Eclectic and Eccentric, Spiritual and Sublime
H. A. O'Connor

About the author : Earth to Ethereal: Eclectic and Eccentric, Spiritual and Sublime When it comes right down to it, I guess I just really enjoy sharing the human experience, whether through writing stories and poems which, hopefully, resonate with readers or by following the path to a simpler, more earth-friendly lifestyle. Thanks for sharing the experience with me!

Henna Gabber

Earthy, Natural Beauty 1 Comment

Sorry for that title, there was a Hedda Gabbler reference there and I had to take it.  (The college professor who taught my senior seminar on Henrik Ibsen would be proud.  Nah, he probably wouldn’t.)  Anyhow, I seriously digress…

So, I come to you today from my sofa with my head coated in grassy-scented, brownish goop, wrapped in plastic and topped off with one of those mohawk-looking knit caps.  Why the hat?  Because if you must have your head covered in goop and plastic wrap, why not go all the way?  Besides, I need to keep my head warm at the moment (read on to find out why…) and this hat is just too ugly to be worn for any other occasion.  Never mind the hat or the plastic wrap, though.  It’s the barnyard-reminiscent goop we’re focusing on today: henna.

Despite how I’ve just made it sound, henna is lovely–lovely–lovely.  (More apologies, Mr. Ibsen.)

Christopher Campbell

Image via Unsplash/Christopher Campbell

How not to apply henna

Since I’m relatively new to the world of henna, I sought some advice from someone who has been coloring her hair with it for years, my cousin Kristie, who is far lovelier than henna or Hedda combined.  Kristie was kind enough to share some words of henna wisdom, and stressed, first of all, how important it is to buy your henna from a reputable source, making certain it contains only the dried and powdered leaf.  I couldn’t agree with her more.  Kristie uses a company called Henna for Hair, which sifts and tests all their products, and I’ve had some success with Morrocco Method, who likewise promise that their henna products are 100% plant material, free of chemical additives or irritants.  I’ve heard people recommend the hennas sold by Mountain Rose Herbs and hennasooq, as well. *UPDATE: I’ve been ordering from Henna Color Lab and am really, really pleased. I’ve found the product easy to work with: it’s pre-mixed, ready to be activated with hot tap water and used immediately, comes with its own plastic gloves and cap, takes only one to two hours to work, and the browns I’ve tried (medium and light) have resulted in less of the red (from the henna) showing through the indigo. Sold!

What is henna, anyway?  Henna refers to a powder made up of the leaves of a tropical shrub, Lawsonia inermis, which acts as an orange/reddish dye to color the hair or skin.  It has been used for this purpose and for dyeing various fabrics since ancient times.  I’ve heard claims that Cleopatra and Nefertiti dyed their hair with it, and if it was good enough for them….

Why is henna good enough to color the hair of queens?  I won’t bash chemical colorants here; I’d prefer to focus on henna’s strengths, instead: rather than chemically changing the hair structure and weakening it, henna binds with the hair’s keratin, to condition and prevent weakness.  Hair quality generally improves with use.  It’s also able (along with some other plant-based colorants) to produce a variety of shades, as I’ll discuss below.

How long does henna last?  It’s a semi-permanent colorant and should gradually wear off in 8-12 weeks.  (I’ve found mine wears off a little sooner.)  However, because it merely coats the hair strands, without changing their chemical structure, the fading shouldn’t create the noticeable line between colored hair and roots, which some chemical dyes cause.

Can you achieve results other than Lucille-Ball Red?  You bet.  For blondes, cassia (like henna, but without the dye), is an option, and when combined with other plant powders, like marigold and chamomile, can produce a pretty blonde.  Indigo (another plant, used for dark blue dye) can be combined with henna in varying ratios to create anywhere from light to dark brown hair.  Amla powder comes from another plant and can be used to bring out cooler tones in henna, enhance its bonding with the hair, and prevent relaxation of curls or waves.  *Beware of anything labeled “Black Henna,” as Kristie pointed out, which may use heavy metals to achieve this color.  It’s important to do your research regarding this.  (For instance, Morrocco Method simply uses a heavier proportion of indigo in relation to henna to create their safe black dye.)

