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Kris Carr

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Healthy Hair Dye 101 (What You Need to Know)

Hiya Gorgeous,

We talk a lot about healthy beauty here at KrisCarr.com. Foundation, mascara, nail polish, you name it, we’ve either covered it or it’s in the works! Today, I’m tackling one of the trickier topics that readers ask me about time and time again—hair dye!

You’re probably hip to the fact that the chemicals that color your hair can have some not-so-sexy effects on your health.

Over the years, I’ve had trouble finding safe and effective options. In other words, I needed this info just as much as you!

And that’s why I asked Sophie Uliano, my go-to organic beauty expert to help out. Sophie is a New York Times best-selling author and internationally renowned Green and Healthy Living expert. Her latest book, Gorgeous for Good, is a 30-day skin-to-soul program aimed at completely transforming the way you feel.

Whether you’re trying to cover up pesky greys or just want to revamp your look with a fun new style, I hope this blog helps you make healthier choices. Ready? Let’s comb through this tangled topic together…

Kris: What are the worst offenders when it comes to chemicals found in common hair products? Basically, when we’re reading labels what should we stay away from?

Sophie: The most common “offender” would probably be phenylenediamine (PPD), also known as paraphenylenediamine, p-phenylenediamine or 1,4-benzenediamine. PPD is an organic compound used in hair dyes, as well as in rubber chemicals, textile dyes and pigments. Manufacturers like it because it has a low relative toxicity level and a high temperature stability. This chemical allows the dye to stay on your hair despite numerous washes. One big reason you want to avoid PPDs is that repeated exposure can cause you to develop allergic skin sensitization, which is basically when your immune system reacts to the chemicals on your skin.

Here’s the deal: In the past, you may not have had any symptoms of skin sensitivity to hair dye. And then one day while sitting in the salon chair, BAM! The dye is applied, your eyes start to water, you feel a burning sensation on your scalp and a red irritation begins creeping down from your hairline. This is how “skin sensitizers” work. Your body builds up a resistance toward the chemicals over time, and then one day you get a full-blown allergic reaction.

Even worse, you can become cross-sensitized. This means that you might also suddenly become allergic (and I mean severely allergic) to PPD’s chemical cousins, which can be found in textiles, inks, medication dyes, food dyes, perfumes and more.

Kris: So if you’re not a fan of your natural hair color, what’s the best way to dye your hair while also reducing or avoiding harmful effects of PPD and other chemicals?

Sophie: You’re better off using a hair dye that is free of PPD and ammonia. A line that I love for stylists (turn your stylist on to these guys!) is Simply Organic’s Hnectar hair color. You also might want to look at Radico Colour Me Organic for home dyeing with 100% natural and organic ingredients. (I actually think it’s better and less expensive to dye your hair at home!)

Kris: Are there different suggestions for blondes, brunettes or redheads?

Sophie: Blondes are often the toughest because without bleach it’s very hard to get that bright “lift” without brassy tones. If you want very blonde hair, you might want to consider using a safe, organic base color, and then have a smattering of bleach highlights added. The organic natural shades (especially with henna) are pretty amazing for both brunettes and redheads.

Kris: Do different approaches to dyeing your hair (highlights, roots only, full-process, bleaching, ombre) impact your health differently?

Sophie: Absolutely. If a “single-process/full-process” base color is applied, it sits directly on your scalp for a period of time. This is where the real damage to your health occurs. This is why I strongly recommend a safe, non-toxic base. Highlights and low-lights rarely come into contact with your scalp, so they aren’t nearly as detrimental. That being said, bleach gives off fumes that you inhale, and bleach in general isn’t the most eco-friendly ingredient either!

Kris: What’s the difference between store-bought and salon hair dye products when it comes to toxicity and effectiveness?

Sophie: It’s easier to check out the ingredients in store-bought dyes because the ingredients are listed on the box. If you purchase from a certified organic company, and you’ve done your homework on ingredients, you should be fine toxicity-wise. Most of the safer companies will clearly use verbiage such as “free of PPD” etc. Some brands display a laundry list of chemicals that they don’t use, which is also useful.

As far as efficacy is concerned, you just have to try them out. Hair color is so personal—what works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. Most store-bought dyes will work (as in dye your hair for the specified amount of time), but shades in different brands vary.

When it comes to salon dyes, you have to dig deeper. If you have a close relationship with your stylist/colorist, you could ask him/her what brand they use. Most stylists use the brands that give the best aesthetic results, but that aren’t necessarily the healthiest.

