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Henna Hair Dye: Because Beauty Needn’t Burn

August 27, 2012  |  Amanda Gregory

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Just how much are we willing to suffer for beauty? I see no reason to bear the risks of harsh, toxic chemicals when there are such effective natural alternatives. When it comes to hair color, why use something so chemical laden that it can cause a whole cascade of ugly side effects when there are safer alternatives that are actually good for your hair?

Chemical Hair Dye

I started coloring my hair when I was about 17. I didn’t full-on dye my hair, but I periodically painted in big chunky highlights, as was the style around that time (care to guess what year I’m talking about?). I had always had sandy blonde hair, but as I got older, it got darker until it was a rather dull dishwater shade. Then, quite frighteningly to me at the time, it started to turn RED. The last thing I wanted was to look any more like my little brother, Boo:

So I did what any typical American teen does, and I turned to the rainbow array of boxes on the drugstore shelves. While I eventually grew to love the natural reddish brown shade of my hair, I was completely addicted to the shine and pop of boxed color, so for a couple years I was dying my hair a few times a year with a shade as close to my natural color as I could find. Which, looking back, is just a sad example of buying into meaningless and contradictory cultural dictates.

When I gave up shampoo, it became apparent to me pretty quickly that all the nasty, useless chemicals and endocrine disruptors in shampoo were also in just about every other cosmetic product I used as well. I’ve already written on swapping out cosmetics for natural, typically single ingredient products like using coconut oil as a moisturizer and hair product. But it also occurred to me that hair dye, of all the chemicals in my bathroom, had to be one of the worst. Just the fumes and the arm-long list of small print warnings it comes with were enough to tell me that. Not to mention the advice of both my doctors and midwives that I should I avoid it during pregnancy even though it hasn’t been conclusively proven to cause birth defects, yet.

And if for some reason all that hadn’t been enough to convince me, there was the small matter of my baking soda rinse washing all the chemical color out of my hair in about 2 weeks.

While my hair has always been quite a bit lighter at the bottom than at the roots, I’m pretty sure the chemical dyes were responsible for exaggerating the difference in hue from root to tip of my hair. My hair was its nice, dark reddish tone at the roots which faded into a blah sort of mousy brown and eventually ended up blonde at the tips. Really, it wasn’t that bad, but I still wasn’t thrilled with it.

Lucky for me, while researching No ‘Poo, I came across this excellent homemade beauty products site singing the praises of henna.

Henna

Now, if you’re like I was when I first discovered henna on Hilda Blue, you have been lead by the hair dye industry to think that Henna is some sort of terrible concoction that only hippies use because it does bad things to your hair. While it is true that many box dyes claiming to be henna, or containing henna as one of many other chemical ingredients often can be very bad, henna, just henna all alone by itself, is NOT bad, and is actually very good for your hair.

The Henna I’m talking about is a plant, lawsonia inermis, the leaves of which, when dried and ground into a powder, can be used as a wonderful and effective hair coloring treatment.

Now, there are a few things you need to know about Henna before you dive in:

1)  HENNA WILL ONLY DYE YOUR HAIR RED  –  There are a lot of products out there claiming to be henna that will dye your hair other colors – those are not true, pure henna. There are, however, other plants that can give you other colors – indigo for black, for instance. There is a lot more information on these other plants on Hilda Blue and Henna for Hair. That said, there are ways to dye your hair a variety of colors with plant based natural dyes. Henna for Hair has a ton of mixtures for that.

2.)  Henna is GOOD for your hair. Regardless of the color aspect of it, I love the way my hair looks and feels after I henna it. It is soft, shiny, and just overall very healthy. Many people use an herb similar to henna but without the dying properties (Cassia Obovata) to treat their hair just to get these benefits.

3.)  Henna takes longer and is (arguably) messier than chemical hair dye. It has the consistency of mud and I leave mine in for 3 – 4 hours. But it is worth it.

