It’s time to post my henna article again! Always a favorite, I like to promote the idea of using a safe, natural and time-tested—centuries, in fact—hair color. Although I do this year-round, I always associate it with summer, and as it’s henna time again, today I’m going to apply my henna and clean the house and work in the yard. Consider using henna to color your hair.
I like colors, bright, vibrant colors. That would include my hair, and I can get away with vivid hair as an artist in shows and festivals. All other times, my cats really couldn’t care less.
So what does hair color have to do with cats? It’s part of keeping toxins out of your home and away from your pets, and choosing products that involve no animal testing at all. Besides that, you’ll love their expressions when they look at me with goop in my hair…
More on my reasons for color at the end of this article, but after trying salon color and drugstore color, chemically-laden and cruelly tested on animals, and imported color, not so toxic nor animal-tested but inconvenient, I remembered henna, the ages-old dye made from dried, crushed and sifted leaves of the henna plant.
Lawsonia inermis, sometimes called mignonette tree, is native to and cultivated in the Middle East and sub-tropical regions around the world, so it’s also a totally renewable resource. This powder made from the leaves, mixed with an acidic substance such as citrus juice or tea or even yogurt, will dye anything it touches. That’s all there is to it, no additives or chemicals, the whole mix is actually edible, if you wanted to, but it’s certainly non-toxic and never tested on animals for any reason.
So, one day before a festival several years ago I plastered it into my hair and have used it ever since. The color is the most permanent I have ever experienced, even on my gray, which resists any other dye, and it also leaves the streaks in my hair which other commercial hair dyes had completely covered up. I am complimented by total strangers on my hair color, and since many people have asked me about it, and I like to be able to promote less-toxic animal-friendly alternatives in the home and lifestyle, I’ve decided to write a little article explaining its use and application.
You can find henna in many places on the internet since it’s also popular for body art and henna tattoos, but I purchase mine from a local Indian grocery. Even the Indian grocery I visit regularly stocks several different brands of henna, each in different packaging—boxes, bags, plastic containers—so I can’t recommend a brand. However, the henna should simply be “premium export quality”, and the container should only hold the dry powder of crushed leaves, no other ingredients. The packages I purchase usually hold 150g or around 5 oz., and rarely cost more than $2.00. Yes, the price is right.
I have also found it at natural food stores and my local food co-op along with other “variations”. One thing to be aware of is that henna does NOT come in colors. It may vary slightly in its natural shade of red earth (more on that below), but if it is a color such as “black henna” or “mahogany henna” or the package includes anything else in addition to the powder, it is not simply henna but has other substances included which may simply be hair dye—and while these may also be natural substances such as amla or indigo, it is not plain henna. Please read carefully, and understand that it may not react according to these instructions.
Your hair itself and your own constitution also influence the color as well, so you’ll need to do a little experimentation with different brands and with mixing, as described below. I tried all the brands at my Indian grocery and found that one in particular gives me the deep copper I like best, and then I mix a few extras in with it.
What color will it turn out?
It depends in part on your hair, though the color will always be a shade of red but fairly deep. My hair was always a warm chestnut, though that dulled when it turned gray, so I’m working with mostly gray hair, and it turns out a deep red with copper highlights and lighter streaks.
True henna needs to be prepared and to sit overnight in the acidic liquid in order for the dried leaf powder to absorb the acid and release the color, so plan for this when you prepare. Also bear in mind that the paste should be on your hair for two hours minimum, up to six hours optimally, and takes some time to rinse out. Plan to spend some time! And have gloves or plastic bags on hand!
How much to use
A little bit goes a long way too—I have thick, curly hair and when it was just past my shoulders I could get away with using half the package, preparing the entire thing and freezing the unused portion, thawing it in much less time than it takes to mix and prepare.
Now that my hair is about halfway down my back, I use the entire package; it’s a little more than I need but there’s no sense in keeping less than I can use for one application. I also purchase a bulk package and mix up a cup of dry henna.
If your hair is short, try using only one quarter of the package—you’ll be able to judge better when you read about applying it, below, and you’ll know after the first time you apply it how much to use after that.
