You know that distinct smell you notice as soon as you walk into a hair salon? That's ammonia, a colorless chemical used in dyes—and okay, maybe a bit of hair spray. The fumy substance can make your eyes, nose, and throat burn, and if that's not bad enough, it can also fry your hair.
Ammonia helps the hair accept permanent color and can support the lightening process—but is it really necessary? Maybe not. According to Kate Reid, Design Director and Education Manager at Color Me by Kevin Murphy, there have been exciting improvements in the hair color industry over the last decade, including some standout ammonia-free formulas. Not only does it work just as well as the harsher variety, "but generally, ammonia-free brands consider the quality of ingredients and their impact on the environment," she tells Byrdie.
Find a rundown of the best ammonia-free hair dyes below.
Revlon Colorsilk Beautiful Color Permanent Hair Color
Easy to use
May cause some scalp tingling
For at-home color, you can count on Revlon Colorsilk to get the job done without damaging your hair. This permanent ammonia-free hair dye comes in myriad shades, from stark blue-black and rich brown to vibrant red and ultra-light platinum blonde. Developed by salon experts, it does more than offer stunning pigment and multi-dimensional color. The nourishing formula is infused with silk amino acids and keratin; the latter is an essential protein that makes up hair, the former, building blocks to help create protein. Both work together to create long-lasting shine, a healthy-looking finish, and stronger, healthier hair.
Price at time of publish: $9
Active Ingredients: Keratin, Silk Amino Acid | Type: Permanent | Shades: 43 | Size: 4.4 ounces | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Garnier Olia Oil Permanent Hair Color
Infused with 60 percent natural flower oils
No drip cream formula
On a budget? No sweat. A Garnier Olia kit will only run you a few dollars, but after dyeing your hair, you'll feel like a million bucks. The no-drip formula is made of 60 percent naturally derived oils to deliver a brilliantly glossy finish without the dreaded ammonia smell. Think plant-based oils such as sunflower, camelia, and meadowfoam seed oil, many of which are also found in the included post-color conditioner, giving your hair extra nourishment and moisture every step of the way.
Price at time of publish: $9
Active Ingredients: Alba Seed Oil, Sunflower Seed Oil | Type: Permanent | Shades: 30 | Size: 15.2 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Clairol Natural Instincts
80 percent naturally derived ingredients
Gentle on all hair types
Lasts up to 28 washes
Colors seem a bit off to some
Since its 1998 launch, Clairol Natural Instincts has been a drugstore mainstay for ammonia-free hair dye. It’s made with 80 percent naturally derived ingredients, including heavy-hitting moisturizers such as coconut and aloe. The gentle conditioning formula deposits gorgeous color that'll last for up to 28 shampoos and is super easy to use. All you have to do is mix the color with the activator in the included bottle and apply.
Price at time of publish: $8
Active Ingredients: Aloe Vera, Coconut Oil | Type: Demi-Permanent | Shades: 37 | Size: 24.8 ounces | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Color Selection
Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit
Full of nourishing ingredients
100 percent gray coverage
Time consuming to apply
We're also loving Madison Reed's Radiant Hair Color Kit, which is formulated with nourishing ingredients like keratin, ginseng root extract, and argan oil. Best of all, it comes in a whopping 37 shades. We also appreciate that it comes not only with the color, but every other possible accessory and add-on you could need, including a cleansing wipe, barrier cream, and even a color-protecting shampoo and conditioner.
Price at time of publish: $30
Active Ingredients: Cetearyl Alcohol, Keratin, Argan Oil, Ginseng | Type: Permanent | Shades: 37 | Size: 12.31 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Trendy Colors
Good Dye Young Semi-Permanent Hair Color Fader
Blue shade stains bedding
Harder to dye darker hair
Founded by hair color queen and lead singer of Paramore, Hayley Williams, Good Dye Young is for the bold. With a tube of this semi-permanent hair dye, you can go mermaid teal, electric blue, neon yellow, or villain green for a month. Along with being ammonia-free, it also touts antioxidant-rich sunflower extract (yes, antioxidants are good for both your skin and your hair), as well as hydrating glycerin and bergamot essential oil to keep this smelling nice and citrus-y.
