Here’s the thing about salon dye jobs: The chemicals responsible for those unicorn-pastel hues or Jessica Rabbit reds aren’t exactly good for you. Ingredients like ammonia and PPD are surprisingly common in mainstream formulas, despite the fact that they may actually be carcinogens. (Also, they reek.) But, while less-toxic options do exist, few are going to get you the same results and staying power that a traditional dye will yield—and some might even damage your hair or change its texture. In short, hair color that’s all-natural, safe, long-lasting, and super effective isn’t really a thing yet.
Feels kinda damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t, right? Don’t lose hope just yet: There are some options that allow you to play around with hair color without exposing yourself to damaging chemicals. You just might have to make some compromises along the way—like, possibly staining the hell out of your hands with beet juice or spending six hours letting pungent henna absorb into your hair. And while you might not nail perfect mermaid hair in your kitchen on your first attempt, you also don’t have to worry about inhaling ammonia stench. If that sounds like a fair trade off, read on for the scoop on hair-dye formulas that are a little safer and, in most cases, a lot less smelly.
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1. The Slightly Safer (But Still Not 100% Natural) Options
The truth is that there really aren’t many options out there for hair color that are both (A.) completely natural and (B.) as equally effective as its chemical predecessors. (Not yet, anyway.) Some brands, however, have developed less-toxic formulas that deliver results sans some of the more irritating or potentially dangerous ingredients. Organic Color Systems, Keune, and Davines all offer in-salon formulas that don’t include ammonia. If you’re not down with spending hours in a salon chair, brands like Manic Panic and Arctic Fox have a literal rainbow of vegan-friendly, ammonia- and PPD-free hues you can play with at home. None are completely derived from all-natural, plant-based ingredients, but they’re far less nasty for you than the chemical-laden stuff you’ll likely find at an average salon.
Derived from a plant and known for its staying power, henna seems like the best of both worlds. And for some people, it is a safe, all-natural alternative that actually yields results (and sticks around for more than a few washes). Before you go beelining it to your nearest international grocery, there are a few things worth noting: Namely, that henna can change the texture of your hair, and most stylists will tell you to stay away from permanent dyes after using henna. It can also take a while—some devotees leave it on for six or seven hours—and the process can be pretty messy. But, henna might just be the closest thing we have to an effective color treatment that’s entirely free of synthetic chemicals, and it can work wonders on sensitive scalps. Just be sure to read the label carefully to ensure the product is indeed 100% pure henna with no other sneaky additives. International groceries usually carry skin-grade henna blends, and we’ve also heard good things about LUSH’s henna-based line.
3. Teas, Juices, and Other DIY Elixirs
For hair dye that’s 100% natural, you may not need to look further than your own kitchen. Beets, turmeric, coffee, tea, and other staples can be used as a rinse to give hair a temporary tint. While the results you can yield are pretty limited—i.e., don’t expect a spray bottle of lemon juice to actually lift your hair from chocolate brown to platinum in one go—these methods are cheap, safe, and fun to experiment with (though if your hair’s been chemically treated before, know that this may cause unpredictable results). For brunettes, a tincture made with the shells of black walnuts (or even just straight-up coffee) can darken color, while those looking for red, magenta, or even pink hues can achieve it with beet juice. Some blondes even have luck getting subtle highlights with a blend of chamomile tea, honey, and good old-fashioned lemon juice. It might not yield the dramatic results you’d find in a salon, but at the very least, you’ll smell like a tea party—which we can probably all agree is preferable to smelling like a laboratory.