My Intrepid Explorations In Search Of Unnaturally Red Hair Without Bleaching Or Peroxide

AKA, Manic Panic for adults. (Sort-of adults.) (Not really adults at all.) (I will probably never be an adult.)
Publish date:
February 11, 2014
hair, haircolor, Manic Panic, i am a cool adult lady

A few years ago I decided I was going to stop using color-lifting chemicals of any sort on my hair.

I have weird hair. It’s curly, but not particularly thick in the first place, and since my natural state is to be stressing out like a New England squirrel in October pretty much seven days a week, I lose a fair portion of it.

Oh wait, did you want more information about stress and hair loss? The most common form is something medical types call telogen effluvium. Normally, only about 80% to 90% of the hair follicles on your head are actually growing hair (i.e., in the anagen phase); the remainder are in a “resting” state, often for months at a time, in which no growth happens (i.e. the telogen phase). In telogen effluvium, an unusual number of these follicles go into the resting state, and eventually those hairs fall out.

WebMD says you can identify lost telogen hairs by their root bulb of keratin on one end; keep in mind that SOME telogen hair loss is perfectly normal before you go freaking out, though. And severe hair loss beyond just vague thinness can be a sign of illness so talk to your doctor if you’ve got actual bald patches forming (this can also be a sign of a form of alopecia called alopecia areata, which can also be caused by severe stress and may also have a hereditary component).

Telogen effluvium can be caused by a zillion possible triggers, from childbirth to prescription drugs, but one of those triggers is stress. Basically my follicles are so sick of my anxious bullshit they are going into hibernation so they don't have to deal with me. While I spend the rest of my life trying to get my stress under control (HA) I am not so down with living those years under the pall of my gross natural hair color. And yet, any use of permanent haircolor was damaging what hair I did manage to grow, thereby exacerbating the thinness issue.

Maybe “gross” is too cruel a word. My natural haircolor looks fine on other people. I just don’t like it on myself.

People I know are often all, “It doesn’t look THAT bad, you weirdo,” (LIES) but I just don’t enjoy it.

I dyed my hair for the first time when I was fourteen, and I went with black, because I was kind of an idiot. I was FOURTEEN, OK, and a few years later when Angela Chase would color her hair “crimson glow” on “My So-Called Life,” I felt many feelings, mostly because my dad reacted in much the same manner as Angela’s mom. Actually, upon my big hair reveal, my dad said, “Uh, it makes you look like a witch,” and naturally I took this as MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

I had black hair all through the soul-wrenching darkneeesssssssss of high school, minus a brief period in which half my head was Manic Panic’s sadly-discontinued Deadly Nightshade. It was VERY brief, as this was yet another case in which my sartorial choices outpaced my Catholic high school’s dress code, and I was compelled to remedy my pink hair or else risk not being allowed to go to school.

(Of course, the next year, all the pretty popular girls were turning up with brightly colored streaks and none of them got in trouble even though at that point the dress code explicitly stated that “distracting” haircolor was not allowed. Yeah, I might still be a little annoyed at the teenage injustice of it all.)

In college, I tired of the black and its endless upkeep, and soon shifted over to red, which has proven a difficult habit to break. I’ve now been coloring my hair some shade of red or auburn consistently since the mid-90s, with only one brief pause around 1999 when I had a salon strip out all the old dye and put my (now horribly damaged) hair back to its natural color, with the intention of letting it heal.

This remains the only time I have ever let a salon color my hair.

As I paid for the expensive repair process, I swore I would never go back to at-home coloring, and that lasted maybe four months before I came back from the drugstore clutching a box of Feria in my hands and incoherently mumbling “I can do what I want” and “Screw you, nature” and “BOX DYE, MY PRECIOUSSSS.” The embarrassing truth is, I get extremely depressed and irrational when I hate my haircolor.

Ten years later, with my hair looking twenty years older than I did, I gave up box dye again. The difference this time is that today I recognize my weaknesses, and rather than force myself to make peace with my natural hair, my new plan was to continue to color it red, but minus the bleach and lift-y chemicals I was used to.

It turns out that abandoning the box dyes for semi-permanent color at last made me rebellious. So much so that over the past year I have forsaken all efforts at achieving a nice sedate auburn in favor of increasingly unnatural reds. Returning full circle to my doomed Manic Panic efforts as a teenager, I’m now buying hair dye that you can find at Hot Topic. (I’m still 37, by the way.)

I'm fortunate in this respect, because my hair is naturally very porous. Folks who dye their hair bright colors usually try to bleach their hair almost white first, and while the obvious purpose of this is to provide a blank canvas for the color to show up on, bleaching has a second effect that is just as important: it ravages your hair cuticle. Because Manic Panic and other similar dyes operate without a developer, you need to have some roughed-up hairs for the color to seep into, otherwise it will just slide off your head and you will have stained your hands and bathtub purple FOR NO REASON.

