What is Henna?
Henna, also known as Mehndi, is a natural dye and hair conditioner. It contains a molecule called a “lawsone” that acts as staining agent for the dye, and binds to the proteins in the skin or hair when the henna is applied. As a hair dye, a great benefit of henna is that it does not damage hair at all, unlike commercial box dyes which use chemicals to directly change the pigment color of the hair. Henna is also a permanent dye that can’t be bleached out easily, as it becomes a part of the hair’s internal structure.
Henna doubles as a hair conditioner by strengthening the structure of the hair, repairing thin weak hair strands, reducing split ends, and greatly reducing hair breakage. Hypothetically speaking, if your hair normally reaches max length somewhere above the waist, then with henna conditioning your hair should be able to reach the waist and below. As a conditioner, henna also leaves the hair shinier, smoother, silkier, and slightly straightens curls by increasing hair weight and volume.
But the effect that it has on your hair may vary, depending on genetics, environment, and the formulation of the henna mixture that you use.
And in general, some people find that henna may make their hair stiffer or drier. Either because they didn’t wash the hair properly after the treatment, something they mixed with the henna like lemon juice, or as a side effect of henna by itself. I personally found that it did make my hair stiffer, but after a couple of showers the stiffness goes away. So a general advice is to run a moisturizing treatment on your hair after applying henna on it. And for your 1st time to keep the mixture simple- only henna and water. That’s it.
As I mentioned before, the environment plays a factor given that hair that was dyed with henna stays very well and soft in humid climates. Whereas in very dry climates, you may find that the hair becomes stiff like straw. So in drier climates you would need to go through more moisturizing treatments for your hair. So you should keep this in mind, depending on where you live.
To insure that Henna conditions your hair the way you want, it is imperative to 1st perform a hair strand test before applying it directly to your hair. You can gather the hair from your hair comb or brush to test this.
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What Colors does Henna Dye Hair?
The main dye color of henna is orange-red. However, I observed that the color tone ranges from deep red to light-orange. In fact, the Moroccan Henna that I experimented with dyed my white hair a golden yellow. So the shade of orange-red you get depends on the region where the henna was grown in. So generally speaking, Indian and Yemeni henna is darker than Moroccan henna in color. For a darker Red you can go with Light Mountain Natural.
Another factor is that hair dyed with All-Natural henna oxidizes overtime to reach its true color, such that the coppery orange-red color may become a darker red. In contrast, the “henna-for-hair” chemical box dye fades overtime as it easily washes away when you take a shower.
As for how Henna imparts its color, you should first know that it does not lift hair color. Nor does it bleach the hair. Rather henna stains the hair translucently by depositing the pigment color onto the keratin proteins of the hair. That means if your have black or dark brown hair like me, you will only be able to see a slight tint of red in the sunlight. I guess I have something to look forward to when I get older, assuming that I get a lot of white hairs ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And actually a lot of people use henna for white/grey hair coverage.
But because Henna only deposits color, it is a very healthy way to color your hair. In fact, it is used as a conditioner because it strengthens the hair. People who use henna find that before their hair was not able to reach a certain length, but after applying henna consistently they were able to grow their hair out longer.
So even if you have black hair, you can use henna to improve the health of the hair, make it silky, smooth, softer, less prone to tangles, makes the hair strands stronger and to increase the volume of your hair.
But if you insist on incorporating some of that beautiful auburn color into you hair, theoretically you can lighten the color of your hair first. So if you have dark brown hair, you could try lightening your hair with natural peroxides agents, like cinnamon, cardamom, honey, and extra virgin olive oil, or coconut oil. I believe fresh honey works very well. And some people also use lemon juice combined with sunlight to lighten their hair. Sunlight alone can also lighten hair, but that means a lot of time spent in the sun… I guess that depends on your life style.
And returning to the topic of honey, it is a natural peroxide agent but it actives when diluted with water. That’s how honey acts as a antibacterial when it is used on wounds- the body fluids mix with the honey to form the hydrogen peroxide.
I don’t know if it makes much of a difference to apply the peroxide agents separately or with the henna. But I would assume that it works better to 1st lighten the hair and then apply the henna separately.
But another thing you should consider is that for hair that is totally bleached white, it may make the hair look bright orange. Think of carrots. So henna looks best on brown and blonde hair. And as I mentioned before, the color imparted also depends on region where the henna plant came from.
