DIY Series: Using Body Art Quality Henna as Haircolor
Attention wannabe redheads–or even those of you who are dying to add a reddish or auburn sheen to your beautiful dark locks–this post is for you.
For about 15 years, I was miserably tied down to the cycle of coloring my hair, month after month, year after year, hair coloring after hair coloring. If there’s a shade of hair out there, I’ve probably had it–including the less fortunate tones of green/grey that I would often flaunt after a particularly bad color job. Pink, purple, blue, black, brunette, redhead, platinum blonde, natural blonde, triple toned hair… you name it, I’ve done it. Some looked good, others looked bad, all were toxic-chemical based.
About 9 months ago, I decided I wasn’t going to color my hair anymore. Big changes! And, for the first time in a very long time, I began to really see my natural hair color–all 7 glorious inches of it (the ends were dyed to match the natural roots just before I started hennaing). I even discovered a million grey hairs that I did not know I had. Neat. But, as much as I loved the new shine and feel of my “real” hair, I found my natural hair color pretty bland. Along with my pasty skin, I was beginning to feel like a big bowl of unadorned oatmeal.
I started craving color again… as I do.
But, I was definitely done with chemical coloring, and I wasn’t wanting the blonde look that I can achieve with some lemon juice and sunshine…
Then I remembered henna! Ah, yes; the perfect solution to brilliant, natural, long lasting color, with zero toxic chemicals. The color hangs on for about 1 to 3 months, so it’s a permanent hue, but without damage. In my experience it fades subtely, so by the time you need a re-up, much of your natural hair color will be shining through again. I’ve colored my hair 3 times now with henna, and each time it gets silkier and stronger, and the color a touch more red and defined.
Henna is a tropical flowering plant that’s been used since ancient times for coloring skin, hair, fingernails, silk, leather, and more. The leaves are dried and ground into a fine powder, which is then mixed with an acidic substance (lemon juice/amla powder/vinegar) and water and then left in a container for 6 to 24 hours. Over this period of time, the dye of the plant (called lawsone) then “releases” and is able to bind with the proteins in hair, skin, etc. The dried henna powder, when mixed with water, smells similar to hay or even freshly raked leaves.
Many of you may be familiar with henna as temporary “tattoos”, but people have also used it to add strength, thickness, and a hint of color to their locks for eons. Henna colored hair was the fashion in 19th century Europe ( think Pre-Raphaelite –so many Redheads!) and Lucille Ball made “henna rinse” all the rage in the 60’s with her signature red locks. The term “henna” is often misused to reference “black henna” (which could mean indigo) and “neutral henna” (cassia), which are not derived from the henna plant.
Henna can be mixed with other natural hair dyes such as cassia (also known as senna) for lighter shades of red and blond, or indigo for brown, auburn, or black hair. Many dried bricks of henna haircolor, including some of the henna hair color sold by LUSH include these other natural dyes, which is why they are available in different colors. If you are interested in dying your hair a different color than red, such as brown, auburn or black, it can be done with plants. It often involves henna (+ other herbs such as Indigo, etc.), but I don’t have any experience coloring hair with any natural dyes other than henna. Here’s a great forum for your perusal, if you’re interested in learning more.
The impostor henna haircolor that you want to avoid is any that contain metal salts or toxic-chemical ingredients. Metal salts can interact with chemical hair dye, relaxers, or perms.
Avoid anything labeled as black henna, unless it specifies that the ingredients are 100% indigo. Henna and “black henna” in general have gotten a bad rap because of a chemical called PPD that is often sold as haircolor/body art dye and marketed as a black or blue henna. If you use a “black henna mix” that contains PPD, or any other mysterious chemicals, you are risking your health, and your hair. Stick to 100% herbs that are proven safe for hair. If it has rosemary, cloves, chamomile, indigo, senna, you are probably good to go. If it contains anything that even sounds remotely like para-phenylenediamine, run away. Fast.
