Monday, March 3, 2014

Henna Is For Winners

Photo courtesy of "Meredith" and

I started dyeing my hair with chemicals when I was 13 years old. I wanted red hair even then, and with the help of Miss Clairol, I got it.

I'm not saying God makes mistakes; I'm just saying maybe if He'd thought about it a little longer, He would have realized I was supposed to be a redhead. I'm fair-skinned, I have freckles and blue-green eyes, I love Tori Amos... It's a duh.

My hair has been every shade of brown from my natural mousy dishwater to deep brunette. It's been blue-black and platinum blonde. It's even been, for a brief summer in Austin, green with purple stripes. (Gawd.) But I always go back to red.

When I was younger, my hair was my crowning glory, but autoimmune thyroid disorder and hormone imbalances caused most of it to fall out. Where it was once so thick you could barely get a ponytail holder around it, I now have to worry about my scalp showing in the front.

For a while I tried super light blonde, thinking the color would blend with my skin and look thicker. But the bleach thinned my hair further. Ammonia was no better. By the time I said goodbye to platinum, my hair was fragile and ruined.

That's me with super light blonde hair. With fellow New Wave Feminists, Julie and Destiny at the Dallas March for Life in... 2010?

I chopped it off and went back to deposit-only color. I swore off lifting for good. But even still I was putting synthetic chemicals on my hair, and it was staying delicate, thin, and frizzy. I couldn't get it to grow long. Before it reached my shoulders, the ends would start to split and break.

Then I discovered henna.

My hair is down to my shoulders for the first time in several years. It's thicker than I can remember it being since my early 20s. It's shiny and heavy and rough, like healthy hair should be. I may even be able to - knock on wood - grow it long again.

I have henna to thank. It acts like a conditioning protein pack on your hair, so when you rinse it out and dry it, you can pull a single strand of hair and see its increased thickness and gloss with the naked eye.

Some of you hear "henna" and think of the boxed stuff that comes in different colors. That is not pure, natural henna. That's compound henna, and it is bullshit. It's been mixed with metallic salts and other grody chemicals.

When you say "henna" to a stylist, that's the first thing they think of, and they tend to freak out and warn you away from it - with good reason. Used over chemically treated hair, it can turn your hair green or even melt it off.

Most stylists deal in chemical colors, and know jack shit about natural henna. So you may have to politely say, "We're talking about two different things," and explain what you mean. If the stylist is a nice person, they'll be like, "Oh, ok." If they're an asshole, like a couple I've encountered, they'll try to explain to you that I AM THE EXPERT and I KNOW ABOUT HENNA and IT WILL MELT YOUR HAIR OFF and a bunch of other bullshit.

To those jerks, you have to say, "Look, I don't know your stupid life, but I know henna."

And you will know henna, because I'm fidna edjamacate you.

This photo swiped without permission from a long hair forum. A lot of people use henna to help grow their hair long because it makes it strong and healthy.

When I refer to henna in this article, I'm talking about pure, natural body art quality (BAQ) henna. BAQ is the highest quality henna you can buy. It is separated from the ho-hum henna due to its high dye content. The leaves are dried and pulverized into a fine powder designed to make the lovely paste needed for mendhi, or temporary henna tattoos.

(Note to self: Ho-Hum Henna = band name.)

For the same reasons it's good for body art - high dye content, fine sift - it's excellent for hair. The fine powder makes a luxurious paste that's easier to push through hair and coat every strand. And the high dye content means a richer red hue.

BAQ henna ranges from about 1% to 4% lawsone. That's the name of the dye in the henna, or lawsonia inermis, plant.

I'll refer you here to get more information on the history and science of henna. This site is run by a bona fide henna expert, and it is an excellent resource for all your henna questions and needs. Suffice it to say, the women of the Middle East and North Africa have been using natural henna to dye their hair (and sometimes their fingertips and the soles of their feet) for at least five thousand years. It may have been used as far back as eight thousand years ago in Jericho.

In some places, henna is still a part of a woman's public bath ritual, involving soaks and massages and gossip and entertainment and food. It's sort of an all day conditioning treatment for the hair and scalp, with the added bonus of dyeing your hair a beautiful, rich color.

