Looking for a natural hair dye? Dye your hair with flowers
What is “clean beauty”? And, for that matter, green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In this monthly column, clean beauty expert Jessica DeFino explores the ins and outs of these buzzy claims, reports on the products and ingredients to look out for, and answers all of the most pressing questions surrounding these topics.
Last summer I spent $480, plus tip, on the most beautiful blonde balayage highlights I have personally ever seen. I loved them, I loved myself with them—they were just so chic and so fresh and so unbelievably natural-looking. My own father agreed: I could’ve been born a blonde, he said.
I walked around flipping my hair and generally feeling fabulous until early December, when the International Journal of Cancer published a study linking the use of permanent hair dye to an increased risk of breast cancer. The correlation isn’t beyond-the-shadow-of-a-doubt definitive, but the research is compelling nonetheless: The National Institute of Environmental Health observed 46,709 women and determined that those who had used permanent hair dye in the previous year were 9% more likely to develop breast cancer. For black women, that percentage skyrocketed to 45%. For-ty-five.
My curiosity (and concern) piqued, I did a little more digging—and it turns out, breast cancer isn’t the only potential risk associated with permanent hair color.
Common chemicals in professional hair dyes may contribute to allergies, respiratory issues, reproductive issues, hormone disruption, bladder cancer, kidney malfunction, and more, says Dr. Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP. Further research points to a connection between hair dye and autoimmune conditions. And for salon workers, the people who literally live and breathe the stuff? The Guardian reports that 70% of hairstylists experience skin issues from constant contact with color formulas, and that “asthma, arthritis, and even cancer are occupational hazards.”
The more I researched, the more conflicted I felt about exposing myself—and my stylist—to dozens of potentially toxic substances in the name of “natural-looking” color.
Chelsea Kester, former salon colorist and founder of herbal hair care brand Wildflower Gypsy, had a similar realization in 2015. After becoming a mother and reconsidering the safety of her household products, “I was like, ‘Wait, what I am using in the salon? What am I breathing in, what’s on my skin when I rinse the color out, and how are these keratin treatments affecting me and my clients?’” she tells HelloGiggles. “I’d unintentionally been using these harmful chemicals for 12 years, and had health issues that were getting worse.”
The stylist began researching safer options. “What I found is there is so much information on skin care and food and cleaning products,” Kester explains. “But what about hair? There’s this void.”
As a self-professed “clean beauty” obsessive, I can confirm: “Clean” hair color brands are few and far between, perhaps because the goal of these particular products is to manipulate the hair as far away from its natural state as possible. That’s no small feat for natural ingredients—but Kester has a suggestion.
Dye your hair with flowers instead.
“I have blonde hair and normally use lightener and toner, and I was like, ‘Let me just take a year; I’ll switch to plant-based and see how well my hair does,’” the founder explains. She formulated a simple blonde “herbal rinse” from chamomile and calendula flowers. Besides sunshiney color, Kester noticed “my hair was a lot thicker and the ends weren’t fried,” she says. “I refreshed the color maybe three times the entire year.”
Kester now offers herbal hair rinses through Wildflower Gypsy: chamomile and calendula for warm blondes, violet for toning cool blondes, walnut for brunettes, and hibiscus for a red tint. (DIY videos show eucalyptus can deliver a warm, rich red as well.) For darker shades, many companies formulate with henna and indigo.
Obviously, there are limits to what floral and herbal “dyes” can do in terms of color—but there are also distinct advantages when it comes to hair health.
“Don’t expect blue hair; that’s not going to happen,” the colorist warns. “Instead of it being a quick fix or a drastic change, as with everything in nature, rinses take a little bit longer.”
Think of it like dyeing fabric: The lighter the fabric, the more vibrant the result; the darker the fabric, the less vibrant the result. This means that blondes and light brunettes will see the most obvious effects with herbal rinses, while those with darker hair (like me!) will see more of a subtle wash. “The more you do it, the more you’ll get that color,” says Kester.
