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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.
Best Overall: Revlon Colorsilk Beautiful Color Permanent Hair Color
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 to create long-lasting shine and a healthy-looking finish.
Best Budget: Garnier Olia Oil Permanent Hair Color
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% naturally derived oils to deliver a brilliantly glossy finish without the dreaded ammonia smell.
Best Drugstore: Clairol Natural Instincts
Since its 1998 launch, Clairol Natural Instincts has been a drugstore mainstay for ammonia-free hair dye. With 80% naturally derived ingredients, the gentle conditioning formula deposits gorgeous color that'll last for up to 28 shampoos.
Best Semi-Permanent: Wella Color Touch Demi-Permanent Hair Color
"I highly recommend the Wella Professionals Color Touch ammonia-free dyes, which we use at the Sally Hershberger Salons," says celebrity hairstylist Sally Hershberger. Formulated to last for roughly 24 shampoos, the pro-level formula is great for people who like to switch things up.
Best Color Selection: Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit
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.
Best Natural Colors: Matrix ColorInsider Permanent Hair Color
If you're hoping to camouflage some grays or just want a natural-looking finish, reach for a tube of Matrix ColorInsider. This permanent hair dye comes in an impressive palette inspired by God-given hair colors, including everything from black ash to medium golden-brown to neutral blonde.
Best Trendy Colors: Good Dye Young Semi-Permanent Hair Color
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.
Best Colorful: Manic Panic Cream Formula Semi-Permanent Hair Color
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.
Best for Natural Hair: Creme of Nature Moisture-Rich Hair Color
Creme of Nature is, by far, the best ammonia-free dye for natural hair. Containing shea butter, cocoa butter, and avocado oil, the moisture-rich formula hydrates and softens while depositing long-lasting color that shines.
Best Fast-Acting: Just 5 Ammonia-Free Permanent Hair Color
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.
Best K-Beauty: eZn Pudding Hair Color
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 and offers a supremely pretty finish.
Best for Grays: Schwarzkopf Simply Color Permanent Color
Grappling with grays? Your best bet is Schwarzkopf Simply Color. Formulated with gentle, nourishing ingredients like argan oil, oat milk, and soy protein, it offers complete coverage and long-lasting color without irritating your scalp.
Best Smell: #Mydentity by Guy Tang Demi-Permanent Hair Color
Without the fumy ammonia, what does hair dye smell like? Well, that depends on the formula. If you like scented products, we recommend this semi-permanent option. "I put lavender oil in the color for a spa-like fragrance experience," notes Guy Tang, hair colorist, and creator of #Mydentity.
Best for Shine: Redken Shades EQ Cream Hair Color
If it's shine you're after, you can't go wrong with Redken Shades EQ. This creamy hair dye offers an incredibly rich color, plus a gorgeously glossy finish that's sure to turn heads.
Best Pre-Mixed: CHI Ionic Shine Shades Permanent Hair Color
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.
The best ammonia-free hair dye is definitely Revlon Colorsilk Beautiful Color Permanent Hair Color (view at Amazon). 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 (view at Amazon).
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.
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.