling on the scalp and/or the face. For some, an allergy to PPD can result in widespread contact dermatitis, as well as hives and, in rare severe cases, anaphylaxis depending on how severe the reaction is.
In addition to individual users experiencing skin irritations from having their hair colored with permanent color containing PPD, professional hair stylists who frequently work with PPD often develop dermatitis on their hands. This can occasionally spread to other parts of the body such as the arms and even the chest.
This is why it is important that anyone who is planning on coloring their hair should complete a patch test. This is easily done following the recommended directions in the packaging to determine their sensitivity to a product to avoid potential allergic reactions, and of course, hairdressers or anyone really should always use gloves when working with hair color containing PPD.
Resorcinol (dihydroxybenzene) –
Benzene aka resorcinol is a natural constituent of crude oil or petroleum and is a basic petrochemical. It is made in a lab where scientists combine benzene along with other chemicals to make resorcinol, or they may fuse various resins with potassium hydroxide to make it. It then works as a coloring agent, antiseptic, disinfectant, and anti-itch agent.
This ingredient is not only used to produce dyes, but also as a treatment for skin diseases like psoriasis, eczema, and acne, and as an anti-dandruff agent which is scary seeing as it is toxic. In hair color products, resorcinol works with other chemicals in the formula to provide permanent color.
Benzene is known to increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses.
Is a preservative that kills off fungi, yeasts, and bacteria and it’s also used in herbicides, floor waxes, polymers, color photography, latex paints, cutting oils, adhesives, copying paper, and inks. While this may not sound bad – this chemical slowly releases toxic formaldehyde, which may cause tissue irritation, affect the immune system and has been linked to cancer.
The same chemical used in cleaning products can also be found in hair dye and it is one of the worst offenders found in the beauty business. Ammonia is put into hair color in order to open and bust through the hair cuticle to deposit color. A consequence of this harsh and forced action is damage to the hair cuticle that ultimately degrades the hair’s overall structural integrity.
The result of this over time is dry, brittle, unhealthy looking hair. I know I have experienced my own fair share of this and let’s be honest – no one wants to pay good money for a service that, in the end, leaves their hair in worse shape than when they started. Another consideration when using products containing this ingredient is the negative health effects that it can have on you, and your hair stylist. During the application process, you are exposing yourself to ammoniated color.
Effects of Ammonia include irritation to the:
- Respiratory System in general
- Higher concentrations, ammonia can cause burns to the skin
So, this is an ingredient that is best avoided altogether.
Lead Acetate –
Used primarily in progressive or rather permanent hair dyes, lead acetate is an inorganic salt. This ingredient has been linked to many serious health issues and is currently banned for use throughout the European Union. Canada also prohibited its use in cosmetic products as of 2005. In the United States, the only major limitation placed on lead acetate is that it is not for use in cosmetics used around the eye area and products that contain it must be labeled with an FDA warning.
Lead acetate is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) and has also been known to cause issues in reproductive health. Some research has shown it to cause mutations and birth defects. That can’t be good! Also, it has caused some fertility problems in both men and women when studied by doctors and scientists, but information is somewhat limited on these problems, however as someone with PCOS, I strongly believe this to be true.
Other names for lead acetate include –
- lead diacetate
- acetic acid
- lead salt, and dibasic lead acetate, just to name a few.
And of course, other ingredients to avoid include parabens, phthalates, artificial FD&C dyes, artificial fragrances, etc.
Key Brands to Avoid –
The following brands use the above-listed ingredients in their dyes and they test on animals…
Now that I have gone through the scary stuff (sorry if it all seemed doom and gloom) you are probably thinking that you now have to give up coloring your hair. Luckily, that’s not true. You can definitely continue to dye your hair.
Some helpful tips:
- If you get your hair professionally colored just be sure to check with your stylist as to what ingredients are contained in the dyes they use.
- The information may even be available on your salon’s official website so you could check there first.
- If it turns out that they do use products containing the above ingredients then it is probably a good idea to switch to another salon that uses organic hair dye. More and more of these are popping up all the time.
