I've been allergic to almost everything for decades, and had to learn how to make many things myself. Fortunately my father is a chemist!
Modern commercial dyes have been exposed as having many chemicals that are toxic and even carcinogenic. (If you want to see this for yourself, check out a free app on the App Store called Think Dirty. You simply scan in the barcode of your product, and it will show you the chemicals in it.) However, as far back as antiquity, many people dyed their hair with only natural substances. If you are making a transition to a more natural lifestyle, then these homemade, safe dyes will help you maintain that color and avoid all the potential hazards in commercial dyes, too.
Be aware that because these dyes are not artificial, they work much more slowly than the commercial dyes (with some exceptions), and therefore the results will not be as immediate. In addition, the results are not as predictable as with commercial dyes. All of these methods will take much more time and effort than the commercial dyes, and more time to maintain. However, given the safety issues that are beginning to be understood with commercial dyes, there are many reasons to take a little more time and effort to see great results. By maintaining a daily or weekly regimen of coloring, you will have healthier hair while still keeping great color! You will also be supporting smaller industries, and in some cases, local farmers. And if you grow some of these ingredients yourself, you will be contributing to your area's biodiversity.
Before You Begin
Exercise common sense when it comes to safety and keeping your hands, face, neck, clothing, rugs, etc. from staining. Always wear gloves and goggles to protect your eyes; cover your neck with clean towels or rags to prevent staining.
By far, the most popular hair dye in human history is henna, which has been used for many thousands of years. Henna was the dye of choice for the ancient Egyptians. While most people think of bright red when they think about henna, in fact, henna can be used to produce any shade, from light blonde or even colorless (for conditioning only), to the darkest black. Dyeing with henna takes a lot of getting used to, and even different batches from the same producer may turn out differently. In many cases, you will have to learn to live with the results (although the results are usually good; it may not, however, be the precise shade you were aiming for). Henna strengthens and conditions, too, so it is an excellent choice for already healthy hair, although the results of using henna on previously chemically treated hair will be highly unpredictable.
Out of all the natural dye methods, henna is probably the second-most-difficult method of dyeing. If you are not yet accustomed to working with henna, it is highly advisable that you either consult a trained professional, find someone who has used henna on a regular basis to help you the first few times, or if you are determined to try it yourself, experiment a few times with neutral henna to become accustomed to the process (neutral henna won't change your hair color, but it will give you conditioning and shine, and strengthen your hair). Use glass or plastic bowls and plastic or wooden spoons for mixing, wear rubber gloves to protect your skin, remember to wear old clothing, and either cover the immediate area with a plastic sheet or tarp, or dye your hair outside in the back yard, because remember, if this will stain your hair, it will also stain clothing, countertops, floors, and anything else permeable that it comes in contact with, including your skin. (Using Vaseline on your forehead, face, and neck will help keep the henna from getting in places you don't want it!) Practice will help keep the mess to a minimum, however, accidents do happen, so work diligently to minimize the risk of getting the dye in unwanted places. If you do get henna on your skin, it will take approximately six weeks to completely fade. The darker the color, the longer the dye will be noticeable.
If the precise final color is important to you, it is worth cutting off a strand or two of hair and testing how your hair will take the dye before proceeding. In addition to the strength of the dye, the time the dye is left on is important, so when aiming for a precise color it is best to approach this like a science experiment and precisely measure the amounts used as well as the time the dye is left in. Otherwise, your results will not be as predictable as they might otherwise be. In addition, it's best to let the strand rest for a day or two as henna tends to darken a little as it ages, so don't rush in to change the color right away.
You can also mix different hennas to get a precise color, or mix with other products (see the list of other substances below) to get a precise shade. Again, each batch of henna will vary slightly in strength, just like that one jalapeño pepper that is so much hotter than all the rest, so you will have to test anew for each batch if getting the precise color is important to you.
In general, you mix the henna powder with hot water, wait for the dye to release, apply to your hair, and leave on for a while until you get the desired color, which may take anywhere from ten minutes or so to six or more hours. Henna is messy, almost like a mud mask for your hair, and it may take a lot of rinsing to make sure you have all the henna out. If you leave any in, you may end up with a very odd spotty result, so rinsing your hair thoroughly is extremely important. Repeating will get you a darker or more intense color, up to the limit of color that your hair will absorb. Do not shampoo or condition for at least forty-eight hours after the dye session, to ensure that the dye will set and become permanent. This also allows time for the dye to fully react with your hair and set to its permanent color.
A strong mixture of rosemary and sage, infused in hot water, and left to steep overnight, will help to cover gray. Use a basin (to catch the liquid to reuse it) and rinse your hair with this liquid fifteen times each day until the gray is covered, then maintain by rinsing weekly (more often if gray roots start showing and bothering you).
Chamomile, turmeric, curry powder, saffron, or the peels from yellow apples will all help dye already light hair blonde. Mix up a strong infusion of any of these by mixing with hot water and letting it soak overnight, and rinse fifteen times daily, using a bowl to catch the liquid for reuse, until you attain your desired shade. Maintain the color with a weekly rinse.