When I think of henna, I think of the quality described in Ayurveda as shakti. Shakti is hard to define, but the best way to explain it in English is earthly, womanly energy. It's feminine, creative, and fertile. It's "earth mama" energy, but not in a fussy, political way.

You may know women who naturally seem to have shakti moving through them. I think of my friend Michaela and my uncle's new bride, Holland. They have an effortless, earthy femininity, a comfort in their own skin, a womanly warmth.

"Shiva and Shakti" by Jennifer Michelle Long

When I think of shakti, I think of a big, lovely woman laughing and nursing a baby in the sunshine by a river. I also think of the luxurious, ancient, and feminine act of treating your hair with henna.

I buy my henna from a shop called Mehandi because it's the only place I've found that sends their henna to an independent lab to certify its dye content and purity. All their henna is pesticide-free, lead-free, and BAQ.

At this time, they're selling a product called Ancient Sunrise. I buy Rajasthani Monsoon, an Indian henna with 1.4% lawsone content henna. The Twilight product is 2.4% and intended for gray and light hair. The higher dye content on my light brown hair might tint it a little darker than I'd like, so I opt for the slightly lower lawsone content.

I've put together this post and a little instructional pictorial so you can watch me go through the process. Admittedly, it's a time-consuming affair, but not as labor intensive as you might think.

I'm doing this to help demystify henna. I like to think of myself as an unofficial ambassador for this amazing plant that has helped restore my hair to some of its former glory - and made me at least look like a natural redhead.

At the height of orientalism - and the henna craze - a European woman admires her hennaed hair.

Before I get to the photos and instructions, here is a brief summary of henna's benefits - and what some may find to be drawbacks.

+ It's great for your hair! You can use it every few weeks if you want. It makes your hair shiny, thick, and healthy. It's great for African hair, giving it a dark auburn tint and relaxing the curl somewhat. But keep in mind, the more you henna over already henna-treated hair, the darker it gets. (See drawbacks, below.)

+ It doesn't fade! Especially for those who dye their hair red, this is a huge benefit. Ever in search of that elusive bright red that only lasts through her first few shampoos, the wanna-be redhead keeps dyeing her hair more and more often, leaving her hair more and more damaged. Henna doesn't fade. Dye it once, and you're a redhead forever. All you need to do is touch up your roots. (Which is kind of tricky. See drawbacks, below.)

+ It's cheap! It cost me $23 for two 100g packets, taxed and shipped, to dye my shoulder-length hair. This is probably twice the price of box color, but box color is hell on your hair. And it's significantly less than even a cheap salon treatment - which is also hell on your hair.

+ It's safe to use while pregnant! In fact, it's safe to dye your kid's hair with it, if you're into that.

+ The color is beautiful! The lawsone dye molecule binds with the keratin in your hair, and the dye is transparent, so it blends with your natural color instead of covering it. Because of this, it looks natural. When you stand in the sunlight, your hair will shimmer and glow as the light reflects off each individual strand. Henna on very light or grey hair will be bright copper or red, depending on the dye content and your personal hair. Light brown hair will be auburn, and dark brown or black hair will have a dark auburn stain that's especially visible in sunlight.

Henna on grey hair is magic.

Now for the drawbacks.

- It never fades. I know I mentioned this as a plus before, and it is - if you know for sure you want to stay a redhead. If you aren't sure, henna might not be right for you.

- It can't lighten your hair. Henna will make your hair darker, not lighter. If you already have dark hair and want to go a lighter shade of red, henna is not for you.

- It's messy. Mixing, preparing, applying, and rinsing out henna is a messy process. You'll need to wear gloves and be ready to quickly wipe off any excess. Henna will stain your skin, and if it's left on long enough, the stain could last for weeks. (DO NOT dye without gloves. You will have orange hands for months.)

- It's time-consuming. If you're looking for a dye process that takes two hours, look elsewhere. Henna takes up to 12 hours to develop at room temperature, several hours to dye your hair, and more than a couple minutes to rinse out. Fortunately, most of that time can be spent sleeping or hanging out. The actual labor intensive parts are fairly brief.

