I have done a lot of colouring my hair over the years. During high school and university, it was my beauty treatment of choice when I was feeling bored with my look (which, as often happens in your teens and early 20s, was about every three minutes).
Over the course of about a decade, my naturally dark brown hair ran the gamut from fire-engine red (I watched Run Lola Run at least once a week), to a shade of purple Prince would’ve been proud of to Morticia Addams blue-black (that one was a mistake that resulted in a $300 trip to the salon for a colour correction). Drugstore box colour was my weapon of choice, but I wasn’t afraid to experiment, and lemon juice, henna and Kool-Aid all ended up in my hair at some point.
All of this was before I developed an interest in natural beauty, or much interest in my health (teenagers are indestructible, don’t you know?), so I didn’t really think much about the ingredients. All I knew about ammonia and formaldehyde was that it was the stuff the grade 12 biology lab smelled like due to storing all those dissection specimens.
Hair dye formulas, both salon and drugstore varieties, have gotten a lot better since Jean Harlow’s trademark platinum blonde may have contributed to her early death, but modern blonde bombshell Lady Gaga has still Instagrammed that bleaching her hair is so painful she takes anti-inflammatories for it. If just getting it done is painful, who knows what the long-term effects might be?
Even if you don’t bleach your hair before colouring it, many salon and drug store hair dyes contain less-than-healthy chemicals like Quaternium-15 (which can release carcinogenic formaldehyde), potentially endocrine-disrupting alkylphenol ethoxylates and skin irritating phenylenediamine. These aren’t necessarily things you want near sensitive and thin scalp skin. Many hair colour brands will add a few plant extracts and add “natural” or “organic” to the name. Keep in mind that, unlike food, “organic” is not a regulated term. Anyone can put the term on a box of hair dye without the need to prove the safety of its contents.
There are, however, more natural options options out there if you’re looking to make a change or get rid of grey. (Although, personally, I’d be on board with letting things go grey naturally because you’d be so on trend right now and save so much money!)
If you’re a DIY dyer, you’ve got an option that goes all the way back to antiquity. Henna has been used to colour hair since ancient Egyptian times, and is still widely available today. Straight henna gives a bright red hue, but henna can also be mixed with other ingredients – such as chamomile, lemon and indigo – to provide a range of shades from blonde to dark brown.
Personal anecdote: henna pastes, especially if you make your own, can be a bit unpredictable, so newbies may want to start with a commercial henna formula. Henna pastes can also be very messy. My husband has told me that if I want to try using henna again, I’m going to have to stay in the bathtub the entire time until I’m ready to rinse. For months after my henna experiment, we were finding chunks of dried henna paste in little nooks and crannies in the bathroom.
If you really feel like getting experimental, you can look to your kitchen cabinet. Drugstore box colours are often named after food (I myself can remember dying my hair Espresso, Chocolate Cherry and French Toast), so why not go straight to the source?
Like henna, these at-home options work best as tints to enrich a natural colour, so if you’re looking to change your colour entirely, you’re best off checking out salon options. You’ll also want to keep in mind that results can be even more unpredictable than henna when experimenting with food-based dyes, so you might want to start slow.
Brunettes: To make brown shades richer and darker, you can try coffee or black tea. Just add one cup of strongly brewed coffee or heavily steeped (3-5 bags) tea to two cups of leave-in conditioner. For an intense dark brown, you can try crushing walnut shells, boiling them for half an hour. Allow the mixture to cool, then strain the shell remnants out before applying to hair and leaving the mixture on for at least an hour.
Redheads: If you’re not feeling in the mood for henna, you can try brightening up with beet juice (for strawberry blondes, deeper reds and auburns, depending on your natural colour) or carrot juice for a more orangey red. Just add a cup of juice to your hair and let set for at least an hour.
Blondes: Try brightening up naturally blonde hair with chamomile tea using the same instructions as for brunettes with black tea. You can also try using lemon juice to get sun-kissed highlights. Brush the lemon juice in and let it sit for several hours. If you spend some time in the sun, the results will be even more noticeable.
If you want to make a dramatic change to your hair colour, or cover a lot of grey, it’s tough to do with food-based dyes, so a trip to the salon is probably in order. Check with stylists and salons in your area and find out what kinds of hair colouring products they offer. While there will be chemicals involved in order to get the dramatic, lasting results we expect from salon colour, Brands like LaBiosthetique, Hnectar, and Radico Color Me Organic are offering options that are free (or almost free) of the most dangerous chemicals. These types of colours tend to come in the more natural blondes, reds and browns, so the latest unicorn hair trend won’t necessarily be on the menu.
Another way to make salon colour healthier is to ditch all-over colour in favour of balayage-style highlights, since this style of hair colour concentrates the colour on the ends and less likely to come into contact with your scalp.
Full disclosure: while writing this article, I’m rocking a full head of purple ombre highlights that are of a colour definitely not seen in nature … unless you’re a tulip. (See the colour of the subheadings in this article for reference.) The key is to be informed and know your options as a consumer. But sometimes, you’ve just got to do you! ;)
Share your haircolour stories – the good, the bad, and the retrospectively embarrassing – with me in the comments below!