Mixing the powder
Try to use all non-metal implements to get the ture red color, though I use a metal bowl which will react with the henna as it reconstitutes and will darken the color
Also remember that henna stains everything, deeper for the amount of time it sits on the item. I use an inexpensive stainless steel bowl that has a tight-fitting lid so I can toss it in the freezer if there is a second batch left, and I use a plastic fork to mix and apply it because the tines both whisk the mixture and comb it into my hair. You can use other implements or even your fingers. Have latex or rubber gloves on hand as well, though I sometimes recycle small plastic bags, holding them on my hands with rubber bands at my wrists.
You’ll need a half-cup or so of your liquid on hand. The powder is very fine and a rich green and smells like either hay or grass—if it does not smell fresh and green and you see other things in it, proceed with caution. Pour it into a one-quart bowl of your choice and add your liquid a quarter cup at a time, mixing thoroughly in between.
The resulting mixture should be smooth and thick, like yogurt or pudding—it is slightly pourable but neither drips nor sits in a glob. It’s important that it’s not too thin, like pancake batter for instance, or it will drip off your hair causing a big mess, or too thick or the color won’t release from the powder and won’t color your hair well enough.
You can also use other liquids to mix your henna. I use plain yogurt to mix as yogurt is acidic enough and it also acts as a conditioner for hair. It’s a little easier to apply because the mix has more body to it, and it’s a little easier to rinse out because it doesn’t stiffen as it dries on your hair. The resulting color is about the same. I try to remember to have it on hand, though I don’t always.
Cover the mixture with plastic, laying it on the top of the mixture or wrapping the bowl so it’s airtight and doesn’t dry out, keeping it in a fairly warm place, for at least six hours, preferably eight to ten. When it’s ready, the color will have changed from green to the characteristic rich red.
Slightly modifying the color
Some instructions say that you can deepen the color by mixing it in a metal bowl, and I use a stainless bowl which does darken the color. I’ve also followed instructions to add really strong tea or coffee, beet juice and various other things, and I do use strong tea or beet juice now and then, but the brand I buy has the most influence.
Applying your henna
If you’ve ever colored your own hair, prepare yourself and your space the same way. If not, remember that wherever henna drips and sits for only a few minutes you’ll have a red stain on your skin, your floor, counter or anywhere it touches, and to cover everything that may be dripped or splashed on. I do this at my kitchen sink.
Apply something like petroleum jelly or something similarly thick and moisture resistant to your hairline, face and neck that will stay on the entire time the henna is on your hair.
Put on your gloves!
You can dampen your hair a little to make it more manageable, but it should not be completely wet or your mix will drip out of your hair. Part your hair in sections, and apply the henna along the part, gently massaging it into your hair. Next apply it to the length of your hair beginning where you’ve applied it to the roots and working your way down being careful not to tangle your hair. You can work one section completely and clip it out of the way, or do all your roots first, then the length of your hair. I do my roots first, then gather the length of my hair all in a bundle and work the henna into it from my head down to the ends, applying it to the surface of my hair, then squeezing it into my hair.
I usually pile it on top of my head then, and use a big clip to hold it up there. It should pretty much stay in place as if you’ve put molding mud into it, though the clip helps.
Check in the mirror to see that your hair is evenly covered, check your hairline and add any you think is necessary.
Or look at your cats. If they look particularly shocked, you’re probably doing it right.
For the time it’s on your hair it sets best and quickest if you keep it warm and moist because it loses its effectiveness once it’s dry. You can wrap a damp towel around first, and add a plastic bag on top, or just use the bag. Plan for at least two hours, though if you go for the full six to eight you’ll get the best color. I usually go about four hours, though sometimes I’ll literally sleep on it. Alternately, in the summer, I go out and work in my yard, plastic bag and all because the warmth from the sun and from my exertions helps it to set, and I have to shower when I come in anyway. My neighbors accept me as a little eccentric so I can get away with this.
Put your gloves back on! The yogurt mixture is a little easier to rinse out, but in any case begin by soaking your hair in a sink of water if you can, then let water run over it from a faucet, massaging the henna back out of your hair.
