How to dye yourself with henna and plant pigments

Natural color and gray hair do not detract from the beauty of healthy and well-groomed hair. But if you want to dye it, natural dyes offer an option that in turn protects the hair and prevents unwanted substances.

You may want to change the color or tone of your hair for aesthetic reasons and even to protect it. But the ideal thing is to use quality natural dyes, since conventional ones, made with chemical substances derived from petroleum, can be aggressive with the hair and affect health.


People often speak of ammonia, an irritating substance that is used to open the hair cuticle –the transparent outer layer–, or hydrogen peroxide, which removes pigments from the middle layer that is then impregnated with dye. However, the greatest risk lies with the amines.

In 2001, a relationship was found between regular use of dyes and a higher incidence of bladder cancer. It has also been linked to breast cancer and lymphoma. As a result, the most harmful ingredients have been banned, but most commercial products still contain substances such as 2,5 toluene diamine, a variation of another banned since the 1980s, 2,4 toluene diamine, which was found to be carcinogenic.

Today it cannot be said that the former is carcinogenic, but it cannot be ruled out either. Another unwanted substance is resorcinol (CI 14270), an azo dye that can cause allergies. The chemicals make irritations and allergic reactions – with itchy scalp, irritation of the eyelids and even breathing difficulties – common when dyeing.


There are dyes that are advertised as low in ammonia and in hydrogen peroxide and that substitute some ingredients derived from petroleum for others of vegetable origin, but they are not completely free of the suspicious substances. Despite what some people believe, the healthy alternative to permanent dyes is not “tone on tone”, as these also contain dyes made from amines that can become carcinogenic nitrosamines. The real alternative is certified natural or organic vegetable dyes that offer practically the same benefits without the added risks.

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Unlike synthetic dyes, vegetables do not penetrate the hair structure, but instead cover it with a protective layer of color. They also contain active plant ingredients such as jojoba oil or wheat proteins that nourish it and enhance its color, shine and volume.


Nature offers many pigments that can be used on hair. There are traditional recipes based on potato skins, spices, berries, nut shells, seeds or coffee grounds, but almost all-natural dyes on sale use henna, indigo and senna.

  • Henna (Law sonia inermis)has been used to color hair for about five millennia. The fine powder of the leaves contains a pigment, hennotanical acid, which adheres strongly to the keratin of the hair, offering a long-lasting color. The first application adds an orange-red tone to the natural color of the hair, which can be darkened with successive applications. Some shampoos include henna to help maintain color.
  • Indigo leaves (Indigo fera tinctoria)contain a pigment that is fermented to obtain indigotine, which imparts blue and purple tones. It can be added to henna or applied afterwards to obtain brown and black tones.
  • Senna (Senna italica or Cassia obovata),also called “neutral henna”, is used to obtain golden reflections. The active ingredient is chrysophanic acid, common in rhubarb root.


The current natural dyes, very easy to apply, do not allow changing a dark hair color for a much lighter one: a brunette for a blonde, for example. They do offer a wide variety of shades of brown, chestnut, copper, mahogany and gold. Gray hair is completely covered or slightly lighter, as if they were reflections. And with natural acids from citrus fruits, such as lemon or grapefruit, very natural golden reflections are created that lighten the tone.

The color lasts for 20 to 30 washes and can be repeated as many times as you like; the unsightly roots are not so obvious, and there is no need to fear the sun, which in chemical dyes with ammonia and hydrogen peroxide lightens the hair and gives it a brittle appearance.

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