According to one survey from the U.K., women change their hairstyles about 150 times over the course of a lifetime.
However many times you make the change, it’s likely that coloring is a part of the process.
It’s not required, of course. These days, white hair is in vogue, with celebrities like Helen Mirren, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Meryl Streep all embracing their natural silver.
Still, about 65 percent of women alter their natural hair color, about a 7 percent increase from the 1950s. We like playing with color. It makes us feel good…until we open the bottle and smell all the fumes.
Traditional hair dyes are full of potentially harmful chemicals that at high exposures, have been linked with skin and respiratory irritation, a suppressed immune system, and even cancer.
Is there a way to cover the gray—or just enjoy a nice color—without exposing ourselves to these toxic chemicals?
The concern about regular hair dyes
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) states that over 5,000 different chemicals are used in hair dye products, some of which are reported to be carcinogenic in animals. Though manufacturers have improved beauty products to eliminate some of the more dangerous chemicals that were used in the 1970s, most still contain less-than-savory ingredients.
Chemicals found in hair dyes:
- Quaternium-15, which can release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen
- Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which may be hormone disruptors
- Phenylenediamine (PPD), which is a skin and respiratory irritant and has been classified in the European Union as toxic and dangerous to the environment
The NCI notes that some studies have found that hairdressers and barbers are at an increased risk of bladder cancer, potentially because of coloring chemicals. Other studies have found personal use of chemical dyes could potentially increase the risk of leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but results have been mixed.
We aren’t risking it
When we review the research, we can see that we don’t have enough studies yet to know how coloring our hair maybe 6-10 times a year really affects our health. Most likely—unless we’re hairdressers who deal with high exposures or we color more frequently than usual—the effects will be negligible. Still, it’s not comforting to imagine all those chemicals seeping into our scalps from dyed hair (not to mention the toll that the creation and disposal of these chemicals takes on the environment).
Fortunately, there are other natural hair color alternatives.
Coloring your hair naturally
You natural beauty deserves natural products and it turns out we can use a lot of natural ingredients for hair care—some of which we can find in our kitchens—to create new hair color. It depends on what color you’re looking for, how intense you want it, and how much time you want to spend.
Keep in mind that natural color products are not the same as chemical color products. They don’t usually last as long, you won’t be able to completely change your natural color, and the color may be slightly different than you imagined. (Of course, that often happens in the salon, too!)
It may take some time and experimentation to get the color you’re looking for, but meanwhile you’ll actually be doing something good for your hair.
A few helpful beauty tips
First, if you’re not sure you’re brave enough to try the following home remedies on your entire head of hair, save some from your next trim or cut off a few locks and test a small amount of natural dye first.
Next, always rinse out your color with apple cider vinegar to help the color last longer. Try rinsing with a vinegar/water solution, or mix one-tablespoon apple cider vinegar with about a cup of water in a spray bottle and apply after coloring hair—don’t rinse.
7 ingredients to color your hair naturally
Coffee works great if you’re looking to go darker, cover gray hairs, or add dimension to dark tresses. Simply brew a strong coffee (espresso works well), let it cool, and then mix one cup with a couple cups of leave-in conditioner and 2 tablespoons of coffee grounds.
Apply on clean hair and allow to sit for about an hour. If you use apple cider vinegar to rinse, it will help the color last longer. You may need to repeat the process a couple times to see noticeable results.
Like coffee, black tea can help you go darker, and can also help cover gray hairs. If you have lighter hair, though, there are other types of tea you can use. Chamomile, for example, is recommended for blondes, while rooibos may work for redheads.
Do keep in mind that tea works best with your natural color. You won’t be able to turn blonde hair to brunette or black hair. But black tea can darken blonde hair and chamomile can lighten it—especially if you sit in the sun while you have it in.
The longer you leave the tea on the hair, the more noticeable the color will be. You can also try repeated applications.
