Natural hair dyes? All the tough questions, answered

I’ve always loved expressing myself visually. Whether it be fashion, makeup, or hair color, I’m all about mixing it all up into something funky and fresh. And back in the MySpace days, I was young enough to treat my body however I wanted without consequence – including frequently dyeing my hair with mainstream, store bought dyes. The only shield from the harshness of my emo screamo world was a stash of earplugs I kept in my wallet for shows. (I went to a whole lot of those.)

Me knee-deep in my hair dyeing days
Knee deep in the throes of my hair dyeing days

Eventually my body became just as rebellious as I was. Whenever I tried to dye my hair I would break out in the itchiest hives of my life for over a month until my dyed hair grew far enough away from my scalp. I tried switching brands, I tried switching colors, but in the end it was all the same and it was time to clean up my act.

Mainstream hair dyes, usually the darker shades,  contain a highly sensitizing chemical called PPD. In other words, many people will develop allergic reactions to it if they are  exposed to it repeatedly over time. I believe this is the ingredient that causes me issues because I’m still fine with bleach and temporary fantasy shades…not that I trust them much anymore.

I’ve been using natural dyes for somewhere around eight years now and I’m ready to share my knowledge with you. Honestly it’s far easier to use than “normal” hair dye. I don’t have to be so cautious using it, and it’s a piece of cake to clean up. It deep-conditions my hair and scalp instead of destroying it. It looks much more natural…because it is. There are nothing but perks aside from the longer setting time.

Here’s all I’ve learned about natural hair dyes so you can get started for yourself!

What natural dyes are there to choose from?

There are two dyes that I have found that are potentially permanent – henna and indigo. There are plenty of others out there that may stain your hair for a day or two, and so I find them a waste of time. If you know of more, or if you experiment with other plant based dyes on your hair, let me and my readers know in the comments. I’m actually really interested in this.

Henna

Henna has been used for thousands of years and originates in the middle east. You may have seen it used as a skin adornment in traditional weddings and other milestones, but these peoples also used it as a hair and fabric dye.

Henna comes from the ground leaves of plants of the Lawsonia genus. It is prepared as a paste and binds to the keratin in our skin and hair. When first applied it may alarm you how bright red it is, but it will mellow out to a reddish brown as it oxidizes over the next few days.

I’ve found this dye to be permanent, but it bleaches out to a pale orange easily. This may differ for other hair types. Mine is coarse, slightly wavy, and takes up dye easily.

Indigo

Indigo is usually used in conjunction with henna to darken the shade to brown or even black. There are dyes that contain both for a one step formula, or it can also be applied as a second step after the henna.

In my experience, this too is permanent. Watch out if you bleach it later – the baby blue will be there to stay.

Cassia?

Cassia is also known as “neutral henna” – and it doesn’t usually dye your hair. Some with lighter colored hair say it colors their tresses to a golden blonde, but not for everyone. This herb is known to be an amazing hair conditioner, but I have yet to try it for myself. Here is some I found that would be a good option for you. Let me know if you have tried it and how it went for you.

Are they sustainable, eco-friendly, fair trade?

Naturally! As for the fair trade part, I can’t imagine these to be in high enough demand that growers would not be provided with a living wage, and many manufacturers say up front that their goods are fairly traded. You can always contact the manufacturer to double check.

Can I use natural dyes over synthetically dyed hair?

Absolutely. It won’t cause any weird colors or damage for sure, but it may take an extra treatment or two for your hair to take it up.

Will I develop an allergy to them?

This is extremely rare. Like I said, these dyes have been used for THOUSANDS of years! They’re tried and true and are literally dried, ground up plant matter.

If you’re especially sensitive, do a patch test first. A reaction is always possible.

When you look for a dye powder, make sure there are absolutely no additives in it. No PPD, no essential oils or fragrances, no preservatives, no oils or yogurt. Just pure plant powder.

What equipment and ingredients do I need?

  1. Nonmetallic mixing container
  2. Application brush. A cheap paintbrush from the hardware store works just fine
  3. Hair clips for sectioning
  4. Newspaper or old sheets to cover your workspace
  5. Dye powder
  6. Water, temp depends on your product’s instructions
  7. Plastic head covering like a shower cap or grocery bag
  8. Beanie and/or hair dryer
  9. Shower or sink
  10. Optional: lotion
  11. Optional: lemon juice or vinegar

What is the process like?

Follow the instructions for your particular product, of course. Some tell you to add near-boiling water to the henna powder and apply it immediately. Others say to add lukewarm water and wait overnight.

Depending on the length and thickness of your hair, you will need anywhere from a quarter cup to a full cup of henna powder. You will want to go for a yogurt or pudding like consistency. To help draw the dye from the plant cells, I like to add about a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar per half a cup of henna powder. I don’t recommend adding anything else. We want to put dye directly on the hair without barriers, and we don’t want to add anything extra that will potentially cause an allergic reaction.

prepared-henna
  1. Start off with clean, dry hair. Apply lotion  to the skin right next to your scalp if you’re prone to getting messy. Section off your hair and apply the henna with your brush one section at a time. I like to apply from bottom to top, root to tip. I also like to twist up and clip each colored section to keep it out of the way. When everything is colored, I let my hair out, reclip it up in a high bun, and clip any strays back.
    henna-hair-dye-processing
    Henna hair dye processing
  2. Cover your head with a layer of plastic like a shower cap or grocery bag and keep it nice and warm. Put a beanie over the top or use a hot blow dryer.
  3. Let process. Again this will depend on the powder you use. It will take anywhere from 45 minutes to four hours.
  4. Rinse with cool water in the shower or sink. Shampoo isn’t recommended for this initial rinse.
  5. Dry and style as normal. Avoiding sulfates is always advised. I recommend Grunge Goddess shampoo and conditioner bars.

Does it work on gray hair?

It does! I have lots of gray in front, and after using henna it is far less noticeable. It looks more like highlights in the sun, but indoors it blends right in. Here’s a before shot just to prove the gray was there, and I’ll post some grayless after photos in the next section.

gray-before-shot
Before picture. Gray city.

Where do I get henna? What brand do you recommend?

  1. Godrej nupur is my favorite. The colorant is pure henna, but it also contains nine ayurvedic herbs that make my hair feel silky smooth for weeks. I also love this because the preparation is fast and easy. Add lukewarm water and let sit 2-3 hours. Here’s a picture of my hair the day after using nupur.
    nupur-henna-hair-dye
    nupur henna hair dye after photo
  2. If you get bored of or don’t want red hair, another favorite brand of mine is Light Mountain. They offer all kinds of pre-mixed colors so you don’t have to do any guesswork. It’s also a fast, easy prep: mix in boiling water and use as soon as it’s cool enough! Here’s a picture of me after using the shade Dark Brown.
light-mountain-henna-indigo
Light Mountain dark brown dye after photo

3. I’ve never mixed my own shades, but here’s one indigo I found that should serve you well. No matter what brand of dye you use, make sure it’s a pure powder and no pre-prepared. Powders that you prepare fresh will always be most potent.

How long do they last?

In my experience, it’s permanent! But I imagine it may vary depending on your hair characteristics.

Let me know how natural hair dyes work for you if you try them. If you have any additional burning questions, please ask in the comments!

Leave a Reply