Price at time of publish: $18
Active Ingredients: Cetearyl Alcohol, Bergamot, Glycerin | Type: Semi-Permanent | Shades: 5 | Size: 5.0 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Manic Panic Classic High Voltage Hair Dye Color
Easy to clean up
Some shades produce lesser results
This little tub by Manic Panic contains a cult-favorite creme that conditions your hair and leaves a striking hue in its wake. Not sure if a vibrant color is your thing? No problem—it'll be gone in four to six weeks. We also appreciate that it’s ready-to-go in the jar, with no mixing required, and along with being free of ammonia, it’s also PPD- and peroxide-free.
Price at time of publish: $14
Active Ingredients: Aloe Vera, Citric Acid | Type: Semi-Permanent | Shades: 44 | Size: 4.0 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Natural Hair
Creme of Nature Moisture-Rich Hair Color
Easy to use
Smells bad to some
Creme of Nature is, by far, the best ammonia-free dye for natural hair. It comes with a conditioner that’s chock-full of shea butter, cocoa butter, and avocado oil, a moisture-rich formula that hydrates and softens after you get a long-lasting, shiny color. That’s a boon for natural hair, which tends to be innately coarser and drier.
Price at time of publish: $6
Active Ingredients: Shea Butter, Argan Oil | Type: Permanent | Shades: 4 | Size: 7.0 ounces | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Just 5 Ammonia-Free Permanent Hair Color
Lasts up to six weeks
Effectively covers gray
May make hair a bit frizzy
Short on time? Go with Just 5. This ammonia-free permanent hair dye blends with your existing hair color and delivers a fade-free finish in—you guessed it—just five minutes. It’s also a choice pick for covering grays and will keep them covered until they grow out again. Bonus points for the addition of moisturizing aloe and shine-enhancing chamomile extract.
Price at time of publish: $7
Active Ingredients: Chamomile Extract | Type: Permanent | Shades: 5 | Size: 1.85 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Unknown | Byrdie Clean: Yes
eZn Pudding Hair Color
Unique and trendy color options
Very pretty finish
Full kit provided
Smells bad to some
Everyone talks about K-beauty skincare, but don’t miss out on this hair color, too. If you're eyeing one of those trendy cool-toned shades, like ashy lavender, blush pink, gray-blue, or silver, we recommend eZn Pudding Hair Color. As its name suggests, this Korean hair dye is thick and bouncy, not unlike custard. More to the point, it doesn't drip, there’s no brush required (you can simply use your hands to apply, just pop on some gloves), and offers a supremely pretty finish.
Price at time of publish: $16
Active Ingredients: Keratin | Type: Semi-Permanent | Shades: 17 | Size: 5.61 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Grays
Schwarzkopf Simply Color
Covers all grays
A cult favorite
Grappling with grays? Your best bet is Schwarzkopf Simply Color. Formulated with gentle, nourishing ingredients like argan oil, a well-known, good-for-your-hair ingredient loaded with vitamin E and other fatty acids to help moisturize and add shine. There is also nourishing oat milk and strengthening soy protein in the mix, too. Plus, it offers complete gray coverage and long-lasting color without irritating your scalp. (Credit the fact that it’s ammonia- and alcohol-free.)
Price at time of publish: $11
Active Ingredients: Argan Oil, Oat Milk, Soy Protein | Type: Semi-Permanent | Shades: 6 | Size: 5.7 ounces | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
CHI Ionic Shine Shades Permanent Hair Color
Works as standalone coloring system
Easy to mix
High color payoff
Hard to rinse out
For a pre-mixed solution, we're loving CHI's Ionic Shine Shades. It works great as a standalone semi-permanent dye, but if you want more color payoff and long-lasting pigment, you can always combine it with a cream formula. Either way, you get the benefits of moisturizing and shine-boosting olive and Brazilian nut oils in the formula.