Straight hair tends to be less porous, so bleaching is practically essential. Curly hair tends to be more porous in its natural state. Thus it occurred to me that, given my natural haircolor is not super dark, and my individual hairs are pretty roughed up already, if I did some color-math between the shade in the bottle and the hair on my head (as an aside, while you can find whole galleries on the internet dedicated to the color results for all crazy-color dyes over bleached hair, it is REALLY DIFFICULT to find pictures of various shades over natural hair, so I really am rolling a handful of haircolor dice here), I might be able to get something approximating the red hair of my dreams even without the chemical interlude.

My first love was Special Effects in Hot Lava, which combined with my regular color produces a pretty orange-toned red that is easily my favorite haircolor that I’ve ever had, with very little bleeding and color transfer. Bleeding and color transfer are somewhat inevitable when using these sorts of “vegetable” dyes, and some colors and brands are way worse than others. Special Effects, in my experience, is one of the best, with only minor bleeding for less than a week after I initially color. It even faded nicely.

Unfortunately, it also dyes my scalp bright orange for about two days. Like, BRIGHT orange. Cheetos orange. I have to make really huge big giant hair (usually with hair powder -- I love this Got2B stuff our own Hannah reviewed awhile back) for a few days to hide the orangeness. Which is actually OK with me.

The downside is that Special Effects is a really annoying company that apparently goes through these periods from time to time when they run out of stock and it takes months to make more. The last I heard, all colors were in production with an expectation for restocking in December and, well, that hasn’t happened.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with Manic Panic’s Amplified line, which supposedly holds on better and longer than their classic colors. My first attempt was Vampire Red, which turned out -- really unnatural. I mean, I enjoyed it enormously, but it was much brighter than I expected, even over my not-that-blonde hair.

It also lasted FOREVER. I had visible roots long before it started fading. Unfortunately, it also bled the entire time. Six weeks of pink towels. It comes out in the laundry, at least.

My second Manic Panic Amplified effort was Pillarbox Red. This was far less Robitussin-like. I was almost disappointed by it. Also, when I went to wash out the dye, no color came out of my hair.

I should back up for a minute and explain. My system for haircoloring is pretty straightforward: first I shampoo with a clarifying-type shampoo. You want LOTS OF SULFATES to get allll the product residue and natural oils out of your hair so the color has an easier time grabbing hold. Then I blow it dry, with high heat -- this may or may not help open the hair cuticle. It seems to work for me. Then I mush the haircolor through my hair, first using a bowl and tinting brush from Sally Beauty to do my roots and around my face, and then using my (gloved) hands. I tend to err on the side of using more than I need, rather than less.

Finally I wrap my hair into a bun, put a showercap on, and then go do other things for at least two hours. Ideally three or four, but I can rarely stand to go that long with stuff on my head.

After those hours are up, I go rinse the color out of my hair. Usually this is the part where your shower and tub are devastated. (Not to be gross, but I actually time my hair coloring for right before I clean my bathroom, because, uh, any color that spills tends to wipe off with the soap scum, etc, when I get down to scrubbing. I think of the dirt as a barrier between my haircolor and my surfaces.)

After rinsing until the water is clear, or I just get sick of rinsing endlessly (usually the latter), I do an apple cider vinegar rinse (one part of ACV to two to three parts water, dump over head, leave on for a few minutes, rinse out, don’t panic because I swear you will stop smelling like a salad once it dries), which has dual benefits of being both good for curly/textured hair AND puts a nice seal on the color by closing the hair cuticle.

When I went to rinse out the Pillarbox Red, though, no hair color came out. Which is odd. Where did it go? I was half expecting I got a bad bottle, but the resulting color was definitely red. It hasn’t bled at all, ever, since. So, Manic Panic Amplified in Pillarbox Red is magic, I guess.

My upkeep is similarly lazy: I don’t let hot water touch my hair. I DIY a custom color-depositing shampoo by squirting some of my current haircolor into some sulfate-free shampoo (I need to boost here for Curlicious Curls Cleasing Cream as a sulfate-free cleanser of choice) and using that once a week. If you’ve got a little more bank to spend, Pureology makes outstanding products that really do extend your color, even if your color is just Manic Panic. I am especially fond of the Reviving Red Illuminating Caring Oil.

While I will probably continue to experiment with different colors, the sum total of all of this is that my hair is thicker and healthier than it’s been since I was in middle school, AND it’s still a color I really like, and up until very recently I had been certain that both of these things happening together was an impossible dream.

Screw you, nature. I can do what I want.