Hair dye, bleach, heat—we’re all guilty of putting our hair through more than it deserves. And, most of the time, the chemicals aren’t even worth it. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) states that over 5,000 different chemicals are used in hair dye products, some of which are reported to be carcinogenic in animals. (Yikes!!!)
Although the FDA regulates cosmetics, it “does not approve each ingredient used in hair dyes before it goes on the market.” [source] However, the good news is you can get natural highlights, lighten your hair, or darken it with natural stuff, too! Here are 17 ways to naturally color your hair at home.
17 Ways to Get Natural Highlights
We rounded up some of the best solutions for you if you’re ready to switch to natural dyes. Don’t be afraid to step outside the box (hair color box, that is) and try something different!
Be forewarned, the results you get from herbs are less intense than the salon, and they won’t turn your hair from brunette to blonde overnight, but they’re way less damaging to your hair. Besides, we’re big fans of the more subtle look.
This trick has been around for a while—meaning, it must have good results, right? The science behind it says that when the citric acid in lemon juice heats up in the sun, it opens hair cuticles and lifts out the pigment.
Try this lightening spray or squeeze 1/3 cup of lemon juice into a spray bottle and dilute with 1 cup of water. Spritz on damp hair, focusing on areas you want to lighten more than others (like around the face), and sit with your hair in the sun for 1–2 hours. Be forewarned, some hair types may become a bit brassy with this technique.
We know that honey is an awesome hair conditioning ingredient [source], so this truly is a double-duty lightening ingredient. Although effective, brightening your hair with bleach can be super damaging, so honey is the ultimate replacement. How does it work? Well, honey has an enzyme called glucose oxidase that produces hydrogen peroxide, which acts as a bleaching agent.
Combine 1/4 cup of organic honey with 1 cup of water in a squeeze bottle (an old shampoo bottle works great for this) and shake well. Let the mixture rest for an hour before applying to damp hair.
Put on a shower cap and allow the honey to sink in for 1–2 hours (don’t apply heat, don’t go out in the sun, just relax while the honey works its own magic). Skip the shampoo and rinse the honey out with water. Then follow up with conditioner.
Chamomile tea has so many benefits for our bodies and our hair! This method for getting natural highlights is a bit more gradual but is still sure to bring out some bright highlights. Steep 3 chamomile tea bags (or 3 tablespoons of loose chamomile tea) in 8 ounces of hot water.
Next, strain and set aside to cool. While waiting for it to cool, wash your hair. When your hair is clean, pour the chamomile solution through your wet hair. Wrap it in a towel and leave it on for about 10 minutes before rinsing out.
Cardamom contains a form of peroxide, which has long been used for lightening hair [source]. While you might not see results immediately, over time, it can help lighten and brighten your locks without stripping hair of much-needed moisture.
To use, simmer 1/4 cup of cardamom pods in 8 ounces of water for 30 minutes. Strain out the cardamom and let the liquid cool to room temperature. Pour over freshly washed hair and allow it to sit for 30 minutes before rinsing.
5. Sea Salt
Have you ever spent a week at the ocean only to find that you’ve somehow gotten the most gorgeous, sun-kissed highlights? You can harness the power of salt water and sun at home with the help of a sea salt spray.
Simply dissolve 1 tablespoon of natural sea salt in ½ cup of warm water. Pour over your hair, soaking the strands from root to tip. Let it sit for about 20 minutes (if possible, spend some time outside where the sun’s rays can work their magic) before rinsing. Follow up with conditioner.
This is a neat trick since you can be just about any color to go a shade of red. Henna leaves contain lawsone, which binds to the protein in your hair shaft and creates a redder version of your natural hair color.
Henna hair dye is a bit too complicated for us to go into in this post, but Allyson Kramer gives an excellent tutorial on her website that explains where to find pure henna, what color you should choose, and what kind of red you can expect based on your natural color.
7. Rooibos tea
Red hair can be so beautiful and yet so hard to maintain at the same time. To brighten your red, brew 3–5 rooibos tea bags (or a comparable amount of loose leaf tea) in 8 ounces of water. Cool the solution completely, and pour it over your hair. After about 30 minutes, rinse and style as usual.
8. Hibiscus Tea
The science behind using hibiscus tea for natural highlights isn’t really a mystery (spoiler alert: the tea itself is red)[source], it has even been shown in a study to create a deep red color in camel wool permanently [source].
As Andrea Drugay recommends in her blog post on how to color hair with hibiscus [source], this dye is best for virgin hair (not already colored). She has a great recipe to try if you’re looking for a darker, more burgundy color. And as a bonus, it may help prevent split ends and promote hair growth.
Here, again, is a no-brainer, considering the natural color of beets. Mix half a cup of beetroot juice with half a cup of carrot juice, and massage the mixture into your hair. (If you can’t find beetroot juice, you can steep 2 tablespoons of organic beetroot powder in 8 ounces of hot water, then let cool completely before straining.) Leave it on for one hour, then rinse. Repeat twice a week to maintain a natural reddish tint.