But before you decide to dye your hair with henna, there are a few things you need to consider 1st.
Should you Dye your Hair with Henna?
There are various different reasons why you would want to dye your hair with henna. Some may use it to dye their hair or condition their hair. But in order to decide whether you want to dye your hair with henna or not, it is important to first conduct a strand test to see how henna would react with your hair. So after you comb your hair, sometimes you would get a few long strands of hair stuck in the comb. You gather that and rub some of the henna paste that you have into it. In order to keep the accuracy of the strand test, you should allow 3-4 hours for the hair strands to soak in the dye from the henna paste. Then you wash the henna out, and you can now see how the henna would change the appearance and conditioning of the hair. Due note that the dyed hair may gradually change to a different shade after a few days, and if you have the patience you can also wait to see the difference.
Additionally, you should consider that henna is a very permanent type of dye. Although you may have a bit of fading initially, henna strongly embeds itself onto the cuticle of the hair, so it comes off when the hair does. So it is advisable to conduct a strand test with your separated hair, maybe from your hair comb or brush, and see if the henna produces the color that you would like to stick with for a few years.
Correct me if I am wrong, but if you plan to dye your hair in different colors with chemical box color dyes, or if you have already done so, then you should avoid using henna because it can react with the metallic salts in chemical dyes. Some people who used chemical dyes and henna on the same hair found that it caused their blonde hair to turn green, have brassy tones, or even quite literally melt the hair off of their head. Also if you swim a lot in chlorinated water, the chlorine buildup in your hair may cause your hair to go green with henna. That’s one reason many hairstylists refuse to work with “henna-ed” hair. So if you want to still dye your treated hair with henna, you are obligated to 1st perform a strand test in this case.
Choosing the Right Henna Powder
The only henna you should be using is all-natural henna powder made straight from the plant, consisting of only the ground leaves of the plant Lawsonia inermis. For both coloring hair and body art. So your dye’s ingredients label should only list one ingredient, Lawsonia inermis.
Artificial chemicals in commercial henna mixtures may not be as healthy or safe for the skin of the person as it may cause allergic reactions and other medical complications.
So Henna-for-hair commercial dyes, such as Lush and those from the supermarket is not pure. Many henna-for-hair commercial dyes have metallic salts in them, and sometimes PPD to make the hair appear redder.
So you should only use pure Body Art Quality (BAQ) henna, which is only made out of the henna plant. The alternative that you should stay away from is the lower quality henna dye for hair that is cut with other chemicals that can damage the hair and skin. They contain metallic salts, and keep in mind that henna is a permanent dye. So later down the line when you want to dye your hair over the henna, this lower quality henna will react with the new dye because of those metallic salts.
When you purchase henna powder, you need to be aware whether there are adulterants in the mix or not. Henna from imported from other countries like India may not be 100% pure henna powder derived from the plant, even if the ingredient list says otherwise. So you have to purchase from a trustworthy vendor.
How to Prepare Henna for Dyeing
You can use water to make the henna paste for applying to the hair. I personally find that it helps to add enough water such that the henna is a thin consistency in order to easily pass the paste through the hair.
But other than water alone, a lot of people like to use an acidic medium to lower the pH, like tea or lemon juice, because they believe it helps prevent the color from fading overtime. Using an acidic medium makes the color stain appear more orange than red (closer to gold or brown). Whereas plain distilled water imparts more red than orange, closer to a scarlet color stain.
Due note that lemon juice can really ruin the hair, making it dry, frizzy, and filled with split ends. So Aloe Vera juice or tea are better alternative to lemon juice for making the henna paste.
However, I believe it is best to stick with plain distilled water, especially on your 1st try. That way you get an idea of what henna can do in its purest form.
Overall, I personally think you don’t need to use an acid at all, but its up to your discretion.
Also, repeated applications darkens the hair color in terms of making the color more saturated. So for example, repeated applications of only henna & water would change the scarlet color stain to lovely burgundy.
One thing that they do in India is to expose the henna to cast iron, which according to them causes the henna to impart a darker color, but I am not familiar with how that works so I don’t advise you to do this. Rather, I would advise that you never use or expose henna to any metals during the process, as it would react with the metals to produce colors than originally or even harm the hair.