To lighten darker hair to blonde: Mix 1 part lemon juice with 3 parts chamomile tea. Rinse the same liquid through your hair 15 times, and sit for an hour in the sun.
Alternatively, you can pour three cups of hot water over four tablespoons of chopped rhubarb root, and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain it, rinse through your hair 15 or more times, rinse in clear water and dry it in the sun.
Use an inexpensive straw hat and a crochet hook, and pull out strands through the holes in the straw hat. Juice several lemons and spray liberally on your hair. Go sit outside in the sun for at least two hours to allow the sun to continue to its bleaching action. Maintain with fresh applications as necessary.
Red and Reddish-Orange Dyes
If your hair is already red, beets will help add depth by adding a light pink color on top of your red shade. Simply use the juice from a can of beets and rinse ten to fifteen times daily, using a bowl to catch the liquid for reuse, or cook and puree beets and apply to your hair and let sit for a few hours. For a lighter color, sit in the sun for up to two hours.
Another vegetable that will help add depth to already red hair is carrots. Puree the carrots and work into your hair, then sit in the sun for anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours. Rinse out the carrots. Carrots will provide a more orange shade to red hair.
Or, for a shade in between the two, you can mix equal parts of beet juice and carrot juice. Rinse hair 15 times daily with same liquid; sit in the sun for an hour to speed the process.
Hibiscus petals will also help color hair red, or add depth to already-red hair. Make a strong infusion of hibiscus petals with hot water, rinse ten to fifteen times daily, reusing the liquid by catching it in a bowl, until you reach the desired shade.
If hibiscus is too red for you, marigold flowers will give a red-gold color. As with almost all of the ingredients, use dried or fresh flowers and make an infusion with hot water, letting the flowers soak overnight. Rinse your hair ten or fifteen times daily, using a basin to catch the liquid to reuse it, until you have reached the perfect shade.
Annatto will produce a reddish-orange dye. Crush the seeds and soak in hot water, or use annatto powder and make an infusion with hot water, then rinse ten to fifteen times daily until you achieve the desired shade. As with any dye, test on a strand to make sure you are satisfied with the color.
You can also use paprika or chili powder, infused in hot water, to dye hair red or orange. However, you must be extremely careful not to get this in your eyes—safety goggle are strongly recommended if you insist on using these as dyes!
If you have a bottle of undrinkable red wine, this is a great way to use it up (unless you want to turn it into vinegar). Rinse your hair ten to fifteen times with the wine, catching it in a bowl to reuse the liquid.
A very potent brew of tea (for a lighter shade) or coffee (for darker shades) produce an effective brown dye (you can also use this to dye fabric or other materials). Make up a batch, then rinse ten to fifteen times with the liquid, catching the liquid in a bowl for reuse.
If you thought henna was messy, you haven't seen anything yet. This is definitely the messiest and most time-consuming dye, but if you want intense black color, this is well worth the effort.
Take black walnut hulls and someplace where staining won't matter, pound them with a hammer until they are completely crushed. Cover with boiling water and let steep for a minimum of three days. Now, simmer for at least five hours, adding more liquid as the water evaporates. Then reduce the liquid to a quarter of its original volume. Strain the liquid, pressing the shells in a cheesecloth to get all the juice. Add ground cloves or ground allspice, and let sit in the refrigerator for a week, shaking it daily. Rinse this through your hair for ten to fifteen times, again using a bowl or basin to catch the liquid and reuse it. As with henna, you will want to take precautions not to let this anywhere near skin, clothing, carpets, or anything else you do not want permanently stained.
Yes, you can use natural dyes to make your hair pink, blue, green, purple, or anything in between! You can experiment with spinach or kale boiled in water to extract the color for green, or onion skins for a yellow or red color, or red cabbage leaves (for blue), or grape juice for purple. You can even take hints from natural dyes for Easter eggs! For even more fun, take a course in natural dyes (such as those used for fabrics) and prepare to amaze yourself and your friends with your knowledge of natural dyes!
Things to Remember
- Test dyes on small snips of hair.
- Modify ingredients or strength as necessary to achieve desired results.
- To brighten shades, add lemon juice or chamomile.
- To dull shades, add coffee, tea, sage or rosemary.
- Even with natural, plant-based ingredients, you can develop an allergy. Patch-test any ingredients by painting a small patch on a sensitive unseen area of skin and waiting 24 hours.
- Wear gloves, safety goggles, and prevent items and skin from staining by covering areas with clean rags or towels.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 classicalgeek
Cynthia Hoover from Newton, West Virginia on May 04, 2020:
Why had I never thought of dying my hair naturally before! I love home remedies, and natural ingredients but this never crossed my mind! Thank you for all the details, I will be trying some for red hair soon.
Swinter12 from Earth on July 26, 2012:
I would never have thought that dyes used by the Ancient Egyptians would strengthen and condition your hair... I don't know why I thought dyes used back in the day would severely damage one's hair.
This is a really interesting topic, as I am endeavoring towards a earth-friendly lifestyle.
I decided long ago to never dye my hair, because of the toxins contained in dyes.
Thanks for posting this hub, I really appreciate it. :)