- Highlights – having your hair highlighted is a good option since the dye does not touch the scalp thus making the overall exposure limited.
- You can always switch to at-home hair color that is made with safe natural and organic ingredients. 😀
Coloring Your Hair at Home
Box Hair Dye
This is something I have done many times. As much as I love going to a salon dying my own hair at home has been a fun experience as well. But there are definitely some things to look at prior to delving into using box hair dye.
Pros of Box Hair Dye –
- Affordability – having your hair professionally colored can be very expensive. Coloring your own hair is much more affordable.
- Convenience – sometimes it’s nice to not have to leave the comfort of your own home.
- Control over ingredients – when you buy the dye you have the option to read all of the ingredients listed on the box and can, therefore, decide whether or not you want to put those ingredients on your body.
- It’s fun!
Cons of Using Box Hair Dye –
- Stains and Mess – it can be messy and if you are not careful you can end up with stains on your skin, clothing, and household objects.
- Unpredictable results – sometimes the color results can be less than desirable. This is why it is really important to do a strand test before going full steam ahead and applying color to your entire head. Depending on the condition and texture of your hair results can vary a lot. My hair for example really sucks up color and pulls red and orange very easily as well. So, if I want to darken my hair I know to choose 1-2 shades lighter than I think I should in order to achieve the color I want and if I lighten my hair I have to use a toner that will minimize brassiness. I gained this knowledge by doing strand tests (well not every single time… Hehe…).
Best Natural Hair Dye Brands
Based on the above information and my own personal experiences here are my top picks for the best natural and organic hair dyes available –
This is the most natural and non-toxic dye on the market and is, therefore, my #1 choice. It has a rating of 0 on Think Dirty and a rating of 1 on EWG’s Skin Deep Database (which for those of you that don’t know is the best rating a product can get).
It is made with 100% premium henna –
Henna is a natural plant that has been used to dye hair and textiles going back to ancient Egyptian times. It coats each hair shaft with a natural, semi-permanent protein called hennatannic acid. Since the henna coats and seals the hair shaft, it helps protect the hair from the damaging effects of sun, salt, chlorine, wind, and pollution in the environment.
It can help minimize split ends and frizzy hair. In addition to protecting the hair shaft, henna also tightens the hair cuticle which creates a more solid surface that reflects light; the result is gleaming, lustrous shiny hair.
Rather than producing really dramatic color changes, henna enhances and deepens your existing color. The darker your natural color, the less drastic the change will be. Because the color from henna is transparent or kind of “see-through” henna cannot lighten dark hair; it will, however, add highlights to dark hair and can darken the color of lighter hair. It’s very dimensional which is one of the reasons I love using it.
This brand offers quite a wide range of colors in various shades of red, brown, Auburn, and even black.
2. Madison Reed
This is the closest hair color kit I have found to salon-quality minus the nasty ingredients.
Each kit includes the following –
- 1 tube of hair color
- 1 bottle of developer
- 1 packet of barrier cream (to prevent staining of the skin)
- 1 set of gloves and 1 plastic hair cap
Features of this hair dye include –
- Provides long-lasting, luxurious, color that looks and feels healthy
- Free from: PPD, phthalates, ammonia, resorcinol, parabens, and gluten
- Made with nutrient-rich keratin, argan oil, and ginseng root extract
- 100% gray coverage
- The thick cream color helps provide no drips and no mess
- Smells great!
- Expert colorists are available for free consultations through their website.
Nature Tints do not contain – Ammonia, Parabens, Resorcinol, DEA, Formaldehyde, SLS/SLES, Propylene Glycol, Silicone, Mineral oils, Colour stripping salts, GMO ingredients, or Gluten. They are vegan-friendly and cruelty-free.
Naturtint is the first naturally better permanent hair color formulated with active plant-based ingredients that provide optimum color and care for healthy hair. Provides permanent full-coverage color.
• No Ammonia
• No Parabens
• No Silicones
• No Paraffin
• No Mineral Oils
• No Heavy Metals
• No Artificial Fragrances
• No SLS
• No Formaldehyde Derivatives
The active plant-based ingredients protect and regenerate hair fibers, helping to restore lost vitality and shine, even in hair that has been damaged by aggressive coloring processes and treatments. This brand is also cruelty-free.
