The Best Natural and Semi-Permanent Hair Dyes
Worried about the chemicals in your hair dye? Good news ahead.
If you saw the recent International Journal of Cancer study linking hair dye to breast cancer and thought, f*ckkkkk, you’re not alone. About 40 percent of American women dye their hair regularly, according to Statista.
Some background: The study looked at 46,709 women whose sisters had breast cancer, and over eight years, 2,794 of them got breast cancer themselves. Permanent hair dye was associated with 45 percent higher breast cancer risk in black women and a 7 percent higher risk in white women (researchers speculate that hair texture could account for some of this difference).
Before you freak out, dying your hair isn’t exactly a death sentence: First off, these women may have already been at a genetically higher risk of breast cancer. And it’s also worth keeping in mind: “The overall risk is not large and chemical hair products are just one of many factors that may influence a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer,” the researchers said in a release.
But if like me, you hear “cancer” and think hard pass, then you have some options: First, rocking your natural hair color, like Keanu Reeves's girlfriend Alexandra Grant who stopped dying her gray hair. Can't give up dye completely? Semi-permanent hair dyes, which weren’t associated with the same risk as permanent ones, and natural hair dyes are are a good place to start.
How Permanent Hair Dye Works
“All permanent hair color uses the same ingredients: an alkali, antioxidants, dyes, and hydrogen peroxide,” says Valerie George, cosmetic chemist, hair-care researcher, and co-host of the Beauty Brains podcast. “The alkali is typically ammonia or monoethanolamine (MEA), and its role is to create an alkaline environment that swells the hair, allowing the molecules to penetrate.” Hydrogen peroxide oxidizes the dyes together, creating color and removing your hair’s melanin as a new color is deposited, and the antioxidants prevent the dyes from oxidizing while in the tube, George says.
FYI: Even dark shades require hydrogen peroxide, and this basic formula applies to both DIY dyes and the stuff your stylist whips up in the salon.
How Semi-Permanent Hair Dye Works
Semi-permanent dye is different. “Permanent dyes penetrate into the hair fiber because of the alkaline pH and swelling of the hair,” George says. “Semi-permanent dyes generally stick to the surface because the base isn’t as alkaline and the hair doesn’t swell as much to allow penetration.”
So, as you can imagine, semi-permanent dyes are formulated differently. “Semi-permanent dyes may have less of the potentially concerning chemicals,” says Alexandra White, Ph.D., a researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and author of the study.
What About "Natural" Hair Dye?
Well, “natural” is a bit of a marketing term. “The only natural hair dyes on the market are henna, indigo, and cassia, which are plant extracts used to color hair,” says George. “Many hair color brands claim to be natural, but they use the same chemistry as every other brand.”
The only downside to using those legit natural hair dyes: “Henna and other plant extracts work, but there is limited shade availability — mostly browns and reds,” George says.
The Best Natural(ish) Hair Dyes — Plus Ways to Make Your Color Last Longer
Luckily, if you just want to go natural-ish — or rely a little bit less on potentially risky permanent hair dye, you have options.
- Best All-Around Natural Hair Dye: Lush Henna Hair Dyes
- Best for Mermaid Hair: Lime Crime Unicorn Hair Tints
- Best Root Touch-Up Spray: Batiste Hint of Color
- Best Root Touch-Up Powder: Madison Reed Touch Up
- Best Semi-Permanent Hair Dye: Clairol Natural Instincts
- Best Way to Maintain Your Current Color: Oribe Glaze for Beautiful Color
Best All-Around Natural Hair Dye: Lush Henna Hair Dyes
As George said, henna is one of the only truly natural hair dyes on the market, and Lush’s line features a hit of cocoa butter to keep hair extra healthy. You won’t be able to go lighter, but this is a solid option for brunettes or redheads trying to cover some grays. Just note: The process is a bigger time commitment than traditional DIY dyes. It comes in a block that you need to break down with hot water, then you need to leave it on your strands for at least two hours.
Shop now: $28; lushusa.com
Best for Mermaid Hair: Lime Crime Unicorn Hair Tints
Now one for the blondes: Lime Crime’s vegan, cruelty-free line of semi-permanent hair color is all about fun, non-perm color —pink, blue, purple, yellow — that can be easily applied to lighter hair. Amazon reviewers note that it washes out easily, so consider it your next vacay look.
Shop now: $16; amazon.com
Best Root Touch-Up Spray: Batiste Hint of Color
Use a touch-up spray to extend the life of your last dye job. This tinted one from Batiste — which comes in Divine Dark, Beautiful Brunette, and Brilliant Blonde — doubles as a dry shampoo, a win-win considering that semi-permanent hair color lasts longer when you wash less often.
Shop now: $22; amazon.com
Best Root Touch-Up Powder: Madison Reed Touch Up
For more targeted touch-ups, try a powder like this one from San Francisco-based color company Madison Reed. Think of it like an eye shadow for your hair: It deposits color and stays on all day. The compact also easily fits into any bag, so you can break it out when you inevitably miss a spot.
Shop now: $30; ulta.com
Best Semi-Permanent Hair Dye: Clairol Natural Instincts
This one makes the list not for its “natural” label, but for its color options. It’s one of the few semi-permanent hair dyes that comes in natural-looking shades (37 of them!) ranging from “midnight” to “light blonde.” Plus, coconut oil will leave your hair looking healthier than when you started, thanks to its unique ability to penetrate the hair shaft.
Shop now: $10; cvs.com
Best Glaze to Keep Your Color Vibrant: Oribe Glaze for Beautiful Color
This glaze has antioxidants to protect hair from sun damage (read: color fading) and quinoa protein, which helps hair hold onto color longer. Apply it once a week like you would a conditioner.
Shop now: $58; amazon.com