Hesitant about chemical hair dye? Your patients may appreciate these natural alternatives

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published October 17, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Chemical hair dyes contain ingredients that are associated with birth defects, cancer, skin irritation, and respiratory reactions.

  • Patients may be interested in natural, safer alternatives, as awareness about adverse effects from chemical hair dyes increases.

  • Physicians can suggest plant-based products like henna and indigo for natural hair coloring, cautioning patients to do their research and perform patch tests before using any form of dye.

In the US and Europe, 1 in every 3 adult women and 1 in every 10 men over 40 use hair dye, as noted by the authors of a review on the health consequences of hair dyes.[] But, concerns over the safety of chemical hair dyes have prompted many people, including HCPs, to think twice. 

Chemical hair dyes often contain ammonia, parabens, and other compounds, which are known to cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, and even long-term health issues.

Fortunately, there are some natural alternatives with more promising safety profiles that you can share with your patients. Here's what HCPs should know.

The problem with chemical hair dyes

One of the primary concerns associated with chemical hair dyes is skin sensitivity. Ingredients like ammonia and hydrogen peroxide, say the review article authors, can be harsh on the scalp, leading to itching and burning sensations. Some patients may even develop severe allergic reactions, resulting in hives, blisters, and swelling.

Many chemical hair dyes also contain toxic substances, such as p-paraphenylenediamine (PPD), which is absorbed through the skin and airways during hair coloring, promoting oxidative damage. Hydroquinone, found in hair dyes, skincare products, and cosmetics, is readily absorbed by the skin and may cause kidney issues, cell damage, and skin irritation. 

While the evidence continues to evolve, concerning data about the cancer-causing potential of chemical hair dyes in certain subgroups, including risks during pregnancy, can’t be dismissed.

Clinicians and their patients may be concerned about the long-term consequences of repeated exposure to these chemicals, especially for those who frequently dye their hair or who work with these chemicals on a regular basis (like hairdressers). 

Although hair dyes are not always a typical topic of conversation during healthcare appointments, providers should inform patients about the potential risks associated with chemical hair dyes. 

Vulnerable patients undergoing cancer treatments or who have a history of skin conditions like eczema or lupus may be particularly interested in this type of information and guidance.

Natural alternatives to consider

For doctors and patients looking to avoid the potential risks associated with chemical hair dyes, several natural alternatives are available. Some natural alternatives offer safer options for achieving the desired hair color and can even promote healthier hair growth. As it’s still possible to have a sensitivity to natural products, advising patients to perform a patch test can help them identify potential reactions and get an idea of results to expect.

Here’s an overview of some natural hair dyes, as mentioned in a review of botanical colorants:[]

  • Beet juice: For a temporary and vibrant red tint, beet juice can be applied to the hair. It's a safer way to experiment with color without long-lasting commitment.

  • Coffee or tea rinses: Coffee or black tea can be used to darken hair gradually. These rinses are a good option for patients looking to deepen their hair color naturally.

  • Henna: Henna, a plant-based dye, has been used for centuries to color hair naturally. It not only provides a vibrant range of red and auburn hues but also conditions the hair, making it softer and shinier. Patients should be cautioned to choose 100% pure henna from a reputable manufacturer to avoid potentially harmful additives.

  • Herbal hair rinses: Various herbal rinses, such as chamomile or cassia for blondes or rosemary for brunettes, can enhance and brighten natural hair color. These rinses are gentle and usually safe for regular use.

  • Indigo: Indigo is another plant-based dye that, when used in combination with henna, can create a range of brown and black shades. Without henna, indigo is a dark blue dye.

  • Lemon juice: Lemon juice can lighten hair naturally when exposed to sunlight. It is particularly effective for creating highlights in lighter hair tones. Conditioner is a necessity, as lemon juice can be drying to the hair and scalp.

In addition, hair treatments can give patients a confidence boost about their hair, even if they don’t alter the color. Essential oils like lavender and rosemary can be added to carrier oils like coconut or jojoba oil to create customized hair treatments that enhance the smell and feel of hair.

What this means for you

As concerns about the safety of chemical hair dyes continue to grow, doctors have a responsibility to guide their patients toward safer alternatives. Natural hair dyes and treatments offer a viable option for achieving desired hair colors without the potential risks associated with chemicals. By educating patients about these alternatives and providing guidance on their use, clinicians can promote both the well-being and self-confidence of their patients, ensuring that they make informed choices about their hair care while protecting their health.

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