- It gets darker with each application. Layering henna over henna is great for your hair - but it will darken your color. Many long-time henna users apply the paste only to their roots, and use a henna "gloss" for the length. A gloss is basically a small amount of henna paste mixed with a deep conditioner and applied to hair for a short time. This way, you get many of the benefits of henna without so much dye.

- The color results are unpredictable. Because henna is a transparent dye and does not coat your hair, you can't predict the results. It varies with each individual person, and even each individual hair. For some people - like me - this is exciting. For others, it's scary. Personally, I have found you can't trust the photos on box color or those little loops of hair at the salon, anyway. So in my opinion it's not terribly different.

- It takes a few days for your final color to appear. Henna-dyed hair has to oxidize, like a cut apple turning brown over a few days. You may find your hair is very bright or brassy just after dyeing. Don't panic! The color will get deeper, darker, and richer over 3-4 days. Again - this bugs some people, and others - like me - find it part of the fun.

- It relaxes curl. This is a maybe. I haven't noticed a big difference in mine, but some people do.

Alright, that's enough jabber. Picture time!

Here's the henna powder in a bowl. What you're looking at is dried, crushed leaves, nothing more. The powder comes in 100g packets. At the time I purchased, Rajasthani Monsoon was $7.49 for 100g. I bought two, and it was more than enough to dye my shoulder-length hair.

This is what it's like when you start adding lemon juice. It's very, very fine, so it takes a lot of liquid, and you have to blend carefully to make sure no dry pockets are hiding out.

Henna has to be mixed with a slightly acidic liquid to get the dye to release. You can use orange juice or a mildly acidic herbal tea if lemon is too harsh for you. I used a mixture of fresh lemon juice (since I didn't have any bottled) and distilled water. Tap water is not recommended because it can contain a high mineral or chemical content.

Keep adding liquid until your paste is about the consistency of mashed potatoes. A lot of people say it smells like hay, but to me it smells exactly like seaweed. Henna always makes me hungry for sushi. You can mix cinnamon into the paste if you don't like the smell.

If you put it somewhere really warm - like 95 Fahrenheit - your henna will be ready in a couple hours. I put mine in my husband's truck where it was warm because I was gonna try to dye that night, but I finally gave up on that idea and decided to do it in the morning. I left the henna out in the truck all night, and the temperature dropped about 30 degrees (thanks, Texas) so it was super cold. But it was out there for like 15 hours, so it was fine.

At room temp, henna will be ready in 12 hours.

So I went to sleep, and when I woke up I retrieved my cold-ass henna from the truck. Then I proceeded to add more liquid until it was the consistency of Greek yogurt.

Check that shit out. That is glorious. It will smell very seaweedish now.

That is a lemon seed. It's hard to tell but it was dyed orange.

I made this photo extra-big so you can see how the fine powder makes a rich and luxurious paste.

You can also see how concerned my four-year-old niece is that I'm going to put that in my hair. She said "why?" a lot.

We also had this exchange:

Ana: Is that dirt? Or chocolate? (smiles hopefully)

Me: Neither. It's leaves that were dried up and smashed into a powder and mixed with water.


Ana: But is it dirt or chocolate?

So she wasn't too keen on it, but she did want to stir it.

Use nitrile gloves if you can. I stole a couple pairs from my husband, who uses them for gun cleaning. They don't stick as bad as latex so they're more comfortable.

Okay so this is the part where I failed. I DID NOT take photos of the application. I know. I'm an idiot. But I just forgot. And here's the worst part - I took off the plastic wrap and added more henna and FORGOT AGAIN. I failed TWICE.

I'm sorry.

Luckily the Henna for Hair webpage is chock-full of photos. Their e-book is especially good for step-by-step instructions.

Anyway here's me all wrapped up.

Forgive the total lack of makeup. Jeez.

So a few notes on the application:

* It's a good idea to do an allergy test before you slop this stuff all over you. I've seen very little mention of henna allergies so it's probably not very common, but you never know. Put some of the paste on your skin for a few minutes - somewhere the stain will be hidden by clothing, preferably - and wipe it off. Then wait an hour or so. If your skin doesn't itch or blister, you should be good to go. Please note: your skin WILL turn orange. That's not an allergy. That's henna doing its job.

