For Natural Hair Color, Color Your Hair with Natural Dyes

If your hair color is looking a little tarnished, color your hair with one of these natural dyes, including chamomile, sage, henna shrub and black walnut hulls.


By experimenting with the formulas in this article, you’ll be well on your way to achieving just about any hair shade you’d like, without resorting to expensive, unsafe chemical dyes.


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Lots of people occasionally have the urge to change or enhance their hair color, but are unwilling to use the harsh and, in some cases, potentially harmful hair dying chemicals found in most commercial dyes and color rinses.

If you’re concerned about the hazards that hair color ingredients present, you’ll be glad to learn that you can achieve results similar to those possible with beauty shop products, quickly, inexpensively and safely. Just as men and women have done for thousands of years, you can change your basic hair color, put new highlights in your locks or naturally darken gray strands using natural hair colors.

How Natural Dyes Work

Although there are a few especially potent exceptions (such as henna and walnut hulls, both of which I’ll discuss later), most herbal dyes act progressively, that is, they should be used repetitively over a period of time until the desired shade is achieved. Furthermore, I don’t know of any herb that'll actually serve as a bleach, but there are plant-based colorants that will highlight, darken, lighten or cover the gray in your hair.

Despite their versatility, however, herbal infusions cannot match the strength of commercial preparations, and, unless you decide to dye your curls black, an organic rinse won't cover your hair’s present shade. The best idea is to simply enrich the natural color of your hair, so avoid trying to make drastic changes (such as turning blond tresses to a very deep shade or dyeing gray hair darker than it was originally). You should also keep in mind that herbal dyes aren’t permanent and will fade unless renewed occasionally.

If you’ve recently used commercial dyes, color rinses or straighteners on your hair, you’d be wise to test any herbaceous dyestuff before applying it to your head, since chemical residues left in your locks may make it impossible to predict the action of the natural treatment.

To perform the evaluation, you'll need to save some snips of hair from your next trim or cut a lock from the nape of your neck and prepare a small amount of whatever dye recipe you want to try. Following the instructions for that mixture, apply it to a sample of hair, then rinse the lock thoroughly and let it dry (in direct sunlight, if possible). Observe the result under strong, natural light, and if you want more or less color, simply adjust the number of rinses and/or the timing accordingly. After a couple of trial runs, you should be able to produce exactly the shade you want.

Here are several “prescriptions” that should serve at least to introduce you to the ancient science of herbal hair coloring. These few formulas (the possibilities are almost unlimited) will allow you to produce some of the most frequently used natural rinses and dyes. Whether you’re fair- or dark-haired, you should be able to find something here that will give you attractive and safe results when you try it.

More Fun for Blonds

Chamomile is probably the most popular herbal hair colorant among blonds. A weekly rinse with this herb tea will also remedy the brown streaking that results from overexposure to the sun, and brighten “dishwater blond” hair.

To prepare a chamomile rinse, steep half a cup of the flowers in a quart of boiling water for half an hour. Then strain the mixture, and let it cool while you shampoo. Now, pour the brew through your towel-dried hair at least 15 times (catching it in a basin each time, in order to use it again). Wring the excess moisture out and leave the solution in your hair for a quarter of an hour before rinsing it out with clear water.

Don’t limit your herbal experiments to chamomile, however. Just about any yellow-blossomed flower or herb can be used on blond hair, including calendula (it’s also called pot marigold), mullein blooms and leaves, yellow broom flowers, saffron, turmeric and quassia chips.

Lemon is also a time-honored hair lightener. The juice of two of the citrus fruits, strained into a quart of water, makes an excellent rinse that can be used in the same way as the chamomile preparation. Try to dry your hair in the sun after using a lemon rinse, in order to get the most from the treatment’s lightening effect.

Another native dye favored by blonds is prepared from rhubarb root, and it’ll add attractive honey gold tones to light brown hair, as well. To put those glints in your locks, pour three cups of hot water over four tablespoons of chopped rhubarb root, and simmer the concoction for 20 minutes. Strain it, pour it through your freshly shampooed hair 15 or more times, rinse in clear water and again, weather permitting, dry it in the sun to strengthen the effect of the dyeing agent.