So, just to recap –
- Always check the ingredients either at your salon or on the box of hair dye itself.
- Do a patch test
- Do a strand test
Natural DIY Hair Color
If you’re really into DIY there are a few safe natural ways to enhance your hair color at home using ingredients found in most kitchens. *Disclaimer* I am not a professional hairdresser so please keep this in mind. These are merely suggestions and you should always use caution when trying something like this at home.
Lighten Your Hair –
The following ingredients are known to help lighten or bleach the hair gradually over time. Since they are natural and are not actual bleach you won’t necessarily see drastic results right away. These work best on light brown to dark blonde hair. If you have medium to dark hair it may go orange as you lighten it. As with any hair coloring method always do a strand test first!
- Lemon Juice
- Raw Honey
- Turmeric (adds warm golden tones)
- Chamomile Tea and oil
- Hydrogen Peroxide
- Baking Soda
- Apple Cider Vinegar (may add warm tones)
Using hydrogen peroxide and baking soda definitely seems to provide the fastest results from the research I have done. You can read more about how to safely use this method on the Bargain Babe’s website. She wrote a pretty extensive article on this that provides lots of great tips.
You can make a lightening and conditioning hair mask by combining Raw Honey, Lemon Juice, Turmeric (optional), and Olive Oil. I can’t give an exact recipe for this since the proportions vary depending on the length and thickness of your hair. This can be applied to dry hair. Coat the hair thoroughly and then wrap in plastic wrap or put a plastic shower cap on your hear and them wrap a warm towel around it. Leave on for 15-40 minutes and then shampoo and condition as normal.
Or you can simply mix 1 cup pure lemon juice with 1 cup distilled water in a spray top bottle and spritz it onto clean hair. This method is heat activated so you can either let your hair dry naturally outdoors in the sunshine or if you don’t want to risk UV damage to your skin, simply use a hairdryer. I wouldn’t recommend using this method more often than 3 times per week. Always deep condition your hair afterward to help prevent it from drying out or becoming damaged.
Darken Your Hair –
If you want to enhance the brown or dark tones in your hair you can use the following –
- Black Tea
- Rosemary Essential Oil
- Rosewood Essential Oil
- Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Now please notice that I said these help to enhance your hair. The above will not dye your hair dark if your hair is light. This is more for anyone with a naturally medium to deep hair color or for those looking to reduce brassy tones.
You can make a concoction similar to the one above that uses lemon juice but instead, use darkening ingredients.
Mix equal parts strongly brewed black coffee, strong black tea, a few drops of rosemary or rosewood essential oil (optional). Pour this mixture all over the hair after you have shampooed and conditioned as usual. Leave on for 15 minutes and then rinse or pour into a spray top bottle and spritz into clean damp hair and allow to air dry. This will help to stain the hair a deeper color. The exact proportions depend on the length of your hair.
Or make a conditioning mask by mixing equal parts strong black coffee and yogurt with a tablespoon or two of unsweetened cocoa powder and some raw honey or coconut oil. Again the proportions depend on hair length. Slather onto dry or damp hair and cover with a shower cap or plastic wrap and leave in for 15-40 minutes and then wash and style your hair as usual.
This probably goes without saying but just in case – please make sure the coffee and/or tea have cooled off before applying to your head. I don’t want anyone scalding themselves.
Add Warm Tones to Your Hair –
If you want to boost the red tones in your hair try the following –
- Hibiscus Powder or Tea
Just add any one or a combination of the above to any of the recipe suggestions already given if you want to add red or warm tones to your hair. Do strand tests and have fun experimenting!
What’s your favorite hair color? Leave a comment below! 🙂
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Lora is a native Californian currently living in the Southeast. She is an artist, designer, blogger and nature lover. Her hobbies include herbalism, cooking, baking, creating DIY aromatherapy recipes, sipping wine and listening to music. She also loves to go hiking and camping.