The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

A Non-Toxic Alternative to Manic Panic: How to Dye Your Hair With Food Coloring

Updated September 2018

You may remember back in October that I dyed my hair pink. This was a two part, four-hour process. First, my hairdresser at Hale Salon bleached my ends. Then he applied two shades of Manic Panic. He sent me home with the extra hair dye to do my own touch ups.

That got me wondering… Manic Panic is vegan and cruelty-free, but is it nontoxic?

It certainly isn’t natural. How could it be, with such wild colors? The EWG says it has a mild-to-medium level of toxicity. But then again, the EWG tends to veer on the side of fear-mongering, and Manic Panic has updated its ingredients since that assessment. The current ingredients include Purified Water, Cetyl Alcohol, Stearyl Alcohol (two perfectly safe alcohols) Ceteareth 20 (nontoxic but shouldn’t be used on broken skin), Propylene Glycol (perfectly fine), Aloe Vera, Citric Acid, Methylchloroisothiazolinone and Methylisothiazolinone (only approved for rinse-off products because of its potential to burn your skin), and Basic Violet 16, C.I. 50240, C.I. 42600.

OK, so it won’t cause you cancer, it seems, but it’s not exactly icing on the cake!

Over the next three months, my hot pink hair color faded to a pretty, pale pink, and then completely away. I went back for a trim, and my hairdresser and I discussed what to do with my now-blond ombré. I didn’t want to use Manic Panic again, and he mused that maybe food dye would work.

I found this helpful post, which said I should add the food dye to a developer, which would help set the color in for longer, plus condition my hair for a nice shine. Lucky me, Clairol standard developer is non-toxic. The active ingredient is hydrogen peroxide, which “lifts” a bit of color from your hair.

Here’s What NOT to DO

I went to Whole Foods and got some vegetable-based food coloring to try out. I wanted a peachy pink color, so I did 10 drops of red, 5 drops of blue, and 2 drops of yellow. I brushed it into my clean, dry hair with a toothbrush, wrapped my hair in foil, let it sit for two hours, then got in the shower to wash it out.

That was a terrible idea. None of the color stuck, except for an ugly curry yellow. It turns out that turmeric stains much better than other vegetable dyes. The result looked like I had a cheap, terrible bleach job. It was time for plan B.

Dying your hair with food coloring

Here’s How to Dye Your Hair With Food Dye

Next, I picked up conventional food coloring. While not as natural as the vegetable-based version, I can only assume that, since it has been deemed safe for consumption, it is less toxic than Manic Panic.

I mixed up a bright pink using a lot of red and some blue. Tip: For food coloring, you always want your mixture to look much darker than how you want the final color to turn out.

I applied it to my clean hair with a toothbrush, tied my hair up and stuffed it under a shower cap for two hours, then rinsed my hair.

The result was gorgeous – the bright pink overlaid on my blond ends yielded a classy, pastel, peachy pink, which lasted for two weeks before fading to nothing.

Then I tried a bright blue, which yielded a pretty turquoise when over my blond hair. That faded after two weeks of washing my hair every other day to a subtle sea green.

I think next I’m going to try a rainbow of colors, all at once. Unicorn hair!

Should You Try Dying Your Hair With Food Coloring?

Pro: The fact that it only lasts a couple weeks is actually a great benefit, if you want to experiment with different colors before settling on a three-month-long color commitment. The pastels, instead of aggressively punk color, are like magical unicorn hair. Using the developer every two weeks has softened the transition of my ombre, by gently lifting some color from my hair. And of course, it’s less toxic and less expensive. The 16-ounce developer was $4, the food coloring even less.

Con: You have to set aside two hours every couple of weeks to sit around with dye in your hair, and you won’t get super-saturated colors. You’ll need to have blond or grey hair for the color to show up.

Overall, I love dying my hair with food coloring! I absolutely recommend it if you want to have a quick and noncommittal hair pick-me-up.

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