Henna is perfectly safe and all natural and can generally be used without any issues at all. The one exception is if you suffer from Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency– an X-linked recessive hereditary disease–don’t use henna. And, to play it safe, don’t use on children under 12 years old, since it may not be known whether or not the child has this deficiency.
When first opened from the package your henna powder should be a greenish powder and smell lightly like hay or leaves. If it does not resemble the photo below, it is not henna.
Henna will tint your hair a variation of red. Or, rather the leaves contain lawsone–a dye molecule that is masked by the chlorophyl in the henna plant, which is released by adding an acid to the pulverized/ground leaves. Lawsone binds to the protein in your hair shaft to create a redder version of your natural hair color.
Henna doesn’t darken your hair, but if you have blonde or grey hair, it will give it more contrast. Think of it like a burnt sienna tinted stain. If you apply henna onto very dark hair, the color will be subtle and will work with your natural hair color to add shine, thickness and a beautiful burgundy hue to your hair when seen in direct sunlight. If you have bright white hair, your hair will turn a brilliant strawberry blonde. What I love most is how natural the color looks. I’ve received many compliments on my hair from people just randomly crossing my path (this never, ever, ever, used to happen), and strangers are most shocked when I tell them that it’s colored. They all, at first, think I’m naturally blessed with shiny red/auburn locks. Even my husband agrees it’s the most natural looking color [he has seen] that I’ve had–aside from my own, of course.
Your final color of hennaed hair depends on the original color of your hair, the texture of your hair, the quality of the henna used, how long you leave the henna paste on your head, whether the dye was properly released, etc..
Below is a very generic color guide, and a much more thorough version, with real human examples, is available here.
White: Bright Strawberry Blonde
Grey: Very Light Red/Golden
Salt and Pepper: Medium-light Reddish Brown
Black: Deep Dark Burgundy when viewed in sunlight; otherwise, little color change
Very Dark Brown: Burgundy highlights when viewed in sunlight, otherwise little color change
Dark Brown: Burgundy, reddish in sunlight
Medium Brown: Auburn with Deep Burgundy hues
Light Brown: Natural Medium to light Red
Dark Blonde: Natural Medium to Light Red
Natural Blonde: Light Red
Platinum or Golden Blonde: Bright Strawberry Blonde
Dark Red: Enhances color and shine
Medium Red: Enhances color and shine
Light Red: Deepens color, adds shine
Strawberry Blonde: Deepens color, Natural Red
Some things to keep in mind:
1) The henna I use and recommend is not from a box labeled “natural hair color”, “organic hair dye” or anything similar. The contents of your package should read : 100% henna powder (sometimes they put the country of origin), and that’s it. Nothing more. You can purchase body art quality henna at most Indian markets, or online at various retailers. Amazon carries this brand which is excellent quality in my experience. Jamila, which is pictured above is also good quality. Check the date; fresh is best.
LUSH cosmetics also carries a line of henna + other herb based hair colors, Their caca rouge (red) is henna mixed with lemon juice and cacao butter …and some other things. There’s another brand that has drawings of wild animals on the box that contains even less ingredients, just a mix of henna and indigo in most cases.
2) You can, despite what many stylists warn, use henna over chemically colored hair, and vice versa. I did. My hair looks a ton better than it did pre-henna. I’ve also known many people who have colored over hennaed hair–and while they note that it was difficult to completely remove the red, their hair did not fall out. Much of the scaremongering comes from those so called “henna” haircolor blends or pre-made pastes that contain toxic substances (PPD!! metal salts!!) that will, in fact, ruin your hair. Don’t use that stuff, before or after you color your hair with anything. Ever. It’s expensive and it will probably turn your hair green and if you try and color over it, it may melt off. So, fair warning. Remember, unless you are buying from LUSH or another manufacturer that only uses 100% botanical ingredients, just stick to body art henna + whatever other herbs you find necessary. I add a little amla powder in with my henna paste in place of lemon juice (see below) simply because lemon is drying and my hair is already hella damaged.