* Do NOT use a tint brush to apply this to your hair. Henna is too thick. Use your (gloved) hands. Don't be a wuss.

* It is not slippery or runny like hair dye so it will not drip through your hair. You have to push it into your hair to make sure all strands are coated. It really is a lot like mud.

* Henna is very cool to the touch - again, like mud. Applying it to your head is cooling and relaxing and can even relieve headaches. When you're done, your head will feel heavy and you'll probably want to sleep. Great idea! Just put a towel over your pillow.

* It helps to hand someone a pair of gloves and have them check the back for you. Tell them to really dig in there and make sure there are no dry spots concealed within.

* If you have a devoted helper, have them massage the henna into your scalp. You'll probably fall asleep.

* DON'T BE STINGY with your henna. Use a LOT. The more you use, the richer the dye and the greater the benefits to your hair.

* Don't leave the paste too thick. Get it to yogurt consistency so it will stay moist as it dyes.

* Separate your hair into sections before you start. It's easiest to start at the back of your head and work your way up. Begin at the roots and really push the paste into your roots and scalp. Massage it around to make sure it's in there good. Then begin to apply the paste thickly along the length of your hair.

* If you have a lot of hair, find a helper.

After I had put about half the henna on my hair and felt it was covered, I wrapped my head up in plastic wrap. The plastic locks in heat and moisture, which is a good thing. Then I sat there and looked at the leftover paste and felt really terrible about throwing it away. At this time, I did not yet know you could freeze paste for up to a year. (D'oh!) So I unwrapped and added more henna, especially to the edges where it tends to dry out.

Then I took a nap.

I left my henna in for about eight hours. When I rinsed it out and let it air-dry, it looked like this:

Keep in mind I have naturally curly hair and did not straighten it with a blow dryer or flat iron. I just brushed it out. So there's gonna be a bit of frizz.

As you can see my hair is shiny, auburn, and looks kind of thick. Bully for me!

Oh by the way, none of these photos are edited in any way. They were all taken with an iPhone. I am in a bathrobe with no makeup on. Because I care.

Here it is from the back, in lower light and from above, because my husband is taller than me:

And a final close-up:

This was taken the morning after dyeing. As I write this the color is already richer, deeper, and darker than yesterday.

If you're the slightest bit intrigued by henna, I can't encourage you enough to visit It's not the most modern website design, but surf around and you'll find all the information you could possibly need.

And if you're interested in the benefits of dyeing your hair with plants instead of synthetic chemicals, but red hair isn't right for you, start here for information on cassia, indigo, and amla.

Happy dyeing!


  1. Thank you so much for this article Kristen. I used henna over 30 years to condition my red hair. I had forgotten about henna until recently. I recently found Mehandi and have spent hours reading from their site. I had just ordered 500 grams of Rajasthani Monsoon, then found your article. I am excited!

    1. Sorry it took me so long to read your comment. I'm about to henna my hair again after a henna hiatus. I hope you enjoyed your Monsoon!

  2. Rats, I don't know if my other comment went through. But I said, I'm the carbon copy as you! Same hair color and type, same thyroid/hormone issues, etc. I just ordered my henna and I can't wait! Do you blog somewhere about your thyroid issues/ journey of recovery? I want to read that too! Please contact me! (google low sugar horse cookies, that's my site. I'm Erin.)

    1. Hi, Erin! Sorry I'm just now seeing this. Did you like your henna? :-)

    2. I liked it, but i decided to grow it out after a year and just be blonde :)

    3. I liked it, but i decided to grow it out after a year and just be blonde :)

  3. As a fellow henna head, I really enjoyed your unique article on the topic! Well done! I would have to disagree with you that henna is unpredictable though. If using BAQ lab-tested henna, and taking the time to do a strand test, I find it's quite predictable. I personally don't find "hair surprises" exciting, and I love using henna!... I was surprised only once when using henna, and it was when I switched up my recipe and got too lazy to do a strand test. Live and learn.