There’s so much more to plant-based tints than color, though. Flowers and herbs are full of vitamins and minerals, so “a chamomile rinse on your hair will give a more golden sheen, but you’re also going to soothe irritation on your scalp,” Kester tells me. “You’re getting stronger hair follicles, you’re getting stronger strands, you’re getting smoother, healthier, more hydrated hair. It’s almost like, why aren’t we using this?”
On top of that, rinses are easy to use at home, and Wildflower Gypsy only works with “simple, pure, abundant” ingredients. All the botanicals Kester offers are organic, sustainably grown and harvested, and widely available (AKA, not at-risk or endangered).
In an effort to boost my overgrown balayage, I decided to indulge in the Chamomile & Calendula Herbal Hair Rinse.
The at-home herbal coloring process is like making a cup of tea…for your head.
Each Wildflower Gypsy rinse features 16 ounces of loose, dried herbs and comes with a linen “tea bag” for steeping. I scooped out two ounces of chamomile and calendula, poured them into the bag, and soaked that in a Mason jar of warm water for 20 minutes. (This is super easy to DIY with your own herbal blend, too.) Kester mentioned I could add a squeeze of lemon juice and a dollop of honey—see? Just like tea!—for extra brightening power, so I did that and headed to the shower. After shampooing and conditioning, I poured the concoction all over my wet strands, stepped out of the shower, and let it sit for an hour before rinsing.
The first thing I noticed was that my hair smelled so freakin’ good, as if my scalp were a literal field of wildflowers. The second thing I noticed was that my hair felt so freakin’ soft, as if each strand were made of pure silk and run through a spiralizer like zucchini noodles.
I could see super-subtle glints of gold whenever I turned my head just right once it dried, so I repeated the same treatment a few days later to intensify the effect. Et voila: the golden gleam of my dreams. (And I’m convinced that if a floral “blonde” rinse shows up on my dark brunette base, it’ll work for almost anyone.)
Knowing what I know now—the potential risks of traditional coloring and the beauty of botanical alternatives—I won’t be going back to permanent hair dye.
The results of herbal alternatives aren’t extreme, no—but then again, neither are the side effects.
“It’s a matter of shifting people’s perspective,” Kester says, and educating the public on the lack of regulations in place. “When the breast cancer study came out in December, I was scouring the Food & Drug Administration’s website being like, how is this legally allowed to happen?”
And yet, it is. The FDA can recommend that hair color companies avoid certain ingredients—like those suspected to contribute to cancer, asthma, and autoimmune conditions—but ultimately, it cannot enforce those recommendations. In fact, professional hair dye brands don’t legally need to tell consumers what’s inside their products at all. “As long as the company puts a warning on the insert packet or box, it’s covered,” Kester elaborates. The only ingredients restricted from use are the 11 that the FDA banned back in 1938—the last time a piece of cosmetics legislation was updated in the United States, by the way.
“As a stylist, when I read the information from the FDA, I took it really emotionally. We’ve been unintentionally put in danger’s way,” she says. “On top of that, I almost feel like I’ve been teaching this mindset of, ‘You need to change your look, you need balayage, and you’re not beautiful unless you do it.’ Something has to shift.”
Of course, that shift needs to include stricter regulations and safer ingredients—but Kester believes it needs to go deeper than that, as deep as our most deeply ingrained beauty ideals.
We need to ask ourselves: Why do we want to dramatically change our hair in the first place?
“If it’s to feel like your best self, that’s awesome,” Kester acknowledges. “But what I’ve found from behind the chair is: A lot of times this manipulation that everyone’s wanting to achieve comes down to personal issues—self-image, imbalance, the fact that they were never really taught how to embrace their curls, or they think grey hair is ugly, or they think they have to fry and dye it to be beautiful.”
There is, of course, a lot to be said for the power of self-expression. But, for me, self-expression will never trump safety—not when there’s chamomile hair “tea” to give me the natural-looking highlights of my dreams. Naturally.