4.)  Henna is MUCH cheaper than box dyes.  You can get very high quality pure Henna powder online for $13.00 a pound, which would be enough to do my hair at least 10 times. I buy mine from a local bulk style herb store (I requested they order it, and they were happy to), and just a couple dollars worth has lasted me 8 months.

5.)  Henna is truly permanent. The pigment particles from the plant penetrate deep into the hair shaft, they do not simply coat it like most chemical dyes. I’m told this also makes it excellent at covering greys.

6.)  Rinsing Henna down the drain won’t harm local wildlife and drinking water the way washing the chemicals from box dyes will.

So, are you sold on Henna yet? I was in about 3 minutes, but I spent a number of days researching it before I took the plunge. In my opinion, the site Henna for Hair is the best out there for Henna information. It has everything.  Part of the reason I’m not putting too much “how to” detail in this post is because Henna for Hair has it all covered, including how to incorporate other herbs and ingredients to get different colors. You can also order high quality henna from the site, though I haven’t. I also haven’t been compensated in any way or asked to plug either Henna for Hair or Hilda Blue; they are both simply great sites.

Personal Experiences

The first time I tried it, I did a basic, pure henna mix. Henna powder and lemon juice (and a little vinegar because I ran out of lemon juice – you just have to mix the henna with something acidic, lemon juice being the most common choice). Let sit for 12 hours and then apply. While I liked the results, my hair was just a touch brighter than I really wanted it, so since then I have done 2/3 henna, 1/3 indigo – roughly, I just eye everything.

I mix up the henna with the lemon juice until it’s a sort of sticky mashed potatoes/thick yogurt consistency and let it sit, covered in plastic wrap at room temperature for 12 hours. The mix is brightish green to begin with, but as it sits just the very top layer turns brownish, the underneath stays green. Again, check out Henna for Hair for detailed directions and pictures of all this.

When I’m ready to apply, I mix up the indigo powder with water until it is the consistency of mashed potatoes, then I mix the two mixes together – the henna and the indigo (some people do the two treatements consecutively, but I get results I love mixing them together). This gives me a nice bowl of greenish mud.

I put on gloves and put the mud into my hair one section at a time until I have a very thick layer of the henna goop all over my hair. Don’t be stingy, you can’t put it on too thick.

I wrap that up in plastic wrap (or something similar and more environmentally friendly) to keep in the moisture and heat.  Chill for 2 – 6 hours depending on how strong you want your results and how receptive your hair is to coloring. Since there are no yucky harsh chemicals, I don’t have to worry about burning my hair or anything like that. Keep in mind that henna (and indigo) will also dye skin if left on for some time, so wear gloves and wipe any stray goo off ears, forehead, neck, etc.

Once time’s up, I just thoroughly rinse in the shower.  No washing or conditioning necessary since the lemon juice cleanses and the henna conditions. Bam. Beautiful hair.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Henna color will actually continue to develop for three days, so you won’t see your final color until day 3 after application.  I find the interim period very amusing. The first time I did it, I had amazingly bright clown orange hair the day after I treated it. I wish I had a picture of it. The final color, though is always pretty close to what I want – natural looking but bright and shiny. Using the indigo, my hair is usually almost black until the henna fully develops. This is why I usually apply my henna on Friday evenings. One cannot wear a Marine uniform with clown orange hair.

Just like my new shampoo free lifestyle, I am completely in love with henna (and indigo).

Through the writing of this entire article, the feminist in me has been prodding and goading me, whispering in my ear that I am bowing to norms set by an unhealthy and unforgiving media by coloring my hair at all; that is absolutely true. It is also true that I am far from perfect, and while I try to buck a lot of the more ridiculous or harmful norms set by our society, at the end of the day, I like the way my hair looks with the henna. I’m sure one day I will stop all together – probably once I start the progression to becoming a white-haired crone. Until then, I’ll just try to keep my vanity from exposing me to too many carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

Have you ever tried henna (real henna, not the boxed stuff) or any similar herbal dyes/stains?

Have any questions for me?  I’m far from an expert, but I’ve been doing this for almost a year now.

If you do (or have) tried it, please share some pictures on my Facebook Page!