Coloring hair for a new look or gray coverage is routine for many of us, but commercial dyes often contain chemical ingredients that are potentially harmful to both humans and the environment.

P-Phenylenediamine (PPD), an active ingredient in most hair dyes, has been linked to skin irritation, as well as immune and nervous system problems. Ammonia, another common hair dye ingredient, can cause respiratory problems and throat irritation.

If you’ve ever colored your hair, you’ve likely noticed these chemicals in the form of a harsh odor or burning sensation, but these ingredients can also harm local ecosystems long after they’re rinsed out.

To put it simply, when you wash commercial hair dyes out of your hair, chemical ingredients often wind up in local waterways. Even a very low concentration of ammonia is harmful to aquatic life, and the EPA notes that chemicals associated with personal care products like hair dye are proven to be in our water supply.

Luckily, you don’t have to stop coloring your hair altogether to keep yourself and the planet safe. A growing number of salons are embracing organic and nontoxic hair dyes, and there are even a few boxed hair colors that nix harsh chemical additives. If you really want to ensure you don’t come in contact with chemicals while dyeing your hair, you can even do it yourself at home using natural ingredients.

Read on for the details, and kick those chemical-laden colors to the curb.

On the Shelf

If you dye your hair at home using boxed color, choosing an all-natural alternative is likely best for not only your health, but also the health of your hair. In addition to being easier on your body and the environment, nontoxic picks are less damaging and can keep your locks from looking over-processed.

With a little help from the Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep Database, Earth911 picked out a few nontoxic options that will give you the look you love, without the environmental impact.

Editor’s Note: EWG’s SkinDeep database scores products on a scale of 0 to 10 based on the known hazards associated with ingredients listed on labels. Products scored from 0 to 2 are considered “low hazard,” while products ranked 7 to 10 are classified as “high hazard.”

Light Mountain Natural Hair Color
Light Mountain hair color, the least toxic boxed hair color according to EWG, uses henna dyes rather than chemical ingredients to provide semi-permanent color.

Rather than dramatic color changes, henna enhances and deepens existing color. So, while you can’t expect a drastic shift from dark to light, henna hair color will effectively cover grays or provide a little something different from your natural color.

SkinDeep Score: 0

Price: Starts at $6.99


Morrocco Method Natural Henna Hair Color

Henna Hair Dye. Image courtesy of Morrocco Method Int'l
Henna Hair Dye. Image courtesy of Morrocco Method Int’l

Another henna treatment, Morrocco Method hair colors offer gray coverage and subtle color changes with no chemical additives.

The brand even provides a helpful color chart that details the shades you can expect when adding each henna treatment to your natural hair color.

SkinDeep Score: 0

Price: $10.50


Ammonia-free hair colors

Ammonia-Free Hair Color. Image courtesy of L'Oreal Paris.
Ammonia-Free Hair Color. Image courtesy of L’Oreal Paris.

If you’re looking for fast, drastic coverage with a lighter footprint, you may want to look into the ammonia-free boxed colors now offered by many mainstream brands. These formulas may contain other chemical ingredients but are decidedly less toxic.

L’Oreal Paris, Garnier and Clairol all offer ammonia-free formulas for all-over coverage with less impact.

Image courtesy of Samantha Steele
Image courtesy of Samantha Steele

In the Chair

Eco-friendly and organic salons are on the rise — meaning you can easily find a low-impact coloring solution at a salon near you. Check out these eco-friendly options, and start coloring your locks with the planet in mind.

Kemon Nayo
Kemon‘s ammonia- and PPD-free permanent color uses certified-organic natural extracts for color that lasts without the environmental impact.

Extracts of calendula and flax leave hair silky and shiny, while natural yogurt protects the hair fiber.

Find a salon near you

Aveda Natural Hair Color
Possibly the best known eco-friendly hair care brand, Aveda offers full-spectrum hair color that is up to 99 percent naturally derived.

The brand defines naturally derived ingredients to be those for which more than 50 percent of the molecule comes from a plant, non-petroleum mineral, water or some other natural source. Ingredients range from flaxseed and argan to green tea.

Find a salon near you

Do It Yourself

Believe it or not, you can often get the color you crave using a few simple ingredients from your kitchen. A mix of lemon juice and chamomile tea has been shown to lighten tresses, while beet and carrot juices can help you go red.

Sounds great, right? Before getting started, note that these treatments are not meant to provide a quick fix or a drastic change. Most natural color rinses take several treatments before they begin to take effect — sometimes as many as 15 to 20.

No matter how many treatments you use, a chamomile rinse won’t take you from raven black to blonde, either. But if you’re looking for a subtle change with absolutely no chemical additives, give it a try.

This article was originally published January 10, 2014. It was last updated on August 1, 2016.

By Mary Mazzoni

Mary is a lifelong vegetarian and enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, biking and relaxing in the park. When she’s not outside, she’s probably watching baseball. She is a former assistant editor for Earth911.