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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 a 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, has the 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, co-founder of My.Haircare. "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: Biolage Haircolor
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 is required.
Best Budget: Revlon Total Color Permanent Hair Color
For those who don’t like to break the bank on boxed dye, this is a great choice. The cream formula is not only inexpensive, but it’s also free of a litany of ingredients, including ammonia, parabens, sulfates, silicones, and phthalates. (FYI, it does contain resorcinol, however.) The cream formula doesn’t drip, and the permanent color lasts for up to six weeks, while also completely covering any pesky grays. Bonus points for the inclusion of a botanical-based, conditioning gloss.
Best Drugstore: Clairol Natural Instincts
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 Henna: Rainbow Research Henna Hair Color
If you want an entirely natural option, henna-based color is the only way to go. There’s literally nothing else in this formula besides henna, available in nine colors. Keep in mind that application can take a little bit of getting used to (you add boiling water to the powder to create an oatmeal-like consistency before painting onto your hair), and the color will only last for four to six weeks. Still, happy reviewers rave not only about the natural formula but also how natural the result is.
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: Maria 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 Bright Colors: Manic Panic Virgin Snow (Toner) - Classic High Voltage
If you’re looking for bold, rainbow-inspired colors, this pick is a great 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 wild.) 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 Dark Hair: Schwarzkopf Simply Color
There are 10 shades of this permanent color available, nine of which are geared towards a range of brown and black tones. Ammonia-, alcohol-, and silicone-free, it’s also dermatologist-tested, a boon for those with sensitive scalps. Still, the dye is full-on permanent, super vibrant, and touts 100% gray coverage, always a plus, especially on darker hair.
Hair dyes are by definition filled with chemicals. If you want to go entirely chemical-free, a pure henna-based color, like the Rainbow Research Henna Hair Color (view at Amazon), is really the only option. That being said, the Biolage Haircolor (view at Sleek Shop) is our top pick, also using minimal ingredients and being anywhere from 82% to 100% plant-based. Otherwise, seek out formulas that are free of ammonia, PPD, and resorcinol, like the Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit (view at Ulta), which has the added benefit of being packed with hydrating ingredients.
What to Look for in a Natural Hair Dye
Free of the Big Three
The three major chemicals that you’ll want to steer clear of if you’re seeking a more natural hair dye are ammonia, PPD, and resorcinol.
Many of the more natural hair dyes out there are demi-permanent formulas, meaning they’ll gradually wash out. But if you’re looking for a more dramatic result and/or need gray coverage, permanent formulas are the way to go.
Why Trust Byrdie?
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there.
Meet the Expert
Rob Forgione is a color specialist and the co-founder of My.Haircare, a line of clean and vegan hair care products and colors for consumers and professionals.