You’ve ditched aluminum-based deodorants, started using a DIY facial oil blend and ensured every item in your makeup bag is cruelty-free.
The next frontier in your all-natural beauty regimen? Your hair dye.
But buyer beware, not all natural hair dyes are created equal. At best, they contain the very ingredients you’re trying to avoid. At worst, they could seriously wreck your hair.
Here’s what you need to know about natural hair dye to keep your hair healthy and vibrant, the natural way.
What is natural hair dye?
“The phrase ‘natural hair dye’ is a bit of a misnomer,” says Brandon Wagner, founder and owner of Tribeca ColorSalon, with locations in Tampa, Florida, and a satellite academy in Montreal, Canada. “The only truly natural dye out there is henna.”
Henna is one of the world’s oldest natural cosmetics. It’s said that Cleopatra, perhaps the original cover girl, used henna as part of her makeup routine. The dye is derived from the leaves of the henna plant, which are crushed and ground into a fine powder that can be used to dye your skin, nails and—you guessed it—hair.
In some ways, the process of dying your hair with henna and many other hair dyes is pretty similar: An alkalizing agent is used to swell, or open, the cuticle, which allows the hair to absorb the color.
But while the processes may be similar, the results are completely different. The alkalizing agents used in salon hair color, usually ammonia, can create the conditions to dye your locks all sorts of colors, from the lightest platinum blondes to the darkest blacks to the bluest blues. Depending on the formula and application, you can also receive permanent results with traditional hair dye.
When you use henna hair dye, your options are limited. Those dreams of going Gwen Stefani blonde? Ain’t happening with henna. Henna can only lift (read: lighten) your hair color one or two levels, Wagner says.
But henna hair dyes, which are usually available in shades of red and brown, can be a great solution for blending grays. When used correctly, they can also make your hair feel smoother to the touch. Depending on how often you shampoo, the color will last four to six weeks.
“The ideal candidate for henna hair dyes is someone with darker, coarse hair who isn’t looking for a major change,” Wagner says.
What could possibly go wrong with natural hair dyes?
Most salon hair dyes are rigorously tested and retested to ensure the products are safe and the results are the same each time they’re applied.
With some henna products, the process is a bit trickier. It may be hard to predict what levels of lightening you will achieve or whether that warm tone will turn your hair chestnut brown or Ariel red.
But perhaps the biggest potential side effect occurs when your so-called natural hair dye uses not-so-natural ingredients.
For a henna-based hair dye to be truly straight-from-Mother-Earth natural, it would have to use a natural alkalizing agent, like lemon juice.
Instead, some supposedly “natural” products contain metallic salts, Wagner says. Not only can these dry out your hair, they can also cause major issues if you switch back to professional hair color.
“Metallic salts don’t play nice with professional color,” Wagner says. They can react with the ammonia in some traditional hair dye, often to disastrous results.
“I’ve seen hair melt,” he adds. “If you have ever used henna on your hair, you must tell your colorist so they can do a strand test. If the product you used was truly pure henna, you’ll probably be in the clear. “
So are natural hair dyes better for you and your hair?
According to the American Cancer Society, some of the ingredients traditionally used in hair dyes have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. But it’s not clear how these results translate to humans.
Other ingredients in conventional hair dye, including ammonia and paraphenylenediamine (PPD), can cause skin irritations, even burns if used incorrectly. Many manufacturers are switching to less caustic formulas in an effort to reduce these potentially harmful side effects.
“There’s been a huge move in the salon industry to get as close to ‘natural’ as possible,” Wagner says. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of mislabeling going on.”
How can you know if your hair dye is truly natural? Read the fine print.
If a product says it’s “99 percent pure” or “99 percent natural,” try to figure out what’s contained in that extra 1 percent.
Ingredients like persulfate and hydroxide could indicate the so-called natural hair dye contains bleach, Wagner warns, while ingredients with words ending in chloride could be a sign the product contains metallic salts.
When in doubt, contact the brand directly to ensure the product is 100 percent natural.