3) You must wait for the dye to release before beginning, and then once it has begun, you must keep it on your head for, like, 6 hours. Seriously. This is a time commitment, people. But the tradeoff is zero chemicals and radiant color.
4) Henna, when first washed from hair will seem quite red, maybe TOO red for your taste, even. Give it time. It can take up to 3 days for henna to oxidize, which will tone down the color and make it less orange. Mine always starts out a brilliant natural red color, and then oxidizes to a tamer auburn color after about 4 days.
Okay, so here’s how you do it!
Step 1: The night before you plan to henna, mix up your henna powder with enough water to make a fluffy paste. 100g is how much henna I needed to use to fully cover my hair, which is slightly longer than shoulder length. Stir in 1/4 cup lemon juice, vinegar, or another acidic liquid (skip the lemon if using amla powder, which is gentler on damaged hair). Cover with plastic wrap and let rest 6 to 12 hours, or until the dye releases. You can test the dye release by simply placing a dab of it on your palm. Wait 5 minutes and then rinse. If the spot turns orange, then the henna’s dye has released and you are good to go.
If you want to see how the color will look on your hair before committing, simply snip a lock from an inconspicuous area of your hairline and color it with the henna and wrap in plastic wrap. Wait 4 hours, rinse, and dry. The rest of the henna will be fine to set while you test the color.
Step 2: Prepare a work area and gather your materials. You will need:
- amla powder (optional, but is said to tone the red down a bit, and be gentler on damaged hair. If you use amla, no lemon juice is needed in the initial henna paste)
- an old tee-shirt you don’t mind lounging in for 6+ hours
- coconut oil
- rubber gloves
- a dropcloth/or several sheets of newspaper
- a few rags you don’t mind dying red
- your prepared henna paste
- plastic wrap
- 6 good solid hours to color your hair (movie marathon!!)
- a very good deep conditioner, lots and lots of it
Step 3: Put on your old tee-shirt.
Step 4: If you are using the amla powder, mix it with just enough water to form a paste, and then stir it into your henna paste.
Step 5: Prep your hairline and ears by covering them with a thin coat of coconut oil to protect your skin from unintentional dying. It’s pretty easy to wipe off and doesn’t stain to bad if you accidentally get some on you, but better to just prevent it.
Step 6: Put on your gloves and make sure your floor underneath (and other spaces around you) are protected from any accidental spills. If any occur, wipe them up quickly with a dampened rag.
Step 7: Slather the henna paste onto your hair, starting from the roots and working outward. This stuff is not like regular haircolor. It is more like mud. It will be difficult to get it covered completely, but try your best until it’s all covered, and massage it in there very well. Feel free to add a touch of water to your hair if it’s feeling too dry. You have to keep the henna powder wet for the entire 6 hours (the plastic wrap will help immensely), so be sure to start with a wet paste.
Step 8: Wrap your head completely with plastic wrap.
Step 9: Sit around like this for 6 hours. Pamper yourself. Embrace it. Have some chocolate and/or wine and read a good book.
Step 10 Rinse your hair! It will be tough to get it all out, but using a conditioner to rinse it out and then deep conditioning once the henna has been thoroughly rinsed out will help tremendously. It takes a while to get it all out, so I’d recommend wearing gloves. Don’t worry, the henna won’t stain your tub.
Step 11: Wait for it to oxidize, which takes about 3 to 4 days, and enjoy your new red locks! Repeat as often as you need with new root growth. Your hair will smell like henna for a day or so after coloring, so be prepared for that as well.
Step 12: Flaunt your hot new red tresses and watch heads turn. Specifically your own when you pass by a mirror. Whoa! Who’s that smokin’ red head?
Oh, it’s you.
Read more about henna here: The Henna Page