We try it!

We Try It: Real Henna for Hair Dyeing

I’m gonna level with you right off the bat – I haven’t just tried henna, I’ve been using it for over a year! And I love, love, love it. It’s a really fabulous way to dye your hair (and cover gray) without using any chemicals.

So today, I want to show you how to do it, because, honestly, it takes a little while to get the hang of it, even though it’s actually quite simple. So I’d like to be your henna mentor for the moment if you’ll let me!

Why Henna?

Henna (and it’s wonderful blue counterpart, indigo) are the only truly natural ways to dye your hair. Even those vegetable dyes that you can find at health food stores contain PPD (para-phenylenediamine dyes), a chemical which can cause serious allergic reactions and is known to be carcinogenic. Of course, if you just dye your hair every once in a while, it will probably have non-toxic effect, but if you have really sensitive skin (like me) and you find that hair dyes irritate your scalp, then henna is a wonderful alternative.

Also, as a history nerd and an herbal enthusiast, the whole process of using henna appeals to me. I won’t go into the history of it here, but I recommend getting this free e-book for info on its history and for more info on henna basics.
Figure 1: Henna ingredients (Henna, lemon juice, and strong tea)
Choosing Your Henna

When buying henna, you want to make sure to buy just henna, and the freshest you can. Look for “body art quality” henna. Henna only comes in one color, so if you see something called “Black Henna” that will likely be a henna and indigo mixture, sometimes with a regular dye that has PPD.

The best thing to do is to buy henna on its own from a place like Henna For Hair. They list their hennas along with each one’s lawsone content. Lawsone is the active ingredient in henna.

From personal experience, I always buy henna with the highest lawsone content, because I find that it sticks to and covers my gray hair the best. However, if you’re just starting out, you might want to pick one with a lower lawsone content to see if you like it, and later buy henna with a higher lawsone content if you want a stronger effect.

How Henna Will Affect Your Hair Color

The effect of henna differs for different hair color. For very dark, hennaed hair, you may only notice a real difference in direct sunlight. For blonds, henna can make you look like a serious redhead. I have dark brown hair with about 20-30% gray, so the effect is kind of like I have red highlights.

Personally, I just dove in the first time and applied henna to my whole head, but if you want to test the effect that henna will have on your hair, a very smart thing to do would be to buy a small amount and test it on hair from your hair brush. You can buy a 3 gram sampler for about $1.50 and see if you like it. That way you can really see how henna will affect your hair color.

Ingredients (Figure 1)

  1. Henna
  2. Lemon Juice
  3. Strong Tea

Figure 2: Henna tools (glass mixing bowl, wooden spoon, gloves, shower cap, comb, towel, conditioner)Other Items You’ll Need (Figure 2)

  1. A glass, plastic, or ceramic bowl
  2. A plastic or wooden spoon
  3. Gloves
  4. A shower cap or hair processing cap
  5. A rat tail comb or something that will help section your hair
  6. An old towel
  7. Conditioner (helps rinse out the henna)
  8. Optional: A cape or towel to protect your clothes

Mixing The Henna, Dye Release

In order for henna to work, you need to add the henna powder to a somewhat acidic liquid and let the henna release the dye. You can use a number of different liquids, like apple cider vinegar, apple juice, or tea to make this happen, but I like to use lemon juice. It’s probably the most common liquid used for dye release, and I’m used to using it so I use it!

Basically, you want to dump the henna powder into the bowl with some lemon juice. (To figure out how much henna you want to use, refer to your handy ebook linked above.) This is an art, not a science, so I can’t tell you exactly how much lemon juice. Just mix a bit in and start mixing with the spoon. You want the consistency to be sort of lumpy, like lumpy mashed potatoes. It’s going to feel pretty thick and hard to mix at first. The key is really to make sure that there are no dry patches of powder and that all the powder has been mixed in with the lemon juice.

Then, take some saran wrap and cover the bowl. Then just leave it for about 12 hours. Timing this can be kind of rough – I’ll usually do it on a weekend, mixing the henna right before bed (let’s say midnight), then getting ready to apply it around noon.

Dye release times can vary for henna, but I’ve found that 12 hours is the perfect amount of time every time I’ve done this, which is probably about 12 times at this point. If your home is on the hot side (like 85 degrees Fahrenheit or more indoors) you may need only 8-10 hours for full dye release, and if your home is on the cooler side (maybe 65 degrees Fahrenheit or lower indoors) you may need more like 14-16 hours, but otherwise, 12 hours should be good. You can test if your henna is ready by putting a dab of it on your palm for a few minutes then rinsing it off. If you get a bright orange color, it’s ready. If not, it may need more time.

Before You Apply The Henna

Figure 3: bowl of rather thick, clumpy henna mixtureYou want to apply the henna to clean hair, so if you’re a shampooer, make sure to shampoo, and if you’re a no-pooer like me, use something, either baking soda or a shampoo bar (this one is my favorite), to clean your hair. Don’t apply the henna to wet hair, because it gets drippy. Slightly damp or dry hair is best.

Now, you want to take that strong tea (I use 2 teabags per 8 oz.) and pour some into the bowl and mix it in. The goal is to get the consistency of cake batter or a little thicker (Figure 3). (Trying to explain henna preparation makes me wish I cooked and baked more.) You don’t want it to feel too drippy or watery.

By the way, I never wear a cape or towel when applying henna because it just seems to get in the way. I wear an old tank top and pajama bottoms, and if I get some henna on my shoulders or shirt, I just wipe it off with a damp paper towel after I’m all done getting it into my hair.

Applying The Henna!

Yes! It’s time to apply the henna. Get your gloves on and let’s do this! I like to apply henna in my bathroom, and I keep the bowl of henna in the sink to hold it in place.

