My Adventures in Achieving Peroxide-Free Red Hair

Maybe destroying my hair with box dyes for 20 years wasn't the smartest idea. I'm trying to make up for it now.
Publish date:
November 30, 2011
shoppables, my misspent youth, Downton Abbey, red, alisande fitzsimmons, tv recaps, Hair Color

In the eighth grade, I returned from a weekend at my mom's place with black hair.

My father was horrified. In retrospect, even though my mom was pretty permissive, I’m sort of astonished that I got away with it. It wasn’t actually supposed to be black -- I’d wanted to change my boring (so I thought) blonde hair to a darker brown, and instead ended up with the Veronica Lodge. (One of my dad’s friends even started referring to me as Darlene, in reference to the rebellious daughter on “Roseanne.” I don’t think he realized how cool I thought this was.)

The black dye was permanent, it turned out, and in the intervening 20-plus years I don’t believe my hair has ever been its natural shade since. Indeed, I am not altogether sure WHAT my natural haircolor is anymore; I assume it’s the same streaky blonde it was when I was 13, but who knows?

At some point following high school -- and a few short forays into pink streaks and other attempts at unnatural color -- I gave up the black, mostly because I was tired of dealing with my blond roots all the time. I shifted to red, and although I have had a few brief periods in which I have sworn off hair color altogether (including one time when I forced my long-suffering husband to promise to destroy any peroxide-based haircolor he saw me bringing home -- AS IF he’d know a peroxide-based haircolor from a freaking hole in the ground), red-to-auburn is the space on the hair spectrum where I’ve remained.

Today, my roots show an ever-increasing ratio of gray hairs. I love gray hair; I have often wished that my whole head would go gray all at once, so I could stop dyeing it forever. What I dislike is that dishwater blonde I remember. But I also dislike the way peroxide-heavy box dyes were wrecking my hair. I’ve only had my color done properly in a salon a handful of times, because I’m cheap; buying better-quality supplies at Sally Beauty was only mitigating the damage.

So a few months ago, I decided I would peroxide no more. The challenge was how to continue having the red-to-auburn hair I wanted without it, ideally in a semi-permanent form that didn’t need weekly touch-ups. Luckily I have an awesome friend who is a freaking guru about red hair, and she gave me some direction.

Henna. Yeah, when I was a kid everybody basically had the idea that henna was the surest route to bright orange clown hair. Apparently the reason this happens is due to inferior quality henna. I know this because I’ve read almost every word on Henna for Hair, a site all about using henna on your hair. Obviously. The trick is to use pure, high-quality henna, and evidently it works great.

Of course, I’ve never actually used henna. My reasons for this are totally legitimate: It’s messy and time-consuming. You have to sit with this mud on your head for many hours for it to really work out. I keep thinking that as soon as I get a free Sunday to sit around with mud on my head, I’M TOTALLY GONNA DO IT. I haven’t had that free Sunday yet. The pictures of henna’ed hair on the website are gorgeous, though.

You can buy real henna online, either in bulk or as part of a kit, not unlike your standard box dye.

Surya Brasil “Henna Cream.” Cheater henna! This is more my speed. Natural-products folks hate this stuff for soiling the purity of dirt-style henna, plus it does have a few other non-natural ingredients. But it’s still a giant step up from my box dye past. The instructions say NEVER NEVER NEVER leave it on for longer than 30 minutes but I usually leave it on for an hour because I’m a rebel and no haircolor instructions are going to tell me how to live my life, man.

The downside to Surya is that it stains. Even when I am meticulous about Vaseline-ing my hairline, it stains my scalp bright freaking orange for at least 24 hours. However, it also creates the most perfect red hair I’ve ever had. Because it’s not real henna, this stuff is only semi-permanent, but by flouting the timing directions (which you should never do) I can get this color to last about three weeks before noticeably fading. Of course your mileage may vary depending on your hair’s texture, and possibly other science-y hair reasons. I will also note that it makes my hair feel AWESOME.

You can find Surya Brasil products online, or at some Whole Foods stores. I buy mine on

Clairol Jazzing. Even the name sounds awesome: JAZZING! There is nothing natural about this semi-permanent color; indeed, I am told it’s mostly plastic, which coats your hair. It is colored plastic coating for your hair. However, it is also free of peroxide, alcohol, and ammonia. And it works! I use the Cherry Cola color in-between Surya applications, glopping it on, putting a heavy shower cap on top, and the blasting my head with a hot hair dryer for about half an hour. The resulting color is super pretty.

Cons? Jazzing also stains. And sometimes, if I don’t rinse it super-thoroughly, it will bleed for a day or two. I recently got caught in the rain the morning after Jazzing my hair, and was bummed to find that the color had bled onto the collar of my sweater (it came out in the laundry, so at least there’s no permanent damage done). Plus, I hear if you have non-curly hair, the color doesn’t take so well. This is not a problem for me, though.

You can buy Jazzing at Sally Beauty, in stores or online.

Manic Panic/Special Effects/Funky Color/Etc. I have to give a cursory nod to these stalwarts of the semi-permanent color world. I used them in high school, and tried MP again just this past summer. Golden memories aside, it was AWFUL. It made a terrific mess, permanently stained everything it touched, and yet barely held to my hair -- where I wanted it to go! -- for more than a week.

Also, it continuously bled the whole time. I applied a wine red shade over my natural color just to give it a tint right before going out of town. The hotel bathroom looked like a freaking murder scene every time I showered -- the towels (why do hotels use WHITE TOWELS anyway?), the shower curtain, the tile, the tub. The hotel housekeeping staff probably thought I’d killed the Kool-Aid Man in there. It even bled when DRY, leaving burgundy marks on the pillow.

It was not my finest haircoloring hour. Though the color selection of the MP-like dyes is awesome, I’ll happily stick with my henna-and-plastic routine and not be scrubbing the bathroom every day. It may not be fully “natural” but my hair is currently in the best condition it’s seen in years, and I can only blame my cold-turkey quitting the peroxide for that.