We updated this article in April 2022 to add four new top-rated products to the original picks, based on criteria established by the Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab experts. We've also added more detailed information to the buying guide and FAQs to help make finding safe, non-toxic hair dyes even easier for readers.
No one would blame you for being under the impression that the ingredients found in hair products marketed as "organic" or "natural" make them inherently safer. But in fact, "organic" and purely "natural" hair dyes simply do not exist, nor are products marketed as such better for consumers' health, according to officials at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. As a general rule, hair dye will always require some form of chemical makeup to get the job done well — but if you're looking for a hair dye that's going to be gentler on your hair and scalp, take note that natural, plant-based ingredients can be incorporated with synthetic pigments in lieu of stauncher chemicals.
To help you identify the best alternative hair dyes that use well-regulated, synthetic coloring agents as well as plant-based ingredients (like henna, German chamomile and senna) we consulted with professional hair colorists as well as our Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty, Health & Sustainability Lab chemists, who regularly test all kinds of hair dye products, from at-home hair color to hair glazes, and have a deep knowledge of the market. For this story, we researched the top-reviewed hair dyes that incorporate plant-based ingredients in their formulas, then vetted the top-rated ones with our Beauty Lab analysts who evaluated them using established criteria for quality assurance.
The bottom line: Regardless of marketing claims like "organic" or "natural," hair dyes do not need to feature these claims to be safe, and there are other ways to be health- and eco-conscious when it comes to coloring your hair, too. Read on to shop the best hair dyes made with natural or vegan ingredients, plus get answers to your top questions about natural ways to dye your hair without causing major damage.
How can I dye my hair without chemicals?
Sorry, but no truly effective hair dye can skip the use of chemicals. That said, you shouldn't be afraid of the word "chemical" when you see it on a hair dye product (after all, water is technically a chemical, too!). "Other than henna, any commercially available hair dye — store-bought for home use or found in salons — uses chemical actives for them to work," explains Birnur Aral, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute's Beauty, Health & Sustainability Lab. "By and large, these chemicals are synthesized substances."
Ultimately, even brands committed to natural plant-based formulas must rely on some synthetic ingredients for the hair color to work — including Aveda, which has created a proprietary hair color that's "96% comprised of "ingredients derived from nature," according to the company. "It's unavoidable to include synthetic ingredients in professional hair color because all of the colorants and dyes used in permanent and demi-permanent hair color are synthetic," Justina Mejia-Montane, Aveda's former Vice President of Global Product Development, told Good Housekeeping in 2020. "These are the ingredients that create hair color via the oxidation process."
Is there anything I can dye my hair with naturally?
You'll be hard-pressed to find an effective hair dye that is solely made from natural ingredients. Colors pulled from indigo plants, cloves, walnuts, beets, berries and tree bark are no longer in use today, explains Sabina Wizemann, the GH Beauty Lab's Senior Chemist. "Due to their limited color variations and inconvenient use, these plant-based colorants have been replaced by semi-permanent dyes," she says, adding that henna is the sole exception (though DIY use of the colorant alone is extremely messy and not entirely advised, as results can vary greatly). "But there are now some innovations on the market that incorporate plant-based colorants with synthetic pigments to offer a wide range of colors that can last up to 20 shampoos," she adds.
Which kind of hair dye is the safest?
While there's no need to be afraid of the presence of chemicals in your hair color, it is true that the hair dye category is one of the worst offenders when it comes to sometimes including unnecessary ingredients that can be harsh and potentially toxic in certain applications. "There is definitely a movement happening where people are choosing more ingredient-conscious beauty products," says Chelsea Smith, master colorist for Madison Reed, a company that makes at-home permanent hair color touted as "the first six-free formula," which means it doesn't include what they consider to be six questionable ingredients commonly found in hair color formulas:
Meanwhile, temporary hair color brand Overtone sells products that omit ammonia and peroxide, which prevents the chemical hair damage that can alter the texture and look of your hair. If you're concerned about the harshness of the coloring agents in your favorite hair dye, you can check the ingredient label to search for a combo of these types of chemicals and additives.
