Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hair talk: Henna

I have had long hair for most of my life. I briefly cut it short in high school to donate, but by the time I graduated it was nearly back to it's original length. I've always kept it somewhere between waist length and tailbone length- I don't think it actually gets much longer than that on me.

A bit over two years ago, I started dyeing my hair regularly with Henna. I do it roughly every six weeks- really for the roots, but most of the time I go ahead and do all of my hair each time. I've actually been meaning to document my henna routine for several months, but I kept forgetting on henna day, or remembering when I had already done part of the process. This time I remembered!

Some general notes about henna:
  • Henna is extremely healthy for your hair and your scalp. It is entirely natural and non-toxic, meaning if some gets into your mouth you don't have to worry. It is also totally safe to leave on for however long you want. It may be possible that some are allergic to henna (although I've never heard of that) but other than that it is fine.
  • Henna is not a typical hair dye, in that it does not change your hair to a specific color. It adds a red tint to whatever your hair color already is, meaning if you have naturally dark hair you will see very little difference. Your hair will light up beautifully in the sun though, since it shows up best in sunlight.
  • Henna has a very distinct earthy smell, like freshly turned dirt in a garden. Some people dislike this smell and find it to be a downside, but personally I really love it. Either way, the scent lingers in your hair even after several washes, (usually about a week in my experience). 
  • Henna has been used as a hair dye for hundreds of years in many parts of the world, although it originated in the Middle East (I'm pretty sure.) A number of cultures also use henna to draw semi-permanent designs on their skin in various sacred ceremonies, although you need to use a higher quality of henna for that than for hair. In India this is called Mehndi. Yemenite and Morrocan Jewish women often have Henna ceremonies shortly before their weddings. I've been to a fair few of them as my classmates started getting married, they're beautiful events.
Here are my ingredients:

  • Henna (middle): In Israel and probably most of the Middle East and India, you can buy this most anywhere that sells spices by weight. I usually use ~120 grams. I have waist length wavy hair, not very thin but not very thick either.
  • Cinnamon and Ground Cloves (left): These don't really do much to the color or nutrition, but they add a nice autumn-y smell to the mixture, and if you don't like the smell of Henna, they go a long way towards making it bearable. The cloves have some tannins that are supposed to be good for hair, but I don't think I use enough for that effect.
  • Chamomile Tea: I actually cut the tea bag open and pour the loose contents right into the mixture. Chamomile has a very mild lightening effect, which helps the red to show up better against my medium-dark hair. It's also a very soothing for the scalp and supposedly reduces dandruff. Also it smells wonderful, adding complexity to the scent.
  • Lemon Juice: This one is a must. The lemon juice helps release the dyes from the henna and seals them into the hair. There are science-y reasons for this, but I'm only science-y enough to mostly understand them, not really explain them. Lemon juice also has lightening properties. I usually use a roughly 1:1 combination of lemon juice and water in mine, but beware: lemon juice is also very drying. If your hair tends towards being dry and brittle, I would suggest using a lower proportion of lemon juice.

The rest of this post is less wordy but fairly picture-heavy, so I'm putting it under a cut.

  • Step one: Add the Henna powder to a container. Plastic is best.

  • Step two (optional): Add the cinnamon, ground cloves, and chamomile, and mix it up.

  • Step three: Begin adding water and lemon juice in roughly equal amounts. There isn't any exact measurement, but you are looking to achieve a particular texture. Too little liquid and it will crumble and not coat your hair properly, but too much and it will "leak" from under the cover and drip down your face and neck.

This henna is not wet enough. It's still very clumpy and crumbly

When your henna looks like this, it's just about right. It should be about as thick as a fudgy brownie batter- much thicker than regular cake batter but not as thick as cookie dough. (Baking analogies for goopy green cream. I  promise it's not as gross as it looks. It's quite un-gross, actually)

  • Step four: Cover the mixture in cling wrap, and let it sit for 8~10 hours. It takes about that long for the dye to be released from the henna. If you use warm water (I don't recommend boiling water though) it speeds it up somewhat, and if you stick it in the fridge, it slows it down.