You then have two choices at the salon: You can ask your colorist if they would be willing to try out an organic brand (you might have to show them the website), or you can do a Google search to find an “organic” hair salon in your area. I got my stylist to train to use a brand I like and trust. Many of the really great brands like Simply Organic (mentioned above) provide special training for salons.

Kris: I’d also love to know your recommendations for shampoo and conditioner. What are the top three brands you trust?

Sophie: I love Intelligent Nutrients, Onesta and Living Nature.

Kris: And is there a DIY haircare recipe you’d recommend for keeping hair healthy?

Sophie: Yes, this mask is magical!:

  • 2 tablespoons raw coconut oil
  • 1/2 ripe avocado
  • 2-4 drops lavender essential oil (optional)

Mix the ingredients into a smooth paste. Apply from roots to tips of your hair, making sure you massage it into your scalp too. Wrap your hair in a towel and leave for at least 20 minutes. Rinse off with a sulfate-free shampoo. No need to condition.

For extra shine, you can do an apple cider vinegar rinse—just mix equal parts vinegar and water and use as a final rinse.

Kris: Thanks, Sophie!

If you have doubts about your dye, I hope this interview sheds some light on healthier hair care options and inspires you to revamp your hair color strategy if needed.

Your turn: Do you color your mane? If so, what non-toxic and effective hair dye options have you found? I know our community would love to know!

Peace & Non-Toxic Tresses,

Add a comment
  1. Bea says:

    Great information, thank you! Kris, I’m wondering what you use on your hair?

  2. Jen says:

    Hi Kris! I did a lot of research on this recently. I was going to try henna, but I read if you ever try to use a different type of color the results could be disastrous! I settled on a brand called Naturtint which is low PPD, not completely free. I will check out the brand mentioned in the article for at home color. I have also recently tried (just yesterday) cinnamon, honey, and conditioner to soften, add red tones, and slightly lighten my hair. Thanks for always providing content!

    • Karen says:

      I use pure henna followed by an indigo/henna mix to get a fantastic shade of dark brown. And it covers my grays beautifully!

      It took a bit of experimenting on application technique and color ratio blend to get efficient at it, but I’ve got it down to a science now and I love it. Bonus is that it conditions and strengthens my hair as well!

      • Karen says:

        Oh…and I think the problem w/some hennas and using a different type of color afterwards can be due to the quality of the henna. If it’s not pure henna, I’ve heard putting a hair dye over it can be disastrous – both in the resulting hair color and hair condition.

        • Tara says:

          Karen – where do you get the pure henna from?

          • Karen says:

            I order from Mehandi.com. There’s a TON of information there, so make sure you read read read! And their customer service is great as far as answering questions.

            And Sandy’s comment below is correct. Henna is a whole different animal (and it’s permanent, so you definitely want to test hair samples before you do your entire head). lol I’m not a colorist, stylist, or anything even remotely close to a beauty professional. But. I can’t afford organic salons, etc. so I researched and read for a few months, experimented, and found what works for me, color-wise and health-wise.

            Bonus: Since the henna is permanent, I only have to do my roots as they grow out…

            It’s also not a quick process. My henna application: 15 minutes to apply, 30-60 minutes on my hair, then a shampoo and rinse. Then a henna/indigo mix (no drying needed, apply on the wet roots): 15 minutes to apply, 60 minutes on my hair, then a deep condition rinse. So you’re looking at 2.5 hours minimum (I clean house or do laundry while the hair’s doing its thing).

            You can see why faster processing hair dyes were invented…

            • Karen says:

              (Oh – forgot to add that the conditioner is kinda necessary after the indigo mix application. Indigo is very difficult to rinse out of the hair strands b/c it’s more plant fibers than the henna. So, I use a conditioner to get the indigo plant fibers out of my hair.)

              Hope all of this helps! 🙂

          • Margaret says:

            Karen is spot on. Read and research henna. I have been using it for about 15 years and even a couple of times used regular die over it with no issues at all, even though my hairdresser warned me of what she heard could happen.

            • Sara D says:

              I’ll echo Karen and Margaret– I’ve been coloring my hair with henna from Mehandi for about 8 years and I would never go back to conventional dyes. My hair is naturally a dark ash blond, and with henna I get a beautiful red. I get compliments on my hair color all the time (from strangers and stylists at my salon), and people always assume it’s natural. I don’t use shampoo or conditioner and have no problems rinsing out the henna with water. In my experience henna never fades and the color stays beautifully vibrant, so my only up keep is dying my roots about every 6 weeks. I find my very straight hair also has more body and texture in the first week or so after I henna.