The key is to make the tea highly concentrated. Use 3-5 teabags (or about the same amount in loose-leaf tea) for two cups of water. You can apply the cooled tea to hair alone, or mix with conditioner (as noted in the coffee recipe). If you’re seeking to cover grays, mix with some fresh or dried sage, which helps open up the hair follicles.
Leave on hair for at least an hour—more if you want more color. Some even put on a cap and wear the tea overnight, then rinse the following morning. Check your color to determine what intensity you need.
Depending on what color you’re going for, you can use a variety of herbs to achieve it. Here are some suggestions, depending on what your natural color is:
Red hair: Try calendula, marigold, rosehips, and hibiscus to deepen the red shade or add a few red highlights. The effects are cumulative—if you keep using the dye regularly, you will notice more color. Simmer the flowers in water for about 30 minutes, strain, cool, and then spray or pour on hair and allow to dry in the sun if possible.
Brunette/dark hair: Rosemary, nettle, and sage are all great herbs for dark hair. Simmer all three with water for 30 minutes, cool, strain, and spray or brush through hair. Allow to sit about an hour. You can also use the rinse daily after your shower. Be patient—it may take several days to notice a difference.
Blonde hair: As mentioned above, chamomile tea works, but you can also try calendula, marigold, saffron, and sunflower petals. To hide grays, try rhubarb root in two cups of water, simmer, strain, and pour over hair.
Add black tea to the darker colors above to help the color last longer. Catnip works for lighter colors.
4. Beet and Carrot Juice
These two juices can add natural red tints to your current color. Depending on what shade you want, you can use each alone, or mix them together. For a more reddish tinge, use more beet juice (strawberry blonde, deeper red, or auburn). Carrot will produce a quieter reddish orange.
This one is easy—simply apply about a cup of the juice to your hair. You can also mix in some coconut oil or olive oil to condition dry hair at the same time. Work it through, wrap hair, throw on a shower cap and leave on for at least an hour. (These juices stain—wear something to protect your skin and clothes.) Rinse the juice out, and seal with an apple cider vinegar spray. If the color isn’t dark enough, repeat the next day.
One of the most popular natural hair dye ingredients, henna is a powdered form of the leaves that come from the henna plant. These leaves have a natural and effective coloring pigment that has been used for thousands of years to dye hair, nails, and skin.
Natural henna, on its own, creates a red-orange color, so if you see products offering other colors produced with henna, realize the manufacturers have mixed the henna with other ingredients to achieve those colors. Redheads and brunettes (looking for a bit of auburn) are the best candidates for henna hair color. Be careful with this one—the results can be more orange than you’d like, so you may want to mix a little chamomile in with the paste to tame the color.
To make your own henna hair dye, mix about one cup of henna powder with 2 cups lemon juice. You can also add in a tablespoon of vinegar to help release the color. Allow to sit about 4-6 hours until it thickens. Apply to hair and comb through. (This is messy so be prepared!) Wrap your hair in plastic wrap and allow to sit 2-3 hours before rinsing.
6. Lemon juice
Looking for a few highlights?
Try fresh-squeezed lemon juice sprayed and brushed through hair. Leave on for several hours. If you sit in the sun, you’ll notice more lightening. Blondes can enjoy even more lightening by mixing with chamomile tea.
Lemon juice works slowly, so expect to repeat applications several times before seeing results.
7. Walnut shells
If you want to secure a dark brown color, this is the natural way to go for dyeing. Crush the walnut shells and boil for about half an hour. Cool, strain, and apply to hair. If you’re wanting to cover grays, you can use a cotton ball to apply only to those areas where it’s needed. Again, be careful as this dye will stain everything, so take precautions.
To create a more intense dye, return the strained juice to the heat and boil until it’s simmered down to about a quarter of the original volume. Allow to cool in the refrigerator, strain if needed, and pour through hair.
To save time, use walnut powder instead of the shells.
Let sit for at least an hour (more if you want more color), and rinse. Try to avoid really hot water as it can take the color away. Wash in lukewarm to make the color last longer.
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