Golda with her hair wrapped in a towel, giving a thumbs-up
Who’s got an orange thumb, a ton of henna on her head, and is ready to party? This gal.

Do not use a color brush or anything similar to apply henna. Henna is all about using your (gloved) hands. Hair professionals who use henna will tell you to start applying henna from the back, but I find that makes things really hard when you’re applying it yourself.

I just start at my part, and using the rat tail comb to section off some hair parallel to my part, and about a half inch thick. (Note, I have pretty fine hair, so you might need to do 1/4-inch sections if your hair is thicker.) I take a blob of henna, maybe 2/3 the size of a munchkin from Dunkin’ Donuts, and apply it to my hair, doing my best to coat the strands, and taking some time to press it in at the roots, where I need the color most. I then drop that section over to the other side of my head and keep working toward my ear. Once that side is done, I work from my part again down to my other ear, and then do the back, starting at the crown and working my way down. Since I have long hair, I end up piling these sections as I go basically on top of my head.

Once your hair is covered in henna, put the processing cap on, and then wrap a towel around your head as best you can. The object is to keep your head warm, as the warmth helps the henna.

Leftover Henna & Clean Up

Left over henna is fabulous! If you have some left over, you can dump it in a freezer bag and keep it frozen for up to a year (Figure 4). Then, when you do your next application, you can just let it defrost at room temperature or put the bag in warm water to defrost. I also like to use it to freshen up the color with a henna gloss. For that, just take a chunk of henna and about an equal amount of conditioner and mix it up. Apply to clean hair and leave it on for about 30 minutes.

When henna dries, it can be a little challenging to clean up. The easiest thing to do is to soak whatever it has that has dried henna on it (e.g., you can soak the bowl in the bathroom sink for a few minutes) and it usually cleans right up.

Keeping It On, Rinsing It Out

Apparently, leaving it on for about 4 hours is the standard, although I’ve been finding that 4.5 hours seems a little better for really getting my gray hair on board with the whole henna thing. I like to take this time to just relax, read books, watch TV.

When you’re ready to remove the henna, take the towel and cap off, and I would recommend putting on gloves again. If you’re into taking baths, a great way to get henna out of your hair is to swoosh your hair around in the bath.

For me, I usually use a ton of conditioner. I find that I have to do about three applications of conditioner (and rinsing them out) to get the henna out. It’s probably a lot faster if you have a handheld shower head.

Step out of the shower and you are done!

Now, this is important – your hair color will change over about 3 days. It may seem a little orange-y at first, and your scalp may look orange-y, but the scalp discoloration is gone in about two days and the color of you hair will deepen over three.
Figure 4: Leftover Henna in plastic baggies
Whole Head Vs. Roots

Because henna is permanent, nowadays I mostly just do my roots. I use henna about every five weeks, and I’ll just do my roots about three times in a row, and then do my whole head, and then back to roots. I only need about 100g (1 bag) of henna to do my roots, which makes the whole thing pretty cost effective! To do my roots, I apply the henna the same way, but instead of pulling the henna through to the tips, I just apply it from my scalp to about 2 inches up. It works great!

Henna-related Things I’ve Tried and Didn’t Like So I Don’t Recommend Them

1) Henna From Lush – OMG. If you think real henna is a pain in the ass, you have no idea how annoying this stuff is. It’s not permanent, which can be a plus, but it is so hard to get out of your hair. Just use the real stuff.

2) Applying Balm To Skin Along The Hairline – Every time I did this, I had shoddy dye application along my hair line. Particularly if you have gray hair at your temples that you want to cover, I would avoid doing this.

Trying It Out!

Have you tried using henna to dye your hair? Are you thinking about it? Let me know in the comments section below!

When Golda isn’t writing about her hair, she’s blogging about body image and coaching plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. Check out Body Love Wellness to learn more.

7 replies on “We Try It: Real Henna for Hair Dyeing”

In high school, I used a shampoo/conditioner combo with henna extracts in it, which heightened the natural reds in my brown hair. (The red shows up in certain lights.) I really liked it, but I’ve never used just henna to dye my hair. One of my friends in high school did though, and her hair–naturally dark brown–came out with this dark red/brown color.

I have used henna before and it’s fab, and I have nothing to add to the tips that have already been posted, but I do have one small pet peeve to pick. Henna dye uses chemicals. All hair dyes use chemicals. Chemicals are everywhere. Water is a a chemical. Lawsone is a chemical. It has a Chemicals are not inherently bad. I know it’s sort of become a social byword to substitute chemical for artificially created or highly complex, possibly harmful chemicals, but that just seems vaguely Luddite in it’s tendencies. There is a part of me that is going a bit google-eyed at the website you linked that on one hand says “die your hair without chemicals!” and then has a section for the chemistry of henna. It seems a bit silly to me.

I’ve used henna before, and for the most part I like it, but there are some caveats:
-If you re-dye over hair you’ve already henna’d, it’ll get darker, so if you have the color you like, you have to avoid getting more than your roots.
-Fine, thin hair can get very ratty with henna, especially if you try and use any other protein with it. Use moisturizing conditioners and products, and avoid protein ones for a bit.
-You can lighten your hair to get more vibrant effects, but keep in mind that you’d have to keep lightening your roots when you re-dyed them.
-It smells, in a smell that some compare to hay. It’s really best to try and do this a few days before you have to go anywhere serious.
-It stains, so gloves are a must! If you get it on parts of your skin (i.e., the parts that henna tattoos are done on), it can be there for weeks.
-Give the color a few days to ‘set’ before deciding that you want it darker.
-You can dye over it or bleach it a bit, but be careful. A lot of the warnings about dyeing with henna come from henna compounds, not this stuff.
-Most people buy a huge thing of cheap conditioner (like the Suave coconut one) to remove it.

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