You can continue rinsing and rinsing until it runs clear, but I’ve found that applying conditioner or even —yes—mayonnaise after you’ve got your hair softened and letting it sit for five minutes will help loosen and rinse out the rest. Just make sure that the water really runs clear, even rub a light-colored towel through your hair to make sure it’s all rinsed out.
Unlike regular hair color, you can also wash your hair once most of the henna is out and the color will not fade. You can also rinse with vinegar to set the color.
Style as usual
Just like all the other products say, style your hair and dry it and you’re good to go! The color is pretty bright on the first day, then settles down to its permanent shade in about three days. I don’t worry about this—I’ve done my hair in the morning before an afternoon or evening event.
Be sure you want the color!
This color will not wash out, nor will it fade, you really have to wait for it to grow out, but you can use other colors with it if you don’t like the effect and want to cover it up.
Hypothyroidism, and how I came to color my hair
I had never intended to color my hair on a regular basis, deciding that when the time came I’d just go gray naturally. And if it had happened more slowly and a decade later than it did I might have actually accepted that, but I found myself at 40 suddenly a little more salt than pepper and feeling the effects of an underactive thyroid, and decided that I needed to perk up my hair color on a more permanent basis to make me feel more my age.
In my late 30s, someone guessed my age as late 20s, questioning the years of experience I had in commercial art. I left my day job in January 2000 at age 39 to work at home, but in the next months and years I found myself organizing care and housing for my brother after his traumatic brain injury in April 2000 and my mother with lung cancer in May 2001, shortly thereafter finding my thyroid had pretty much just gone out like a light bulb and being diagnosed with hypothyroid disease.
My hair had always been a rich brown and had turned chestnut with lighter streaks from being outdoors all the time. I also had a silver streak which I adored that had grown from the center of my forehead and pretty much down the length of my hair, and little bits of silver wings at my temples, but no other gray.
My hair faded and became increasingly salt and pepper, my skin tone changed and even the shape of my face, neck and shoulders changed, all in less than a year. I was only 41, and where I’d looked ten years younger a few years before, I now looked ten years older. Plus my brother and mother were critically ill. Lest the hair coloring seem frivolous, it was at least something I could do to change the look of things.
I had my hair professionally colored once, at the cost of $125.00. It felt like a chemical bath and the color was lovely for about a week. Then I tried coloring it myself with coloring I could buy. More chemicals, this time in my house. And worst of all, these products not only felt toxic but they were regularly tested on animals in labs as part of US health and safety and patent regulations. I have always avoided products tested on animals, and I didn’t want any parts of that.
I found an Italian hair color called Herbatint based on propylene glycol that was not tested on animals and was much less toxic than the other formulas, expensive, but great color, though inconvenient to find, but I used it for several years. And propylene glycol is what’s in anti-freeze. No more of that.
My poor hair
In high school I did just about everything to my hair that could be done—color, stripping, streaking, frosting, perming, straightening, it’s a wonder I have any hair left. It’s always been kind of wild and unmanageable and I’ve always tried to find the magic solution to keeping it under control. I continued straightening it for many years but gave that up. As a consequence of all that treatment I did damage my hair and scalp, and then spent years with natural treatments to try to restore it to the best health I could. That’s why I didn’t care for the chemical color treatments, and while I did mix up a few colors of my own from walnut shells and beet juice from my experience in natural colors, it was messy and ineffective. Then the henna. Along with the color it was also one of the best long-term conditioners for my hair, though it will sometimes dry out thinner hair.
The college I attended had a number of Iranian students and I remember seeing my friend Haleh giving her thick dark hair a henna treatment one afternoon in the dorm laundry room. I tried it then, but henna was difficult to find before international grocery stores and the internet. Now it’s not so hard to find.
Note about using henna or any other product
Before the first time you use henna or any other product on your skin, mix up a little and do a skin test and sniff it to see if you have any reaction to it. If you have grass or leaf allergies you may also be allergic to this product. If you develop a rash or respiratory issues or any other suspicious response, just don’t use it. Remember that it’s going to be on your head for at least two hours, and you’ll be absorbing it into your hair and scalp. And even though it would be safe to eat, I haven’t even tested it that way, that’s probably going a little far.
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