A Bonus for Brunets

For over 5,000 years, Egyptians have used a dark powder made from the henna shrub to give their hair and beards an auburn tint. Nowadays, you can buy henna powder from many herb supply houses and some health food stores and co-ops. It’s known as a safe, healthful dye, and — since it coats the cuticle layer of each strand — it’ll actually make your hair feel thicker. However, be warned that henna tends to produce an almost brassy orange-red shade when used alone, so it’s best to mix it with a “lighter” herb like chamomile. (Since it is so strong, henna shouldn’t be used at all by persons with white, gray or very light blond hair.)

Always try a timed test swatch first, too. Otherwise, you might end up with an unexpectedly bizarre orange head! If you’d like to mix up my favorite recipe (I’ve found that it puts pretty reddish gold highlights in my dark mane), measure one part of powdered chamomile and two parts of powdered henna into a nonmetal bowl, then add enough boiling water to make a thick paste. Stir in a tablespoon of vinegar (which will help release the plants’ colors) and let the blend cool for a few minutes.

When the paste is lukewarm, put on a pair of rubber gloves (henna can stain your palms and fingernails, too) and massage it into your clean, wet hair. Comb it through with a wide-toothed comb to insure even distribution of the dye. Next, pile up your hair, fit a plastic bag over it and wrap a heavy towel around your head to hold in the heat.

You’ll need to leave the dye and towel turban in place for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours: The darker your natural hair is, the longer you'll have to wait for the henna-chamomile to take effect. When the time is up, remove the towel and bag and rinse your hair until the water comes clean, then allow the newly colored tresses to air-dry, as usual, in the sunshine if possible. (Any stains that the dye might leave on your hands or around your hairline can be removed with a little elbow grease and lemon juice.)

Should you prefer a simpler (and slower-acting) procedure, you can make a weaker solution of the herbs and use it as you would any of the previous color rinses. Just mix together one tablespoon each of henna, chamomile and vinegar, then steep them in a quart of boiling water for 15 minutes. Naturally, you should cool and strain the liquid before using it.

Some “Sage” Advice

Of course,darker-haired beauties sometimes need to enhance the color of their locks, too, and sage is one of the oldest (and most effective) colorants for use on dark brown or black hair. A rinse made from sage leaves can be used to deepen any brunet shade, and it’ll also effectively cover gray in dark hair.

A sage rinse can be made by steeping a handful of the dried herb in a quart of boiling water for 30 minutes (longer, if you want a darker tint). Cool the infusion, strain it and pour it through freshly shampooed hair 15 or more times. Then wait 10 minutes before washing the liquid out with clear water. Because a sage rinse is a progressive dye, you’ll have to apply it weekly until you produce the shade you want, and then continue using it once a month to maintain that color.

Tag alder bark is another popular hair-darkening botanical, but it generally produces a lighter tone than sage, so it’s best when used to darken blond hair or to cover gray in locks that are light to medium brown. To make a tag alder rinse, simmer an ounce of bark chips (your health food store can likely order them from an herb supply firm) in a quart of water for about half an hour, then cool and use it exactly as you would the sage rinse I’ve already described.

A very dark, sable-colored dye can be obtained from walnut hulls, but this one is tricky, since the nuts’ outer casings tend to stain everything they touch (for that reason, I recommend that you wear gloves throughout all stages of the process, and avoid rubbing the mixture into your scalp). To prepare the dark juice, first crush the hulls in a mortar, cover them with boiling water and a pinch of salt, and let them “soak” for three days. Then add three cups of boiling water and simmer the hulls, in a nonmetal container, for five hours (replacing the water as it steams away). Strain off the liquid, place the walnut hulls in a cloth sack, and twist it tightly to wring out all remaining juice. Finally, return the expressed liquid to the pot and reduce it, by boiling, to about a quarter of its original volume. The resulting brew can then be used to whip up a rich walnut dye, as follows.