How does one go about henna-ing?  There are basically three steps:

(Step 1) Mix the henna with an acidic liquid, until it reaches the consistency of a thick yogurt; then, let it sit somewhere warm, covered directly in plastic wrap, for 8-12 hours, so the dye will have time to release.  Since I mix amla powder with my henna, I use only warm, filtered water as my liquid; otherwise, I’d need to add something acidic (like a little apple cider vinegar or lemon juice) to cause dye release.  Other liquid options include tea (black, rooibos, chamomile, etc.) or coffee.  As Kristie mentioned, however, some of these may affect the henna’s final color.  Kristie also suggested mixing your henna with conditioner or yogurt if you’d like to apply it as more of a gloss.  She said there’s at least one mixing no-no, however: never use wine as the liquid for your henna mixture.  For the record, you also shouldn’t add that Fresca you’ve been hiding in the back of your fridge.  Additives, like a pinch of ginger or cinnamon, can be used to counteract henna’s distinctive scent, or a bit of sea salt can deepen brown tones.  Regarding liquids and additives, however, it’s always best to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.

(Step 2) Apply the henna mixture to clean, dry hair and let it sit there for one to four hours, depending on the desired results.  At this point, I mix up my indigo powder (to make my colorant brown), then add it to my henna just before applying (with a three inch paintbrush–because, again, why not?)  Next, I wrap my head as I’ve described above–remember the plastic wrap and mohawk hat?  Feel free to do the same if you’d like to see some interesting reactions, or as Kristie suggested, a saner, less gawk-worthy option would be to don a shower cap and wrap a towel around your head for the duration of your wait.  Whatever your preference, these coverings are important: they keep the henna warm and help with dye release.  Now that you’re all henna’d up, feel free to spend the waiting period as you choose: I do things like write blog entries, but it could serve as a good excuse to watch a movie you’ve been dying (dyeing?) to see.

(Step 3) Rinse the henna with water (you can use conditioner, too) and then wait to shampoo for 24 hours.  I usually have a little lingering “hay” smell for the 24-hour shampoo wait, but maybe it’s because I’m not getting all of the henna rinsed out.  Or, possibly, I have a subconscious desire to smell like a field.  Could be either, honestly.

Tim de Groot

Image via Unsplash/Tim de Groot

Do we think henna is worth its weight wait?  I think Kristie would answer that with a resounding, “Yes.”  She did say, however, that it can take up to three days for the henna color to oxidize completely, so if you look like a Weasley for a couple of days, don’t freak out.  I didn’t press for details: her hair has obviously darkened and she’s happy with the results.  Ginny Weasley, take note.

I don’t know yet if my hair will have the same degree of henna-success as Kristie’s.  It’s too early to tell, because I see my henna experience in terms of a Three Act Story (there’s the Ibsen connection, after all).  The First Act opens with me, unhappy, searching for salvation from my chemical colorant and its brassy-tinted results.  Enter henna, to the rescue!  Exit, brassy tones!  Actually, they haven’t completely vanished–the henna color is brighter where the brassiness was strongest, so I’ll be happier when the last traces of my chemical dalliance are gone.  Which leads me to …  Act Two: all henna, all the time.  I’m looking forward to this part of the story, when the last vestiges of my chemically-damaged hair have been clipped away and I can relax in my healthy, happy, warm brown-ness.  Act Three: I don’t know when or if I will reach this act, but my long-term plan is to let my hair go au naturel (sparkling strands of wisdom and all), once I’ve tired of henna or its plant-based colorant buddies–if I ever tire of henna and company.

What review would we give Henna?  If Henna were a play, I think Kristie and I would both give it four stars.  It might even deserve a standing ovation–I’ll let you know my feelings on that once I see how the story ends.  Hopefully, it’ll come to a much happier conclusion than Hedda Gabbler did.


* As always, this blog post is meant to act as a reference only.  If you decide to start coloring with henna, please do your research, find a reputable dealer, and then follow their specific instructions.  Also, if you’ve been using a chemical colorant on your hair, it is highly recommended that you wait at least 6-8 weeks before using henna.  If, on the other hand, you’d like to switch from using henna to a chemical colorant, you should again wait 6-8 weeks or more to do so and be warned: since the henna can wear off gradually and at uneven rates, the chemical colorant’s results may be unpredictable.  I don’t plan on returning to using chemical colorants, so I’m not concerned about this part.  Whatever you decide, good luck and happy, healthy hair to you!


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1 Comment

  • […] Due to health concerns and the fact that chemical colorants don’t like my hair, I switched to coloring it with a combination of henna, indigo and amla powder.  I’ve been getting a lot of compliments on the color, which is a warm brown/auburn, and my hair is shinier than ever.  For more details on my henna experience, please check out my previous Henna Gabber blog post. […]

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