hairdye.jpg News flash: chemical hair dyes aren’t exactly healthy for your hair. Duh, right? Between the ammonia lifting up the hair cuticle and the peroxide breaking down your natural hair color, there’s a reason box hair dye comes with a heavy-duty conditioner for afterwards. 

Then there are the scary rumors about hair dyes causing cancer. The American Cancer Society says the verdict is still out on that one. Most studies haven’t found that strong of a link, although more could be done to clarify how the chemicals in hair dyes affect humans. However, hair dye does contain chemicals that The National Toxicology Program considers to be “reasonably anticipated” carcinogens. 

And you can’t forget PPD allergies, which can pop up after decades of regular hair dying and have physically scarring and fatal consequences. Google it if you have a strong stomach. I don’t. 

Simply, forgoing chemical hair dyes is a matter of how paranoid you want to be. It might very well not be worth the risk, however small, for the purposes of vanity alone. But that doesn’t mean you need to give up hair dying completely. There are plenty of natural solutions for getting the color in your hair. From the more popular henna option to more specialized vegetable-based dyes, you don’t need to give up hope on hair dye if you want a more natural lifestyle.


I’m going to start off with henna, as it’s the most popular and potent natural hair dye. Henna is from a small tree (called Lawsonia Inermis) that grows in warm, dry climates. Henna comes as a fine powder that is made from the crushed leaves of the plant. The leaves contain a red-orange dye, which once applied to the hair, binds to the hair’s keratin. 

High quality henna will be as permanent as you can get. Only use henna if you’re married to the idea of red hair. It’s near impossible to strip out of the hair with chemicals.

Yet at the same time, henna only coats the hair shaft. It does not lift color, so what you get is a combination of the red-orange dye and the hair underneath. Light blond hair will be a blazing orange-red and dark hair will have a reddish/auburn tint in the sun. That’s the bummer about it. You won’t get bright red hair if you have naturally dark hair. All natural, plant-based dyes will require pre-lighting via hair bleach if you want wildly bright hair colors. 

You may have heard that henna has a lot of horror stories: ones involving green hair, fried hair and even melted hair that has the consistency of chewed bubblegum. That’s not the henna, that’s metallic salts added to the henna that were reacting with chemical dyes. Finding 100 percent pure henna is of the utmost importance. Many people buy the body art quality henna used for temporary tattoos to make sure they get the real stuff. I’ve used pure henna over previous dye jobs without a problem in the past. But to be sure, ALWAYS do a strand test on your hair first. 

If you want to try henna, it’s a process. It’s not like box dyes, where you mix, immediately apply and wait only 25 minutes. It’ll take 12 hours to release the dye and people have left the dye in overnight while they sleep for the deepest color penetration. 

Here’s a full how-to: 

  • You’ll need a large, non-metallic bowl. Mix the henna with a slightly acidic liquid like rainwater, lemon juice or strong-brewed black tea. The acidic mix will release the dye. It should be the consistency of yogurt. You’ll need it in your hair thick, so make a lot. Long, shoulder blade length hair will need about 200 grams of henna powder.     

  • Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 12 hours to let the dye release. You may want to check periodically, test by putting the dye on your hand and seeing if it leaves a slight red-orange stain. But don’t let the mixture dry out. Keep with an airtight lid. 

  • You’ll want to apply the henna to dry, clean hair. 

  • Careful, as it will stain your skin. Wipe away glops on your skin. Line your hairline with thick conditioner or petroleum jelly to protect your skin from getting stained orange. 

  • Wear gloves. Work the henna into your hair like you would a regular hair dye. It’s a lot thicker, so it takes some getting used to. Start at the scalp and work the mixture to the ends. Section you hair off if that makes it easier. Again, get it in there thick. 

  • Don’t try to be frugal about it. 

  • Wrap your head in plastic wrap, cover with a cloth cap or shower cap, if you desire. Leave it on your head for anywhere between one to eight hours. Some people sleep with it in. 

  • Rinse out under a tap with strong water pressure. It will take a little effort to get it out. I just rinse my hair under the bath spout in the tub. 

  • Your hair may be a bit dry because of the acidic mix, so use some conditioner if you need it. 

Even though henna can be initially drying, it is technically a hair conditioner. It coats the hair, adding strength to the hair shaft and completely fixing split ends. The henna will appear bright orange for the first three days, and then go down into a deeper, richer color.

Indigo and cassia

Is red not your thing? You can actually combine henna with indigo (a plant-based blue-black dye) to make it dye hair brown. Indigo itself will give you a deep black color when put on top of a henna dye job. Cassia (a golden yellow plant dye) adds a yellowish, blond look to light hair. You can also add cassia to henna to get a brighter or strawberry red. You can find a super detailed chart based on plant dye mixes and your starting hair color here.

How to make a natural color gloss

Here’s a tip for redheads: Add a few tablespoons of those semi-permanent veggie-based dyes, like Manic Panic, into your conditioner. Leave on for five to 30 minutes to get a color boost for your hair. Copper tones should go for the red-orange colors and auburn/wine hues should go for the deeper reds, like Manic Panic’s ever-popular Vampire Red. Plus, these dyes will actually further condition your hair (they dyes also have black color options as well). Be warned, though: These colors will fade quite quickly. Use this treatment one to three times per week. 

If you want to make a henna-based gloss, the color will still be permanent, but will produce less color (which might be what you’re going for). If you have dark hair, you’ll probably just get the conditioning effects. You can either leave your paste on for only 30 minutes, or add one teaspoon to two tablespoons of powder into a cup of conditioner (previously dye released if you want the color right away). You’ll have to experiment for how long to leave it on, depending on your goals. If you’re conditioning, 30 minutes to one hour should work.