              • Heather says:

                Hi Sara! I’m so glad I found this thread. I have been professionally coloring my hair a medium red tone for 5 years and want to try switching to henna. I have been reading up on the Mehandi website. Which product do you use, and how dark does it leave your hair? I also have naturally dark ash blonde hair, that now is more or less permanently a gingery tone due to years of color mixed with sun.

      • Kris says:

        Thanks for adding your tips & experiences, Karen! xo, kc

    • Janet says:

      This is for Jen: can you tell me a little more about using cinnamon, honey, and conditioner for red hair? Thanks!

  3. LisaLoo says:

    Glad someone in the U.S. is addressing this topic. PPD allergies are real. The darker the hair dye, the more PPD it contains. After years of blond highlights, I switched to darker colors. At first, the dye just tingled. My stylist would mix packets Sweet n Low to help with my “sensitivity”. After several years, my reaction escalated to blisters and burning on my scalp, as well as asthma. Needless to say, I have not colored my hair since that reaction. Thank you, Kris, for providing some alternatives! Cannot wait to present these products to my stylist.

  4. Samantha says:

    Thank you so much for covering this topic, Kris! It gets overwhelming trying to change all beauty care at once, but this is an important one, I think, and I’ve never known how to even start to change what I do to my hair. I’m going to talk to my stylist to see if she can incorporate organic products into the salon, otherwise I’ve just found a place online that looks like they may do it not too far from me in the suburbs outside of Boston. Living with cancer is stressful enough, we don’t need to worry about our products, too! Thanks Kris! xo.

  5. Susan Iseman says:

    DO not agree with coloring your hair at home. This is best left to a professional!!!

  6. Sandy says:

    Hi Kris. As a Board Certified Colorist and stylist for 20 years I find your knowledge regarding haircolor and bleach lacking. This small area does not have enough space for me to explain all the chemistry and information clients need to responsibly and effectively color hair. Hair is not a “wall”, and haircolor in not “paint” from Sears. You do my profession a disservice with your comments. Some women and men are able to effectively color at home, however that vast majority will have brassy, dry and barely covered grey. And they won’t understand why. Henna is a whole other topic that people better understand before they use it. While color can cause sensitivity and some people have a true allergy, I personally don’t know anyone who has become sensitive to other products because of it as you suggested. Colorists’ such as myself work very hard to help women feel good about themselves, keep their hair healthy and help them stay current as well as competitive in the workplace where youth is everything and grey just won’t work. Much information is lacking in your article.

    • Kris Carr says:

      Sandy, this is an interview with an expert who I highly regard. This is not my expertise, never claimed it was and it’s also not a put down of your profession. Apologies if it came across that way. However, many of my readers are concerned about this topic. If you would like to help clarify or contribute to the conversation, we would all love your opinion on non-toxic ways or reduced toxic ways to color our hair. Why don’t you write an article we can link to or add a few resources to this thread or give us your #1 tip. It doesn’t have to be long but it can be positive and helpful to the thousands of readers who visit my site each week.

      • Simi Khanna says:

        Hi Sandy, I have been getting my hair colored for 5yrs and then suddenly one day I had a huge reaction on my neck due to the hair coloring. Quite honestly, I had no idea why my stylist put the remaining color on the sides of my neck. I can tell you I suffered a great deal, I thought I had eczema and then finally It took me a month to get an appt. to see a Dr. and he confirmed if was definitely the hair color. For the past 3yrs I have not been able to use any body wash, even the ones from Whole Foods!!! That’s how sensitive my skin has become. This article is RIGHT ON!! so it should not be taken personally. I also work in the beauty/cosmetic industry but the real fact is that there has to be a solution for toxic chemicals and without people like Kris we don’t know what to do. I really love self care and beautifying so I’ve started making my own things whenever I can. I make my own eye makeup remover because I can no longer use anything out there, and body moisturizer bars which is quite fun. I use coconut oil mixed with lemon grass oil and massage on my body before I shower. In Ayurveda – you don’t actually need soap to cleanse unless your stinky lol! I’ve made many changes because my sister is an Integrated Doctor and I get a lot of info from her. Since I have worked in the beauty industry for so many years I am going to start helping anyone I can by providing alternative healthy suggestions. I have not attempted hair color so Thank you so much Kris for this article.