Price at time of publish: $12
Active Ingredients: Olive Oil, Chamomile | Type: Semi-Permanent, Demi-Permanent, Permanent | Shades: 50-plus | Size: 3.0 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
The best ammonia-free hair dye is definitely Revlon Colorsilk Beautiful Color Permanent Hair Color. We like that it comes in a broad range of shades and is formulated to nourish your hair. However, if you want a semi-permanent option, go with Clairol Advanced Gray Solutions.
How We Researched
To compile this list, our team of editors and contributors spent hours researching the best products on the market in this category, evaluating their key features—like ingredients, shade range, or design—in addition to reviews from customers and other trusted sources. We then used this research to assign a star rating from one to five (five being the best; one being the worst) to certain products on the list.
What to Look for When Buying Ammonia-Free Hair Dye
Not all hair dyes state that they're ammonia-free in the name, packaging, or product description. In some cases, it might be up to you to check the ingredients. Ammonia will typically be listed as either ammonium persulfate or ammonium hydroxide on the ingredient list, so steer clear of products containing these chemicals.
The best ammonia-free hair dyes will not only color your hair but also leave it softer, shinier, and more manageable. Look for nourishing and strengthening ingredients like argan oil, keratin, shea butter, avocado oil, sunflower oil, cocoa butter, oat milk, soy protein, silk protein, and other amino acids.
Semi vs. Demi vs. Permanent
When browsing ammonia-free hair dyes, you'll see a range of semi-permanent, demi-permanent, and permanent formulas. Semi and demi are both temporary. The difference is that semi-permanent dye usually lasts for roughly six washes and doesn't disturb your hair's natural pigment, therefore escaping your strands faster. Whereas demi-permanent dye uses a lower peroxide volume, which enters the cortex of the hair, allowing formulas to last closer to 28 shampoos. Permanent color is formulated to maintain its pigment indefinitely—or until you dye your hair again.
Is ammonia-free hair dye effective?
"Yes! Ammonia-free hair dye is very effective," says Reid. "I believe the performance of ammonia-free is absolutely equivalent to products that contain ammonia." Today's ammonia-free products are available in permanent and temporary formulas and provide excellent pigment.
Is ammonia-free hair dye damaging to hair?
Reid confirms that ammonia-free hair dye won't damage your hair, and Tang agrees. "Hair color that does not contain ammonia is technically more gentle on the hair because the alkalizer is not as strong, which causes less lifting of the cuticle," he explains. "But the color that contains ammonia allows us to lift and deposit color onto the hair at the same time, which is useful in many situations."
Is ammonia-free hair dye safe during pregnancy?
If you want to color your hair during pregnancy, ammonia-free hair dye is generally considered to be the safest choice—preferably a semi-permanent option—as it'll contain fewer potentially harmful chemicals. Having said that, it's best to check with your healthcare provider first.
How do you dye your hair with professional products?
While professional dyes are available for consumers to purchase, we removed those options from this list. Pro-level dyes need to be mixed with developer at specific ratios to get the shade that you desire. If you are not trained in this process, it’s easy for something to go wrong and get a horrible color, or worse, do serious damage to your strands. The options on this list allow for semi-or permanent color but take the guesswork out of the equation. Let’s leave professional dyes to the hair color pros.
Why Trust Byrdie?
Byrdie contributor Theresa Holland is a seasoned writer specializing in makeup and hair care. Having colored her hair countless times with at-home kits, she knows her way around the drugstore hair dye aisle. Check out more stories by Theresa on MyDomaine and The Spruce.
Melanie Rud is a contributing writer for Byrdie, where she covers all things beauty—from buzzy ingredients to acne advice.
According to our Diversity Pledge, 15% of products in our newly-published market roundups will feature Black-owned and/or Black-founded brands. At the time of publishing, we were not able to find any ammonia-free hair dyes from a Black-owned and/or Black-founded business. If you know of one we should consider, please email us at email@example.com and we will evaluate the product ASAP.