Add a teaspoon of ground cloves or allspice to the prepared extract. Allow the dye mixture to steep in the refrigerator for about a week (shaking it frequently during that time). When it’s ready for use, strain the liquid (using a piece of cheesecloth) and pour it at least 15 times through freshly shampooed hair before rinsing it out thoroughly.

By experimenting with the formulas contained in this article, you’ll be well on your way to achieving just about any hair shade you’d like, without resorting to expensive, unsafe chemical dyes. Soon you should be able to experience the same pleasure I feel when dyeing my tresses with herbs. I know — while doing so — that I’m not only saving money by using easily gathered materials, but also protecting the health of my locks. If you experiment a little, you can have fun coloring your hair, too ... naturally!

EDITOR’S NOTE: More recipes for natural hair colorants, as well as for shampoos and other preparations, can be found in Dian Dincin Buchman’s The Complete Herbal Guide to Natural Health and Beauty.
12/5/2014 12:03:12 PM

Love Your Color by CoSaMo, 85% natural, no PPD, ammonia, or peroxide!

7/24/2014 12:12:58 AM

Thanks for the tips. Quite a few thing to keep in mind.

3/18/2014 7:40:09 AM

Henna/Indigo are the best! It does no damage to the hair. I use Rainbow Henna (available at healthfood stores or online) that is a mix of henna and other herbs such as indigo, chamomile, etc. It makes my hair so soft and shiny. It works just as well as regular hair dyes, but does not kill the hair. I do have some greys, but I mix mine with black coffee, apple cider vinegar, and yogurt. I leave it on for 90 min w/ a plastic bag and then a towel. It's a little messier than dye, but your hair will thank you, plus there are no chemicals like herbatint or naturcolor. I do this every two months and I get tons of compliments. It's only about $6 for a container of this henna. Try it out! If you like it, you can order it in bulk on Amazon!

gloria villalba meza
3/15/2013 1:45:55 AM

SANOTINT LIGHT is the most effective & natural permanent hair dye product on the market. It is the first natural hair color that is P-Phenylenediamine Free (NO PPD) Ammonia Free and Paraben Free. It has been especially formulated for people with sensitive skin. It contains natural ingredients like Golden Millet that rich in silica, which nourishes and protects your hair. www,lavitanuovainc,com Sanotint is here

anthony morrocco
11/2/2012 7:02:11 PM

Try Morrocco Method henna. It is completely natural and looks fanttastic! Plus, it's made easy with 7 how-to videos, and great customer support.

schelli nimz
1/11/2012 6:32:11 AM

Faith- You are correct, there is no such thing as black henna. The powders and dyes sold as black henna usually have some nasty toxic chemicals in them. There is also no "clear" henna. Henna is red and that's it! You can modify the color with other herbs and extracts. To get a true black hair dye, you do a base layer of henna, and then another dye session using indigo. It gives a very nice natural black. I have to disagree with the author on henna. I have been using it since I was a teenager (I am 40 now). I have a lot of gray in my hair and henna covers it beautifully. Henna is brassy the first couple of days after dyeing, but it oxidizes to a more muted and natural shade very quickly. Henna also applies better as an "acid" dye. Human hair is like wool and other protien fibers. I mix mine with straight lemon juice and a little bit of coconut oil for extra conditioning. There is no need to heat anything, just let it sit covered for about 8 hours to get the best dye release. You can modify henna by making a strong tea of rose hips, or mexican saffron (you still use the lemon juice as the main liquid though). Beet juice, cherries, and red wine have all produced nice results too. The longer you leave a henna dye on, the more intense the color. I put a plastic shopping bag over my hair and cover it all up with a bandana and sleep on it. There are some great resources on the web, and tons of photos of the varying shades you can achieve with henna mixed with other natural ingredients!

