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Henna is well-known for its use in the eye-catching body art of South Asia and the Middle East, also known as mehndi.
Did you know it can also give you glossy, richly-colored locks?
Henna, known as mendhikā in Sanskrit, is frequently used to dye hair. It can also provide a softening sheen and enhance brown and auburn tones.
At the same time, there are some downsides to using this plant-based powder on your tresses. Let’s dive into the pros and cons of using henna to dye your hair.
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Henna is derived from the leaves of the henna plant, Lawsonia inermis. The powdered form is typically made into a paste and applied to the hair or skin.
Traditional recipes for henna dye involve making henna powder by drying the leaves, then mixing it in with tannic liquids, like tea or coffee, to enhance its staining potential.
So why does this seemingly inoffensive plant cause such a stir when it comes to dyeing hair? Let’s take a look at some disadvantages of henna.
While henna offers plenty of benefits, it also comes with a host of disadvantages. Some are merely cosmetic, while others are more serious.
- color may bleed initially
- color may fade or become dull over time
- can only darken hair, not lighten it
- requires an involved application process
- may dry out hair
- difficult to remove
- can’t be bleached
- stains skin and clothes
- color may be affected by heat styling
- not recommended for salt and pepper hair
- can cause hair damage
- may contain unhealthy additives
- may cause allergic reaction
- may cause hair loss
- may result in loss of hair texture
Difficult to change the color
Once you dye your hair with henna, it’s difficult to make changes. In general, you’re pretty much left with what you’ve got.
Henna “will stay deeply in the cuticle and make it extremely difficult for your hairstylist to open the cuticle again and change the color,” says Monica Davis, a professional hair stylist and the founder of My Straightener.
Lightening isn’t easy
When it comes to lightening your hair after using henna, proceed with caution.
You *can* bleach hair that’s been colored with pure henna. Before you do, be doubly sure you’re using 100 percent henna powder or paste.
Because many henna dyes have additives, that’s easier said than done.
You’ll also need to wait for the henna to start fading naturally. Otherwise, the bleaching process will open the cuticle of the hair and deepen the red-orange or blackish hue.
YouTuber Courtney Violetta explored bleaching her henna-dyed hair in this DIY video. The process is fairly involved and requires a lot of products.
Ultimately, Violetta’s hair didn’t lighten as much as she thought it would. She also noted that her hair strands became “stretchy,” dry, and brittle.
In the end, she posted this video explaining why she stopped using henna altogether.
Generally speaking, your best bet to get rid of henna dye is to let your hair grow out.
Best for dark hair
“Henna in its pure form works best on dark hair,” says Salila Sukumaran, an ambassador of India’s health ministry and the founder of wellness travel consultancy Ayurgamaya.
On salt and pepper hair, henna “leaves a bright orange sheen,” Sukumaran notes.
If you’re hoping to cover up gray, the better option is to use a high quality chemical dye.
May cause hair fall out
Many people also complain of hair falling out after henna applications.
“Henna alone can’t cause hair loss, but low quality or improperly applied henna may lead to dry hair and scalp and cause intense hair loss,” Davis explains.
May have potential health side effects
As an Ayurvedic practitioner, Sukumaran says overuse of henna may cause imbalances.
“Henna is extremely cooling and if a Kapha body-type individual… leaves on the mask for longer than a couple of hours, they are likely to fall sick,” she says.
According to Ayurveda, leaving henna on the hair and scalp overnight may cause:
- mucus buildup
- coughs and colds
- neck and shoulder aches
In addition, leaving henna on too long makes hair dry and brittle.
May react with metal
If you’re surfing the web looking for information on dyeing your hair with henna, you’ll likely come across warnings not to use it with metal bowls.
This may especially be true when it comes to iron or aluminum.
While Davis notes that most modern commercial henna dyes are protected from oxidation and don’t react with metal containers, it’s difficult to determine whether this is the case with the henna you’re using.
While there’s no scientific evidence to confirm whether henna reacts with metal, it’s safest to use a glass or ceramic bowl.
While that’s a pretty lengthy cons list, there are still plenty of advantages to dyeing hair with henna.
- can be done at home
- may be cheaper than other boxed dyes
- can be left on longer to deepen color
- is permanent
- lasts longer than chemical dyes
- provides a safe alternative to chemical dyes, especially for pregnant people
- seals the cuticle of the hair
- softens hair
- improves shine and strength
- helps prevent dandruff
- reduces oiliness of the scalp
- helps prevent premature graying
- may prevent hair loss
- helps combat lice
If you know which products to use, henna can add shine, luster, and strength to your hair.
“Due to the high concentration of tannins, henna is very effective against premature hair graying,” Davis says.
