Chemists explain why ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ hair dyes don’t actually exist

We updated this article in April 2022 to add four new top products to our original pick based on criteria set by the experts at the Beauty Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute. We’ve also added more details to the Buying Guide and FAQ to help readers more easily find safe, non-toxic hair dyes.

No one will blame you for the impression that ingredients found in hair products marketed as “organic” or “natural” make them inherently safer. But in fact, according to FDA officials, “organic” and all-natural “natural” hair dyes simply don’t exist, and products by analogy are not better for consumers’ health. As a general rule, hair dyes always need some form of chemical ingredient to do the job well — but if you’re looking for a hair dye that’s gentler on your hair and scalp, be aware that natural, plant-based Based ingredients can be combined with synthetic pigments to replace stricter chemicals.

To help you identify the best alternative hair dyes that use regulated synthetic colorants as well as botanical ingredients (such as henna, German chamomile, and senna), we consulted with professional hair colorists and the Good Housekeeping Institute Chemists in the Beauty, Wellness and Sustainability Lab who regularly test a wide range of hair colour products, from home dyes to hair sprays, have a deep understanding of the market. In this report, we looked at the top reviewed hair dyes with botanical ingredients in their formulations, then reviewed the top hair dyes by our beauty lab analysts, who rate these products using established quality assurance standards.

Bottom line. Regardless of marketing claims like “organic” or “natural,” hair dyes don’t need to feature those claims to be safe, and there are other ways to be healthy and eco-conscious when coloring your hair. Read on to shop for the best natural or vegan hair dyes and get answers to your top questions about how to dye your hair naturally without major damage.

How can I dye my hair without chemicals?
Sorry, but there is no really effective hair dye that skips the use of chemicals. That said, when you see the word “chemical” on hair color products, you shouldn’t be afraid of it (after all, water is technically a chemical too!). “With the exception of henna, any commercial hair dye—store-bought at-home hair color or found in a beauty salon—uses chemically active substances to work,” says The Good Housekeeping Institute’s Beauty, Health and Dr. Birnur Aral, Executive Director of the Sustainability Laboratory, explained. “In general, these chemicals are synthetic substances.

Ultimately, even brands committed to natural botanical formulations have to rely on some synthetic ingredients for hair color to work — including Aveda, which has created a proprietary hair color “96% made up of “ingredients derived from nature” , according to the company. “Incorporating synthetic ingredients into professional hair color is unavoidable because all colorants and dyes used in permanent and semi-permanent hair color are synthetic,” Justina, former vice president of global product development at Aveda Mejia-Montane told Good Housekeeping in 2020. “These are the ingredients that create hair color through an oxidation process. “

Is there something I can dye my hair the natural way?
You’d be hard-pressed to find an effective hair dye that’s made entirely from natural ingredients. Colors derived from indigo plants, cloves, walnuts, beets, berries and bark are no longer used today, explains Sabina Wieseman, senior chemist at GH Beauty Labs. “Because of their limited color variation and inconvenience, these plant-based colorants have been replaced by semi-permanent dyes,” she said, adding that henna is the only exception (although DIY colorants alone are very confusing , and is not entirely recommended as results can vary widely). “But there are innovative products on the market now that combine plant-based colorants with synthetic pigments to provide a variety of colors that can last up to 20 washes,” she added.

Which hair dye is the safest?
While there is no need to be afraid of the chemicals present in hair dye, the hair dye category is indeed one of the worst offenders because it sometimes includes unnecessary ingredients that can be harsh and potentially toxic in some applications. “There’s definitely a movement going on right now where people are opting for more ingredient-focused beauty products,” says Chelsea-Smith, a hair colorist at Madison-Reed, which makes at-home permanent hair dyes called “The first six-ingredient formula,” which means it doesn’t include the six problematic ingredients they believe are commonly found in hair color formulas.







Meanwhile, temporary hair color brand Overtone sells products that omit ammonia and hydrogen peroxide, which prevent chemical hair damage that can alter the texture and appearance of your hair. If you’re concerned about the harshness of your favorite hair dye, you can check the ingredients label and search for combinations of these types of chemicals and additives.

And no matter what type of hair product you choose to buy, you too can make a conscious choice when it comes to treating animals and using animal-sourced ingredients. In addition to being free of ammonia, hydrogen peroxide and PPD, all of Manic Panic’s formulas are vegan and pollution-free; Madison Reed is also pollution-free, certified by Leaping Bunny, “an international seal of approval that acknowledges our The company, its laboratories or ingredient suppliers do not use or commission animal testing at any stage of product development,” Smith explained. A popular line of semi-permanent dyes called Unicorn Hair, sold by independent cosmetics brand Lime Crime, also has Leaping Bunny’s stamp of approval.

How can I minimize the damage when dyeing my hair?
If you’re concerned about long-term hair damage or loss, don’t just focus on the ingredient list, but consider the dye type and process you’ve chosen. Generally, customers have three options when it comes to coloring their hair, each with varying degrees of irritation and longevity.

Temporary dye. These products deposit color directly on the surface of the hair and can be removed in just two washes. “The molecules they contain in their dyeing process are already dyed,” she explained, adding that the dyes don’t pose any risk of damaging the cuticle or hair fibers.

Semi-permanent dye. These products can stain or diffuse into the hair fibers and slowly fade with each wash. “Their coloring components, similar to temporary dyes, are also already colored; they can be used on natural hair to tone it, cover low levels of gray or neutralize shades of yellow,” says Wizemann. “The downside of semi-permanent dyes is that they can cover the hair unevenly, with some areas already damaged more than others, like the ends.”

Permanent and semi-permanent dyes. These are the most damaging to your hair health of the three options; permanent dyes can also trigger allergies in those who are sensitive to a chemical called paraphenylenediamine (PPD), which is present in temporary tattoo ink. Unlike permanent dyes, semi-permanent products don’t take root in your hair until it grows out; they wash out in 24 to 28 shampoos because they incorporate a low-volume developer and don’t contain ammonia, Wizemann explained.

“If you want to protect your hair’s structure and keep it looking its best, you should avoid any coloring process that involves lightening, lifting, or bleaching,” advises Wizemann. “Bleach in particular, has a much higher degree of bleaching than other hair coloring techniques. Instead, look at products that don’t require decolorization, such as semi-permanent or temporary dyes.”

In the end, the dream of an effective, fully organic hair dye is just — a dream. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use your head when deciding which hair color to use.