    • Lex says:

      Don’t take it personal. Chemicals are chemicals (we know they’re not good for us). And while regular salon color may look beautiful-some of us are looking for a non toxic option. It’s just that simple. 🙂

  7. Katie says:

    I use henna from Lush, and I LOVE it. It leaves my hair really conditioned and glossy, and everyone thinks it’s my natural color. It does take a long time to set, so I have to plan out when I use it, and it can be messy, but I’m getting better at it every time!

  8. Agustina Lopez Novillo says:

    For lightening I use chamomile tea mixed with lemon juice. You just have to soak your hair in the liquid and spend 30 minutes in the sun. Really works.

  9. Linda says:

    Great article, Kris! What about Aveda color? I love the salon and it’s supposedly 96% (or close to that) plant based. xx

  10. Carol says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Also, any recommendations for styling products? –heat protectors, leave in conditioner etc

  11. Bridget says:

    I switched to henna around 6 months ago and LOVE it! My hair is super shiny and soft, and it totally covers my 50% gray with dark brown hair. I used Naturtint for many years but started to get a tingly warm feeling on part of my head, and one time my eye puffed up during an application. I see Naturitint lists two different PPDs in their ingredients. Dang! I wish I knew about PPDs earlier. I have tried three henna brands and despite having almost the exact ingredients have had very different experiences. ‘Light Mountain’ instructions make the process way more complicated than it needs to. ‘Henna Color Lab’ simplifies application, has the best suggestion to color gray – apply to just roots for 1 hr, rinse, then apply to whole head for up to 2 hrs – doesn’t smell when wet as long as the other two brands I used, and left my hair even more shiny. Few tips I have learned so far: don’t let the henna dry on your head, make sure you add enough water to get the consistency of yogurt so it can coat your hair strands. I use water from my Zero Water pitcher so nothing in the water can interact with the henna. And I use a Hot Head cap I got on Etsy because heat is supposed to help the henna color faster and I think it helps keep the henna moist. I use a squeeze bottle to apply, similar to what comes with chemical home dye kits, that I got from Henna King. Coloring with henna isn’t as scary or labor intensive as I was afraid it would be. It takes longer to process, but application is just as easy as chemical and when you color at home, you can get a lot of things done around the house while you wait.

    • Margaret says:

      Henna is the best! The only 100% all natural (using pure henna of course) and there are many color options. The only drawback is that it does not lighten for blondes. Colors range from reds to burgundies to browns and blacks.

  12. Laura says:

    Hey Kris, thank you sooo much for this! I’m usually really low-maintenance and don’t even have much a beauty routine, but I do dye my hair red and have been using regular at-home dye for the past two years. THANK YOU for this post, I’ll be checking out some of these suggestions!

  13. Nancy says:

    Great article – thanks Kris. I struggle with all hair products! What can we use for mouse, gel, wax, hair spray etc. that are good for us? I haven’t found product that is safe and yet works. I’d love to hear about that too!

  14. Patricia says:

    I have had a rash on my neck for two months now and couldn’t figure out what new thing I used to cause this. Apparently I developed a sensitivity to the hair color. Now working with my stylist to come up with something else. I used to color my hair at home and it always looked like I did:) Not going back to that I like a little pampering.

  15. Susi Lippuner says:

    This is super helpful information. Please do your next coverage of the this topic for women of color: black hair, black (in color hair…Asian, Native, etc women). Their products are even more toxic often and their needs just as great. Thank you.

    • Kris Carr says:

      Great suggestion! We’ll get it in the works.

    • Melissa says:

      Thanks for leaving this comment. I am a woman of color who does her best to avoid toxic chemicals in all products. I am a few months from 35 and I now see my gray hair beginning to emerge. I absolutely love my hair color, but look forward to being creative in the next couple of years while trying new hair colors and styles. I’m looking into Henna….thanks for those that are offering great tips.

  16. Susan says:

    I’ve used Naturtint and Herbatint, both with success (although I did get a box that had the wrong color in it once and ended up with some really dark hair – so not me…). It’s important to go all around the head and get it on your roots first, then go around and get the rest of your hair. Both cover gray quite well, but since they are only semi-permanent, it is necessary to do it a bit more often than I would like or just deal with gray a little more–my hair grows quickly. Both come with deep conditioners so that my hair looks and feels great afterwards. I’d love to try the Radico, but I don’t find it anywhere locally and no way will I trust choosing a color online!

