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How to Dye Your Hair the Healthy Way

Healthier Hair Dye

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Though the cancer-causing carcinogens that used to be found in hair dye are long gone, many dyes can leave your hair dry and brittle. "My advice is to be as nice to your hair as possible," says Valerie Patton, a hair color chemist and chair of the California chapter of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. That doesn't mean you need to give up your beautiful color for good, though. Just follow these tips to dye your hair the healthy way. (How Healthy Is Your Hair? Take This Test.)

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Steer Clear of Ammonia

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The smell you usually associate with hair coloring? That's ammonia. "It smells because it's a gas," says Patton. It colors the hair by breaking down the protective outer layer of the hair follicle. "Once this happens, the hair shaft is more susceptible to damage, especially as it's further exposed to chemicals in the dying process," says Sejal Shah, a New York dermatologist and RealSelf contributor. Truth is, ammonia-based dyes deliver the rich color you're after, but over time, your hair won't be in great shape. While breathing in the fumes is more of a concern for hair stylists than for you, an ammonia-free product can be a better choice for those trying to go more natural, says Patton. (Related: We have The Worst Hairstyles for Hair Health.)

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Choose Color-Depositing Conditioners

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"If you really want to reduce your exposure to harsh ingredients the safest way, color-depositing conditioners and masks are best," says Patton. "It's dye that doesn't require a developer, so it's actually pretty gentle and not aggressive." The downside? It's also pretty temporary. To make the color last, stock your shower with color-safe shampoos and conditioners. Patton likes Paul Mitchell Ultimate Color Repair Shampoo.

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Try Henna

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Yep—just like the traditional Indian body art. The same way the color extract stains the skin, it will also color your hair, Patton says. But not every henna coloring product is a good choice. "Sometimes henna has PPD in it," Patton says. PPD—or p-Phenylenediamine—is "the most vilified dye of them all." When it's used by itself, it can cause an allergic reaction. (Eek! Here's What Happens When Hair Dye Goes Wrong.) Henna is a reddish-orange shade, so consider anything darker a warning sign. One study published in Pediatric Emergency Care found black henna hair dye led to serious inflammation on the scalp, face, and neck. "As long as it's PPD free, you're good," Patton says. Which leads us to our next point...

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Pick PPD Free

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Make sure to do a patch test before using any product, but if you've had a reaction in the past, check out the ingredient list on the box and pass up any with PPD, a potential allergen. Try Aubrey Organics Color Me Natural 100% Natural Permanent Hair Color ($22, amazon.com) instead.

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Fight Grays with Hairprint

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Hairprint ($39, myhairprint.com) is one of the newest coloring technologies to hit the market, says Patton. It launched last year by the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and brings dark hair that's turned gray back to its natural color by restoring the hair's melanin—aka what's responsible for each strand's color. "It requires upkeep, so it's not a permanent solution," says Shah. "But overall it is likely less damaging than a traditional ammonia-containing dye." Since the product is so new, no third-party studies have been done to support its claims. But a hair-coloring option that's free of toxic chemicals and dyes? Our fingers are crossed.

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Go for Non-Permanent Solutions

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The color won't last as long, but your hair will be healthier as a result. Plus, you've got an easy out if the color doesn't fly with your skin tone. "If the box says the dye is permanent, then it likely contains a damaging chemical," Shah says. Rinses made with different herbs and teas offer a natural alternative that gradually rinse out. Some companies also make beet juice dyes for people looking to go the ultra-natural route, Patton says.

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Look for Healthy Oils

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"The oils will help to condition and protect the hair, but they may still contain some of the other harsh chemicals found in traditional ammonia-based hair dyes," says Shah. So while the oil won't dye your hair, it will help your hair appear healthier and shinier. "Hair loves oil," says Patton. "It helps with color uptake, and doesn't dry hair out."

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Seek Out a Natural Salon

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"If the salon doesn't smell good when you're in it, you should find a salon you feel like you can breathe in," says Patton. Most of the time, you'll have no idea what kind of dye your stylist is using, so your best bet is to seek out a salon that advertises itself as "natural" or one that uses a "non-toxic" coloring product. This site lists a few salons across the country that use chemical-free hair dye.

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Maintain Your Color

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Once you've scored the color you love, focus your attention on upkeep rather than scheduling your next coloring session. "Color your hair less often," says Patton. "The less exposure you have, the better." To start, cut back on how frequently you wash your hair. "The biggest risk for ruining hair colors is water," says Patton. "Wet your hair less often in the shower and you're going to lose less dye." Call on a dry shampoo on your off days to keep your hair looking fresh. See: How to Wash Your Hair—The Lazy Way.

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