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We’ll cut right to the chase here—finding a hair dye that’s entirely chemically free is virtually impossible. Not to mention that terms like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ aren’t regulated, so, even if you see them slapped across the label of hair color, it’s important to take those claims with a grain of salt. That being said, if you’re looking for more natural hair color—be it because you’re pregnant, going vegan, or simply trying to be a more conscious consumer—your best bet is to do some ingredient sleuthing and know which ones to steer clear of.
One big one? Para-phenylenediamine, or PPD, which has to potential to cause everything from a minor skin reaction to even, yikes, anaphylactic shock. (Thankfully, the latter is very rare.) "Every time you color your hair, your immune system registers a foreign particle on the scalp," says Rob Forgione, the national color educator for hair care brand O&M. "Most of the time there's no problem, but there can be a time when somebody has a PPD color on their hair and they have a reaction.” And that could happen after 40 years, or on the first time, he adds. Ammonia is another good ingredient to avoid, not to mention one that’s also very damaging to your hair, as is resorcinol, an ingredient that can affect thyroid function.
The good news: There is plenty of plant- and henna-based hair colors out there that offer a safer and less damaging alternative to traditional dyes. Check out our favorite natural hair dyes below.
Best Overall: Matrix Biolage Hair Color
There are 20 shades of this color available, all of which contain, wait for it, only 10 ingredients or less and are anywhere from 82 to 100% plant-based. It relies on a purified version of henna for the wide array of tones, which range from both trendy rainbow shades to natural browns and blondes. While the product is meant for the pros, those who are going to DIY will appreciate that it only needs to be mixed with water, no separate developer required.
Best Permanent Hair Color: Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit
This brand touts the distinction of having the first ‘six-free’ permanent hair color, free of ammonia, parabens, resorcinol, PDD, phthalates, and gluten. Instead, it’s packed with hydrating and nourishing ingredients—think keratin and argan oil—to both improve the look and feel of your strands. Bonus points for the complete gray coverage it delivers, as well as the thick cream formula that won’t run or drip.
Best Semi-Permanent Color: Mila Nila Colour Refresh
For commitment-phobes and/or those who just want a temporary color change, this wash-out formula is a great pick. Each of the 15 shades (ranging from bolder to more subdued options) lasts anywhere from four to 10 shampoos. And to the point of natural, the formula is ammonia-free, and 100% vegan and cruelty-free, with certifications from PETA, Leaping Bunny, and the Vegan Society.
Best for Brown Hair: Lush Henna Hair Dyes
All four of these henna-based hues are ideal for dark hair, no matter whether you want to simply add dimension and shine, or impart a slightly different tone. The solid color looks like a chocolate bar, and fittingly, the application is kind of like melting chocolate; you mix a few pieces of the bar with boiling hot water until it melts into a spreadable consistency. The clean ingredient list also boasts naturals such as hydrating cocoa butter and good-for-your scalp nettle powder.
Best Drugstore: Clairol Natural Instincts Demi-Permanent Hair Color
Ultra-gentle and ammonia-free, this bargain buy is made with 80% naturally-derived ingredients, such as coconut and aloe vera, just to name a few. Because it’s a demi-permanent color (expect it to last up to 28 washes), it’s best for helping to blend in smaller amounts of gray or enhancing your natural shade and shine, rather than a complete color change. Still, there are over 35 colors to choose from, an extensive mix of blonde, brown, black, and red tones.
Best for Subtle Color: Davines Finest Pigments
Another product meant for this pros, this is a nice one for anyone seeking a more subtle change, think a little variation in tone or some added dimension and vibrancy. (It’s also a great way to ease into the coloring world if you’ve never dyed your hair before.) The formula is up to 98% natural, using pigments derived from things such as ginger and walnut. Plus, the 14 shades can be used either individually or mixed and matched, and all impart a gorgeous shine, too.
Best for Bright Colors: Manic Panic Classic High Voltage Semi-Permanent Hair Dye
If you’re looking for bold, rainbow-inspired colors, this pick is choice. PPD-, ammonia-, resorcinol-, and paraben-free, the formula is also vegan and cruelty-free. Not to mention that there over 40 of said trendy shades to pick from (and even some that will glow under a black light if you really want to get crazy.) The color will last up to six weeks, though keep in mind you’ll get the most vibrant results on hair that’s either naturally light or has already been bleached.
Best for Damaged Hair: Surya Brasil Henna Cream Hair Coloring
Given that all of the picks on this list contain fewer damaging chemicals than their traditional color counterparts, they’re all great for damaged hair. But if your tresses need some more intense TLC, reach for this henna-based dye. Along with being free of PPD, ammonia, resorcinol, and parabens, it’s also free of a long list of other questionable ingredients that take a toll on your tresses. (Not to mention that it’s also been dermatologically-tested and contains no synthetic fragrances, a major boon for anyone with a sensitive scalp.) Instead, along with imparting semi-permanent color, it also delivers naturally hydrating and conditioning ingredients such as acai, aloe, and brazil nut.