    • Janet says:

      I have been considering both of these dyes. I realize they still have chemicals, but at least they are in lower quantity than regular dye, and I am not ready to commit to henna because I’d have to mix it with indigo or katam to achieve brown, but I may want to highlight again in the future. Did you find one better than the other? From what I read online, they both claim to be permanent, which is what I want. Did your boxes say semi-permanent, or do you say that because they don’t last as long as regular dye? Many reviewers of both these dyes said it leaves hair straw like, but I’ve heard the same complaint about henna. The Herbatint website said hair may feel drier than regular dye because there are no silicones. Did you find your hair to be really dry from either of these products? Thanks.

  17. Susan says:

    Frankly, I am terrified of trying Henna – it sounds like, other than time consuming, it is easy but I am totally a moron when it comes to this stuff and I know I would do it wrong and look like an idiot when I got done! I wish I were brave enough to just go gray, but I am too young for that!!!!

    • Margaret says:

      Henna is really easy. I use Light Mountain Color the Gray and it works perfectly. You can google ‘tips for henna’ but I can explain it easily. Follow the printed directions in the box, and at the final rinse use a natural conditioner. Do not use metal items (bowl, spoon, etc) and a hair-color brush from the beauty supply store is helpful, though not necessary. Do not wash your hair for 24 to 48 hours after. The best thing about henna on gray is that it fades gradually and looks just like highlights. I get many compliments on my “highlights” and just smile knowing those are grays.

  18. Nicole Hay-Chapman says:

    Excited to see you discussing healthier hair dye options! The decision to first dye my hair was made for me in 5th grade by a family member who thought my natural hair color was bland and very unattractive. I believed that it must have been true, and colored my hair religiously, out of fear, for the next 20 years. I had long wondered about the effects of hair dye on my own health, but vanity would quickly swoop in, shutting down that very important conversation I was attempting to have with myself.

    One day while my hair stylist was washing my hair after coloring it, I sat there wondering where the toxic chemically laden dyes go once they “disappear” down the drain. This made me question the half life of each chemical, how they break down in the water supply, and, going back to the beginning, where are the products made, how are they made, and how is the packaging made, what is it made from…how much of it gets recycled?

    That was the last time I colored my hair. I realized that no matter how unappealing my natural color might be, I wanted to take a stand for health, mine and that of our insanely awesome Mother Earth. A few weeks after my last color, I had my hair stylist take it all off. I walked in with hair to my shoulders, and left with a bit of length left on top (about 2 inches) and the rest was shaved down to less than an inch.

    That was four years ago. Even though my natural color might not be very exciting or stand out in a crowd, I feel more beautiful than ever before. It’s one more way in which I am able to witness an incredible dance of the genomes–all of my ancestors coming together–and geez, is there anything more beautiful than that? Greys are slowly coming in, and when they catch my eye, I feel pretty honored by their presence; their sparkle makes me smile.

    Anywhoo, not everyone is willing to ditch the dye, and I get it: playing with color is big time fun! Thank you for bringing attention to better choices, Kris. With millions of people coloring their hair, it’s crucial that we choose products that are better for human health and the health of this place we all call home.

    • Anita says:

      Dear Nicole,

      I echo your experience with pressure from family to colour your hair! It took me almost 20-years to stand up for myself and say ‘my hair, my choice’ and another 2-years after that to grow all of the dyed hair out.

      I’m so grateful I stopped masking my true identity! I feel free! Better yet, I’m not stressing anymore about how I look when my dyed hair grew out. Now I know what my real / natural hair colour is and I love it!

      This is my “Healthy Hair Dye Secret” Kris. Thank you for all of your forums! ?

  19. Kelly says:

    Great information! Simply Organic only sells to salons, they said they actually do use PPD. They only use 1% which is much lower than most but I’d prefer using one that doesn’t contain any. My sister has a terrible allergy to PPD, she uses Hair Print & says it works extremely well. http://www.myhairprint.com/

  20. Alexa says:

    Hi Kris!

    Thanks again for tackling the health of everyday products many women use.

    I currently get my hair colored at a salon that uses Kevin Murphy color line. It is said to be a vegan, non-harmful & sustainable company. My hair is lightened with the color and has previously been heavily bleached. I am no expert, but I will say that my hair is incredibly healthy and strong and the color is amazing!

    I highly recommend the color line and hair care products. Has anyone found similar results/ have a deeper knowledge of the Kevin Murphy hair dyes?

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