You can see that it's already starting to turn very slightly brown around the edges. By the time you put it in your hair it'll be entirely brown.

  • Step five: Put it in your hair! Since this part takes the longest, I'm making a "sub list" for this.

  1. WEAR GLOVES. This henna is not the type that is used to dye skin, but it will still stain your hands, and it won't fade for at least a week. If you get some on your skin it's not going to harm you (heck, it might even be good for you) but you should rinse it off quickly
  2. It is going to be messy. There is nothing you can do about that. I have been doing this for two years and it is still messy. You will get henna on your clothes, your feet, your sink, your floor, your face, your neck, and maybe even your walls. It cleans up pretty easily with a damp paper towel or a washcloth, so don't worry about it. Clothes are a little trickier- wear something you don't mind getting stained (I wear pyjamas). Don't bother cleaning up until you're finished, that's like shoveling when it's still snowing.
  3. I make a disposable smock by cutting holes in a garbage bag- this doesn't prevent you from getting henna on your sleeves, but it does help keep the mess in check somewhat.
  4. Use hair bands or clips to separate your hair into manageable parts- since my hair is fairly thin I generally just do two or three parts. 
  5. There isn't really one best way of putting it in, I usually start by massaging the henna into my scalp and work downwards from there. Be sure to coat as much of your hair as you can with the henna.
  6. Gather your hair on top of your head. If you have thin hair like me, you can usually just mash your hair together and it'll stay there by itself, but if you have thicker hair you may want to use a hair band for this.
  7. Once your hair is secure, wash your hands with the gloves still on (or change gloves if you're using disposables). You still will be coming in contact with henna, but your gloves will be totally coated in it at this point. This brings me to my next main step:
  • Step six: Wrap your hair in cling wrap.

Yes, really. I usually go around my head four or five times, then push back the plastic wrap a bit to wipe off my forehead and ears with a cleansing wipe, and then add one more layer. If a bit of hair is sticking out at your temples and the nape of your neck, it's not the end of the world.
  • Step seven: Leave it in. For as long as you want. It should be in for at least 45 minutes, although I leave it in for 4-6 hours, and some people go to sleep in it and wash it out in the morning. I've even heard of people leaving it in for 24 hours, although that's probably unnecessary.
Note: After a while, you may start to get little "drips" leaking out from under your cling wrap. If it happens in the first hour or two, you made your mixture too liquid and have now learned an annoying lesson. You can catch them easily enough with a paper towel or a wipe- if you get a little on your hands just wash it off. It shouldn't be happening very often, if it starts getting frequent enough to be annoying that's when I usually wash it out.
  • Step eight: Wash it out. You should wear the gloves again for this step. I usually stand outside the shower with my head over the tub and hold the shower head in my hand until the worst of it is out. Once the goop is mostly gone, I put the shower head back in its cradle and shampoo twice- once with gloves, once without. You may have a few tiny grains here and there that don't come out after all that, but it's not worth chasing them down. I suggest conditioning thoroughly, or putting in a leave-in conditioner when you're done. All that lemon juice can be good for your hair but only if you keep your hair properly moisturized! Personally, I use a small drop of argan oil for this purpose.
  • Step nine: And you're done! Enjoy your newly dyed hair! And enjoy how shiny and soft it's become from the henna :) If you've got any henna left over, you can put it in a plastic bag or container and leave it in your freezer- it's good for six months that way.
Here's a quick selfie I grabbed on the way out the door to work, two days post-henna. My hair is naturally a mousy-brown color, so while it didn't "set my hair on fire", it did give me a very good tint:

(It's a little difficult to get the red to show up in photos other than direct sunlight, for some reason, but I think this'll do :D)

For a lot of good resources on dyeing your hair with henna or other natural dyes, definitely check out Especially their e-book, which was my bible for the first couple of months.


  1. Thank you for this post! I've always been curious about henna.

  2. I hennaed my hair once. My hairstylist wasn't happy about it because I was "doing her job" but I loved the depth of color it gave to my hair.

    It looks absolutely gorgeous on you! It looks really good with your eyes.

    1. Aww thanks! <3 Now if only they made purple henna...


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