10. Cranberry juice
Much like beet juice and hibiscus tea, pure cranberry juice (not that stuff from concentrate) can help boost your hair’s natural highlights and give it a red hue. Simply apply 100% organic cranberry juice to clean, wet hair. Let it stay on the hair and sink in for several hours before washing and styling as usual. Repeat until you achieve the desired color.
11. Black Walnuts
Black walnut powder is known to stain just about anything it comes into contact with, including your hair. Combine 3 tablespoons of walnut powder with 3 cups of water in a medium saucepan and let simmer for at least 30 minutes to make a walnut tea. After it cools, strain out the powder, and let your hair soak in the dye solution for up to 20 minutes, depending on how dark you want your hair to be.
12. Black tea
To darken your hair with black tea, steep 5 black tea bags in 8 ounces of hot water for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool completely. On freshly washed hair, pour the cooled black tea over your head, using a bowl or bucket so you can make sure you saturate all of your hair strands.
Use a shower cap for heat and deeper penetration of the hair strands. You can leave the tea rinse on for up to one hour and then rinse off; a second shampoo is optional.
One of my favorite ways to get natural highlights is with coffee. Not only does it get you awake and going in the morning, but coffee can perk up your hair color too. According to AnnMarie Gianni, all you need to do is brew a strong cup of coffee, let it cool, and then mix one cup with a couple cups of leave-in conditioner and 2 tablespoons of fresh coffee grounds. Apply to strands for about an hour before rinsing off.
14. Cocoa Powder
Give brown hair a boost with cocoa powder. Mix 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder with 1/2 cup of plain yogurt and 1 tablespoon of honey and apply to damp hair for an hour. Shampoo and condition hair as usual.
15. Mustard Oil
If you’re looking for a more subtle brunette, try using mustard oil. All you need to do to bring out your natural highlights is rub it in your hair, put on a shower cap, and rinse after a few hours. Since it’s not as strong as other dyes, repeat every night until you reach your desired shade. It’s also loaded with vitamins and minerals, which will lead to stronger and thicker hair with continued use.
While you might not expect it, sage has long been used to darken brown hair naturally. Simply steep 1 cup of dried sage leaves in 3 cups of boiling water for 30 minutes (the longer it steeps, the darker it will be.)
Let the mixture cool before straining out the herb remnants. Pour the sage water onto clean, damp hair and cover it with a shower cap. Let it sit for 30 minutes before rinsing out.
In natural circles, onion skins are often used to make natural dyes for things like fabric and Easter eggs. But they can also naturally enhance the brown tones in hair. Combine two handfuls of onion skins (yellow or red will work) with three cups of water in a large saucepan. Simmer on low heat for an hour, then turn off the heat and let the mixture rest overnight.
Strain out the onions, hop in the shower, and pour the onion water over wet hair. Since onions definitely have an odor, it’s best just to let the rinse sit on your hair for a few minutes before washing as usual. Use the rinse daily until you reach the desired shade.
Natural Highlight FAQs
Will natural dyes damage my hair?
One of the things we love about natural hair dyes is that they’re much, much gentler on hair than salon dyes. That being said, some ingredients can still damage hair if used too long or too often. Acidic dyes that strip hair of its color, such as lemon or vinegar, can also remove moisture and damage the hair follicle if used too much. But dyes that add color, such as walnut shells or henna, are less damaging and can be used more often.
What’s the best way to naturally cover grays?
Black walnut shells have been used for centuries to cover grays. But since walnut powder isn’t as strong as salon dyes, you might need to use it regularly to see results.
Will these dyes work on beards, too?
Yep! It’s best to do a little research beforehand, though, to make sure a particular dye (i.e., henna or black walnut powder) is safe to use near the mouth in case you happen to ingest any.
Can I leave natural dyes on overnight?
I don’t recommend it. Some dyes can strip hair of moisture, making your hair dry and brittle after a while. Plus, you don’t want to over-color your hair and wake up with a color you didn’t expect. It’s best to repeat the coloring process slowly over time so you can replenish moisture and monitor the changes as you go.
Should I wash the dye out with shampoo or just rinse when I’m done?
While some of our recipes say to just rinse with water, it couldn’t hurt to wash the dye out with shampoo (especially if you have fine or limp hair). It really just depends on your hair type. Either way, I recommend always following up with conditioner afterward to protect strands and lock in moisture.
Is it possible to naturally highlight black hair?
It depends. Some of these methods might work on very dark hair, but others may not. The best way to know for sure is to try them out on your hair and see.
How long can I expect natural highlights to last?
Most of these dyes should last about 6-8 weeks before you’ll start to see fading. While it varies from dye to dye, the effects of stripping color (with lemon juice, for example) will last longer than adding color, which fades with continuous washing.
Looking for more DIY hair treatments?
Now that your natural highlights are on point, here’s how to protect ’em:
This post was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Haley, a board-certified dermatologist with extensive experience in medical, cosmetic and surgical dermatology. Learn more about Hello Glow’s medical review board here. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.161