Whether it's out of curiosity, for fun, or just due to plain old boredom, dyeing your hair can be the perfect way to experiment with your look. There’s just one hurdle that could be keeping you from a new color—flip over a box of hair dye and you’ll notice a long list of potentially harsh ingredients like ammonia, PPD, and parabens. In fact, the chemicals in hair dye and the damage they may leave behind are often reason enough to avoid the stuff altogether.
But if you're still looking to change your hair color and would prefer to sidestep the bad stuff, consider trying one of these natural ways to dye hair. Products like henna, lemon juice, and even chamomile tea (yes, the kind you drink) can help you switch up your style without damaging your locks. We spoke to colorists Jafra Bryant and Rita Hazan to get their take on natural hair dyes and how to execute the process flawlessly.
Meet the Expert
Keep scrolling for some of the best natural ways to dye hair.
When dried henna leaves mix with acidic liquids like vinegar or lemon juice, they turn into a paste called henna, a natural reddish dye. Because many henna hair dyes on the market are mixed with other natural ingredients like indigo, they can achieve a range of bright colors depending on how long they’re left in dry hair (usually anywhere from one to five hours).
"Henna is mostly red based and will always have a slight red or green tint to it so watch out depending on your skin tone when using henna as it can accentuate the wrong attributes," says Bryant.
To really coax a vibrant hue from the dye, hair should be sealed in plastic wrap, rinsed with regular shampoo and conditioner, and, as with most natural treatments, reapplied every four to six months. Of course, always do a strand test before applying all over—especially if your hair is chemically treated. According to Hazan, "If someone is highly allergic (to hair dye) henna is a great natural option."
However, before opting for henna, Tardo says to keep in mind that the method is usually permanent. "Henna can not be removed from hair with any hair color or bleach," Tardo explains. "There are natural remedies like oils which will fade henna, but it can not be removed completely and will affect the way any traditional hair color or bleach products work in the hair."
It may sound like a sticky plan, but raw honey is claimed to be one of the most effective means of naturally lightening hair. Not to mention, it's also a natural treatment for dandruff. To begin, make sure you have the raw stuff (not all “honey” is honey), and then apply it one of two ways: with water or with your favorite conditioner. Let the mixture sit for two to three hours before thoroughly washing, and bam—your hair should be a couple of shades lighter. Repeat as desired.
While henna is used to infuse reddish tones into your hair, lemon juice is a great option for naturally highlighting your locks, and it can be applied with a spray bottle. "The sun mixed with lemon juice on the hair is a perfect chemical reaction of acid (lemon juice) and alkaline (sunshine and heat)," says Bryant.
Spray the juice directly onto the areas you would like to highlight (after a strand test, of course), and then plan to spend a few hours out in the sun—rough, we know. The more time spent in the sun—with plenty of SPF, of course—the more noticeable your color will be. Highlights from lemon juice are a gradual process, so you may need to repeat this technique two to three times for noticeable results. But the more often you use it, the more noticeable your highlights will be. Be careful though, lemon on the scalp can cause a skin irritation known as phytophotodermatitis. Another note: Because of lemon's natural acidity, this method might be drying to hair, so we recommend adding a little oil (whether it's almond, coconut, or olive) to your juice mixture. "Make sure you condition," reminds Hazan. We like Kapuluan's Cold Pressed Coconut Oil ($27).
Like lemon juice, chamomile may be a natural hair lightener and can also be applied to the hair by using a spray bottle. Begin by brewing a strong batch of chamomile tea. For a deeper color, use multiple bags of chamomile. Make sure the tea completely cools before you add it to the spray bottle. After a strand test, apply to any sections of hair you would like to lighten. Take in some sun, and voilà! Natural highlights await.
Cinnamon is another natural ingredient with potential lightening properties. For this method, add about two to three spoonfuls to your favorite conditioner, apply the mixture to your hair, and let it sit for a minimum of four hours. For best results, put on a shower cap and let the solution sit overnight. This method may take repeated uses to see noticeable results, particularly for darker hair colors, but as a bonus, it leaves your hair smelling amazing!
Want a boost of color without much commitment? Try Kool-Aid! Bryant is a total fan of this option, "It can be very forgiving because there is nothing in Kool-Aid chemically that messes with the cuticle or inside the hair shaft necessarily but rather a light stain that sits on the outside of the cuticle." This option works best for lighter strands that want a hint of color. Pick any color you want from red to blue, purple, and everything in between. Create a paste using the Kool-Aid mix with your color of choice and your favorite conditioner. Paint the paste on and wait at least an hour before rinsing to reveal your new color. The longer you wait, the higher intensity the color. Hazan does warn though, "It's a stain... you're stuck with it if you don't like it."
Dye your hair a shade or two darker by brewing a strong cup of your favorite dark roast coffee. While not long-lasting, or very dramatic, this is a great affordable option for quickly covering some gray strands. After the coffee is brewed, add a spoonful or two of coffee grounds into the mixture and coat the hair. Allow the mixture to sit for at least an hour before rinsing to reveal darker strands. Repeat the process until the desired darkness is achieved. Keep in mind, according to Hazan, "It is only a stain to camouflage, it won't 100% cover."
"Coffee grounds can also be used as a great scalp scrub," says Bryant.
While it may not be the most pleasant smelling experience, beets offer a great natural dye for a light pink wash of color. Simply soak strands with beet juice found in any grocery store and wait a few hours. This process is a bit messy, and the staining potential is real. Be sure to get yourself a pair of plastic gloves, and don't wear your favorite top for this process. Once the juice has soaked for a few hours, rinse out with your favorite shampoo, and admire your new color.
What is the best way to color gray hair naturally?
Coffee can be used to color gray hair naturally, however it won’t be as dark or last as long as regular hair dyes. Sage tea is another option for coloring grays naturally. After letting the sage tea steep in hot water, let it cool and then apply to your hair for at least 15 minutes before rinsing out.
How can I make my natural hair dye last longer?
Natural hair dyes often don’t last as long as regular hair dyes, however you can do a few things to extend the life of your color. Avoid washing your hair every day and try to wash it every two to three days instead. Use gentle shampoos and consider using a water filter in your house or shower to limit the amount of chemicals in your water, such as chlorine, that may strip hair color.
Are regular hair dyes harmful?
The American Cancer Society says that semi-permanent and permanent hair dyes have chemicals that may increase cancer risk, including leukemia and bladder cancer, however many studies focus on hairdressers who are regularly exposed to dyes and more research is needed. If you want to use commercial hair dyes, look for those that use vegetable dyes or more naturally derived ingredients, such as Clairol Natural Instincts.
Burlando B, Cornara L. Honey in dermatology and skin care: a review. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2013;12(4):306-313. doi:10.1111/jocd.12058
Hankinson A, Lloyd B, Alweis R. Lime-induced phytophotodermatitis. J Community Hosp Intern Med Perspect. 2014;4(4):10.3402/jchimp.v4.25090. doi:10.3402/jchimp.v4.25090
American Cancer Society. Hair dyes. Updated September 8, 2020.