And no matter what type of hair product you choose to buy, you can also make conscious choices when it comes to the treatment of animals and the use of animal-derived ingredients. In addition to being free of ammonia, peroxide and PPD, all of Manic Panic's formulas are vegan and cruelty-free; Madison Reed is also cruelty-free, boasting certification by Leaping Bunny, which "is an international stamp of approval that recognizes no animal testing is used or commissioned in any phase of product development by our company, its labs or ingredient suppliers," Smith explains. Indie cosmetics brand Lime Crime, which sells a popular line of semi-permanent dyes named Unicorn Hair, also has the Leaping Bunny seal of approval.
How can I dye my hair with minimum damage?
Rather than focus on ingredient lists alone, think about the type of dye and the process you're choosing if you're worried about long-term hair damage or loss. Generally speaking, there are three options customers can turn to for coloring their hair, each with varying degrees of harshness and permanence:
- Temporary dyes: These products directly deposit color onto the surface of your hair, which can be removed in as little as two washes. "The molecules they include in its dying process are already colored," she explains, adding that these dyes don't pose any risk of damaging cuticles or hair fibers.
- Semi-permanent dyes: These products stain or diffuse into hair fibers and slowly fade away with each wash. "Their coloring ingredients, similar to temporary dyes, are also already colored; they may be used on natural hair to tone it, cover low-level grays or neutralize yellowish hues," Wizemann says. "The downside of semi-permanent dyes is that they can give uneven coverage on hair with parts that are already more damaged than others, like ends."
- Permanent and demi-permanent dyes: These are the most damaging to your hair's health of the three options; permanent dyes may also trigger allergies for people who are sensitive to a chemical called paraphenylenediamine (PPD), which is found in temporary tattoo inks. Unlike permanent dyes, demi-permanent products won't stay rooted to your hair until it grows out; they'll wash out within 24 to 28 shampoos, as they incorporate low-volume developer and do not contain ammonia, Wizemann explains.
"Any hair coloring process that includes lightening, lifting or bleaching should be avoided if you want to preserve hair structure and keep it in its best shape," Wizemann advises. "Bleaching in particular delivers a much higher level of lightening compared to other hair lightening techniques. Instead, look at products that do not require lifting of hair color, such as semi-permanent or temporary dyes."
In the end, the dream of an effective, totally organic hair dye is just that — a dream. But that doesn't mean you can't use your head when deciding what kind of hair color product you're putting on top of it.
Why trust Good Housekeeping?
Marci Robin is a freelance writer and editor specializing in beauty and lifestyle content. With over 20 years of experience, Marci previously served as Senior Beauty Editor for goodhousekeeping.club, where she worked with the Good Housekeeping Institute to evaluate beauty products.
In executing this guide, Marci worked closely with GH Institute Beauty, Health & Sustainability Lab Executive Director Birnur Aral, Ph.D. During her 15 years leading clinical and consumer testing at Good Housekeeping, she has overseen review content across countless beauty categories, including hair dye products; she also boasts R&D experience through a seven-year stint at Unilever U.S.
Senior Chemist Sabina Wizemann was also consulted during this guide's most recent update. With a background in hair dye research and synthesis, Sabina is passionate about all things hair-related. While working in the Beauty, Health & Sustainability Lab, she has led lab and consumer studies on at-home hair dyes, shampoos and conditioners for colored hair, hair serums, dry shampoos and more. She also tests hairstyling tools like hairdryers and curling irons, while staying on top of the latest innovations in hairstyling.
Marci Robin is a freelance writer and editor specializing in beauty and lifestyle content. With over 20 years of experience, Marci has served as a contributing editor for Allure, senior beauty editor at goodhousekeeping.club, executive editor of xoVain and senior online editor at NewBeauty. Her writing has also appeared in her writing has also appeared in InStyle, MarthaStewart.com and Refinery29.