If you decide to use any water in your henna mix, it is best to use filtered or distilled water for producing a bright red color stain. Bad water quality negatively impact the stain, muddying up the color it produced on the hair.
You can also add a essential oils with high levels of monoterpene alcohols, like tea tree or lavender essential oils, because they are said to help stain the hair with the henna.
Another consideration is whether to apply the henna paste hot or cold. It will take a while for all the dye to release from the henna if you apply it cold, and so you would have to wait for a long time either until you can use it, or before you can wash it out of your hair if you decided to apply it immediately without waiting. You should also consider that henna’s dye release happens faster when the pH is close to neutral, but slower when the pH is acidic. The addition of an acid is probably why a lot of people say to give some time for the henna paste to “cure” before applying it.
So avoid the waiting, you can prepare the henna with hot water. Hotter temperatures help release the dye from the henna faster. You don’t need to boil the henna, just bring the water to a boil, let it calm down for a minute, and then just add the water to the henna powder and mix it. I believe that boiling may end up “killing” the dye prematurely, so you only need to mix the henna with hot water and apply it immediately.
Finally, if you want to use your henna for later, then freezing the henna paste keeps the dye “alive” while frozen and reduces its strong smell. Some people have found that freezing improves the strength of the dye. On the other hand, if you leave the henna paste unfrozen for a couple of days, its dyeing power greatly decreases and eventually expires.
How to Apply Henna Paste to the Hair
Although applying Henna can be smelly, messy, and labor intensive, the payout is can be quite worth it to you for the beautiful coloration and/or conditioning effect it has on the hair.
The first issue I want to talk about when it comes to applying the henna is that it is really smelly. That’s the only thing that I hate about the process. Maybe fresh henna from the plant would smell a lot better than after its dried and powdered. The smell also strongly depends on the brand, as I found Light Mountain Natural to be almost pleasant compared to the other sample of henna I was testing. So take note of that when you use pure henna powder, you may smell like a barn for a day or 2.
But one technique to get around the bad smell is to 1st freeze the henna paste beforehand, which greatly reduces the bad smell.
And before you start to apply any henna to the hair, its a good idea to 1st wash the hair with a clarifying shampoo in order to remove any accumulation of hair products and hard water deposits. This will make the hair more receptive to the lawsone dye molecule in henna to adhere to, and therefore imparts a more thorough and vivid color.
The next step is to cover the floor and surfaces around the place where you choose to apply the henna, given that henna is very messy. Before you start applying the henna paste, you should 1st apply Vaseline around the hairline, neck, ears, etc. so that the skin doesn’t also become dyed red-orange. Likewise, you should wear gloves to prevent dyeing your hands.
So now you can start applying the henna with a paint brush. You can focus on the roots of the hair first, section off parts of your hair and tie it or put it away and continue to the next untouched section. Roots 1st with paint brush, and then the rest of the hair strands you can pass henna paste through it with your gloved hands which is a lot faster. You can also massage the henna in your hair to improve the uptake of dye into the hair.
For me personally, I would only use my hands to pass the henna mixture through my hair a couple of times.
And some people like to keep consistent by also dying their eyebrow hairs to match their head hair.
Now after the application, if you made the henna paste with hot water, then you only need to leave the henna in the hair for about 1-4 hours tops. If you prepared henna with cold water and an acid, then you need to give about 10 hours for the dye to release. So you would make the henna mix and leave it to cure overnight, and then apply it to the hair and leave it for another couple of hours for a strong color stain. Some people like to sleep overnight with it.
You can also go for repeated applications because the active dye in henna is a molecule called Lawsone which is is translucent in nature. Therefore repeated applications yield a deeper, more vivid color.
So although Henna is a natural product, there are some safety and precautions you have to take before using this product. Other than the strand test I mentioned before, another test you have to perform is a sensitivity test. Basically, you want to first check if your body has any allergic reaction to the henna before using it.
So the sensitivity test you want to perform about 24 hours before you apply any henna. As for how to perform the sensitivity test, you 1st wash a place in your inner elbow. Then take like half a teaspoon of henna, mix with a small amount of water, and then apply the mixture over the inch space inside of the elbow. You leave it like 4 hours, rinse, and then examine the area. And examine again after 20 hours. If there is any skin redness, burning, itchiness, swelling, or any weird kind of reaction, then you may be allergic to henna and therefore you cannot use it for dyeing your hair.
Where to Buy Henna