Natural hair colour

G Magazine

Hair dyes are commonly laden with toxic nasties – but rest assured there are ways to colour your hair and mostly avoid them.


Credit: iStockphoto

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They say the hair colour you were born with is the colour that suits you most – though many know all too well the sting in your eyes and the tingle of your scalp as you sit waiting patiently for a change in appearance as your hair colour develops.

These reactions, accepted as part of a visit to the hairdresser, are a result of the mix of toxic ingredients in hair dyes. For those who dabble in hair colour, the most common reactions to these chemicals are allergic and skin related but for people who are exposed to these chemicals more regularly, such as hair colourists, there can be more serious side effects – including a significantly increased risk of multiple myeloma, leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Toxic chemicals in hair colours

Para-phenylenediamine (PPD)

PPD is a benzene-derived chemical present in more than two-thirds of chemical hair dyes, often even in ‘natural’ ones. It is classified as dangerous to the environment by the European Union and banned in France, Germany and Sweden. The most toxic chemical in hair dyes, it’s an irritant with reactions from mild to severe, and can cause organ system toxicity plus birth and fertility defects.

Hydrogen peroxide

Commonly used in hair bleaches, hydrogen peroxide has been banned from cosmetic use in Japan and restricted in Canada. Studies show that it can have effects on our brain and nervous system.


With a pungent smell, ammonia opens the hair fibre to dye the hair and is an irritant to the skin, eyes and respiratory system.


Resorcinol is classified by the European Union as harmful, irritant to eyes and skin and dangerous for the environment.


Toluene-2,5-diamine and toluene-2,5-diamine sulfate are found in hair dyes, and are safe to be used in current concentrations, however toulene-2,5-diamine is an irritant to the skin.


Sodium, potassium and ammonium sulfates are in hair dyes and bleaches and can cause respiratory problems through inhalation or skin and eye irritation by contact .


Found in many cosmetics as preservatives, parabens are a suspected carcinogen, with links having been found particularly to breast cancer.

Lead acetate

This is present in some hair coloring products that are used for gradual or progressive colouring. Lead has well-known damaging effects on the brain and nervous system.


Found in some dyes, this has been linked to the development of cancer.

Great off-the-shelf alternatives

You don’t have to go cold turkey on hair colour to protect your health and that of the environment. There are some fantastic healthy and effective alternatives on the market as well as some natural colour boosters that you can source yourself from nature. Look for colours that are ammonia, resorcinol and peroxide-free. Unfortunately many still contain some PPD, but in significantly lower amounts than most commercial brands.

Try: Atlantis Watercolours (www.atlantishair.com), O&M Organic Mineral (www.organicmineral.com), Tints of Nature (www.tintsofnature.com.au), Nourish NatureColour (www.nourishnaturals.com.au) and NaturStyle (www.naturstyle.com.au).

Henna is also still a popular choice for those wanting colour without the nasties – provided you fancy being a redhead. It comes from the powdered leaves of the plant Lawsonia inermis and produces a red-orange dye. Make sure you are buying 100 per cent pure henna – there is no such thing as black henna – it usually contains dubious chemicals such as PPD. Also, once you put henna on your hair, it’s hard to colour over it with a non-henna dye.

How to get a natural boost of colour

Foods can help give your hair a boost of colour and condition. For natural (temporary) colour rinses that add shine to the hair try the following.

For red highlights: Alkanet root, beetroot water cranberry juice, red hibiscus petals or rosehip tea. Blondes wanting to go strawberry can use the cooled pink water from boiled beetroots as a spritzer while sitting in the sun.

For lightening blonde hair: Calendula, ginger root, safflower flowers, chamomile. Spritz an infusion (see method below) over the hair and sit in the sun. Lemon juice works well but can dry out the hair, so mix it with conditioner before application. Honey can be effective as it produces peroxide when mixed with water and conditions the hair simultaneously. Mix ¼ cup of honey with 1 cup of water and apply to the hair for half an hour. Shampoo and condition as normal.

For darkening brown hair and adding shine: Black tea, coffee, parsley, rosemary, sage leaves and walnut husks.

Method for each: Make strong teas or infusions, massage them into the hair and cover with a shower cap and leave in for 20 minutes.