8/29/2011 11:58:26 PM

Tips for walnut dying: After making the walnut "juice" (simmering, straining, etc), boil it down for another 30 minutes to thicken it. Add a tsp of corn starch (pre-dissolved in a tbsp of cold water). You can then mix the (room temp / cold) dying liquid in with a blended avocado, or a whipped egg white, or honey and oil, or thick conditioner, or full fat mayo. This will make it WAY easier to apply (and it's so good for your hair) and it will give you a few seconds to wipe it off before your skin before it stains (pure liquid stains much more quickly). Use a squirt bottle to access the back of your head without drips. Cover your head with a bag after and gently blow dry your head (don't melt the bag) - the heat will help the dying the process. And while you can use just about any part of the walnut, the husks are the best. You can get these for free outside in the fall if you know where to look! You'll want to use 5-10 walnut husks per dye application depending on the size of the husks, how finely you crush them and how much hair you have. Freeze extra hulls for use during the rest of the year. Don't forget to eat the walnuts! After hulling, let them dry for a month in an old onion bag and then crack with a hammer.

teresa neville
7/15/2011 11:56:23 AM

Has anyone tried any other type flower/plant on dark hair that is that is about 1/3 gray? I am interested in the results. I'm scared to try it without hearing how it's worked before on someone!thanks T:~)

4/13/2011 4:02:00 PM

I started dying my hair with tea a few months ago. I use one large teabag of Lipton, one regular teabag of Rooibos (roy-boss). I start the tea before bed (cold water), warm it slightly before my shower, then pour it over my towel-dried hair. My silver hair is now a very soft and natural golden brown. In the light it has definition and highlights. I leave the tea in and let it dry. I repeat every other day. My commercially dyed ends are almost grown out. The tea dye is much prettier than any commercial product I used.

9/4/2009 1:31:16 PM

Naturtint Hair Color is the best! This is an excellent product and is all natural as far as I know. It covers gray hair and will not wash out like henna does. My hair look healthy and shiny. It does not dry your hair like the harsh chemicals do. I discovered it and will not use anything else. My Grandmother died from breast cancer and have several aunts with breast cancer, so I try to be careful about the things I use and eat.

8/25/2009 5:26:18 PM

use the organic soaps from after you and before you use a natural dye...your color will look and last much longer since you will be using an organic soap produc. S

6/24/2009 8:40:39 AM

Herbal preps are an excellent way to gently enhance colour/mask grey. I have successfully used a dried sage steep to enhance my honey tones/brown hair with quick and terrific results. [That's the plus side] Unfortunately, the sage has also sent my blood pressure temporarily through the roof. As a one-time chesmist, I did a bit of sleuthing and found that indeed sage does do this. The active ingredient in sage stimulates local ciruclation (terrific! as this will help hair growth) but it also has systemic effects (not so terrific :/ ). It is contraindicated for those with hypertension and should not be used in the 1st trimester of pregnancy. So we shouldn't forget, that everything must be used respectfully and with caution. Anyone tried wallnut hulls??

5/25/2009 6:28:24 PM

Faith, What you are speaking of is para-phenylenediamine (PPD), an amine compound used in many hair dyes that can cause serious reactions. The term "black henna" refers to something that doesn't exist: henna strictly imparts a red tone to hair. Any other color indicates there are other compounds added to the dye. See this site for more information: There are natural and safe ways to obtain brown or black hair through various mixes of henna and indigo plants, which are also listed on the above site in greater detail. Good luck.

faith rosenquist_1
5/13/2009 6:12:28 AM

I really enjoyed the natural hair colorant article and just have one concern, based on rumors about black henna having dangerous compounds in it that leach into your body and cause some type of permanent damage to it. This info came from a doctor that investigates ingredients in cosmetics and body care products. I used to use a henna with a black base pretty frequently as I wanted ash (not black, but light brown without the traditional red tones) color. I stopped after reading the article by a Dr. Christine --- as she seemed sincere and quite knowledgeable. Since painting the hands with henna is popular, and black is often used, I would like to hear more about this as I am sure most people are unaware of any dangers here. We should remember that just because a product is plant based does not mean that it may not have poisonous side effects.