If you’re committed to the color, henna may also offer the most long-lasting hue.
“Henna can provide a rich auburn color that will potentially stay on your hair much longer than any chemical salon dye,” Sukumaran explains.
On top of that, henna offers both nutrients and protection for the hair and scalp.
“It’s rich with antioxidants, proteins, and has an antifungal effect,” Davis says. “All three are very helpful for scalps that are prone to dandruff.”
It can also give your hair a major dose of vitamin E, a natural hair softener.
Other potential health benefits
Sukumaran notes that henna may have Ayurvedic health benefits as well.
According to Ayurveda, henna is also a cooling agent that may provide headache relief and dry up excess oil on the scalp.
In India, henna “symbolizes divine abiding love between couples,” Sukumaran says.
This is why henna is traditionally used in Indian wedding rituals.
A lot of buzz around the internet might suggest that henna will ruin your hair.
Sukumaran shares a cautionary tale about a regular user of henna who decided to bleach her burgundy-toned hair, and the hairstylist didn’t use a henna-safe bleach.
According to Sukumaran, the chemical reaction between the henna and bleach caused the customer’s hair to “smoke.”
Although the stylist washed the bleach away immediately, the damage was done.
The upside is that, even if the hair shaft becomes damaged, it will grow back as long as there’s no damage to the root.
While this story is anecdotal, it’s still important to be aware of the powerful effects some chemical and herb combinations can have.
Some henna users, including YouTuber ife360TV Naturally, find that their hair appears damaged after repeated henna applications, including changes to texture and hair fall out.
Some henna mixtures may react adversely to bleach or chemical dye. Always let your hair colorist know if you’ve applied henna to your hair, and always do a patch test and strand test to determine how any dye will interact with your body.
With the cons list above, you may be ready to skip using henna on your hair.
Before you toss it out completely, it’s important to understand why these downsides might happen and how to avoid them.
Whether henna works on your hair or not depends on several factors, including:
- hair porosity
- hair texture
- whether you use conditioning agents
- frequency of application
- duration of application
- product quality
Hair porosity and texture
Everyone has different experiences when using henna.
This is because everyone has a unique hair porosity that influences how easily their hair takes the henna dye and what happens to their hair after it’s dyed.
Henna works best on extremely porous hair, or hair that’s especially absorbent. Low-porosity hair might not take the dye as well.
Those with curly hair may experience that their curls aren’t as tight or bouncy after using henna.
This happens when the lawsone molecules in henna adhere to the hair strand, creating a sheath of color that changes hair porosity.
This also weighs down the hair, potentially unraveling curls.
The more frequent the henna application, the thicker the coat of lawsone molecules on the hair strands. While this may result in deeper color, it can also have a flattening effect.
“Regular use of henna can mess with curly heads,” Sukumaran says. “Henna tends to develop a coating on the hair shaft, which makes the hair strand straighter. If you have wavy or loose curls, you may find your curl pattern shifts with regular use.”
Additionally, henna can dry out the hair.
“Normal high quality henna makes dry and frizzy hair even drier and frizzier,” Davis says.
Davis adds that this effect can be countered by adding moisturizers to your paste.
YouTuber Vyala Bloom agrees.
Bloom offers tips for addressing the loss of curls, including adding a hibiscus tea rinse to your hair care routine and avoiding protein-rich conditioners, like egg masks.
Application frequency and duration
As previously mentioned, applying henna to the hair over and over again causes the protein molecules to build up on the hair shaft.
This can cause the hair to become heavier, less porous, and lose its natural curl.
Sukumaran suggests leaving henna on your hair for under an hour if you have curls or waves.
As someone with a head full of wavy hair, she notices her own curl products don’t work as well after a prolonged henna application.
“Leaving henna on for longer will change hair texture to smoother and straighter,” she says.
As with most ingredients and products, there’s a possibility of being allergic to henna. This can cause irritation and redness on the scalp.
Additionally, there are some henna imposters out there.
However, it can cause irritation to the scalp, including:
- contact dermatitis
- burning sensation
- blisters (in severe cases)
Many hairdressers develop contact dermatitis or allergies after extended exposure to this dye. Some, like Davis, consider black henna applications to be unsafe and don’t offer it in their salons.
Always do a patch test to rule out the possibility of allergies before you apply henna to the hair. Avoid black henna, which is made with the synthetic ingredient paraphenylenediamine (PDD).
In addition to imposters, many henna powders, pastes, and mixes
- silver nitrate
- disperse orange dye
These additives have been found to cause:
- allergic reactions
- chronic inflammatory reactions
- late-onset allergic reactions to hairdressing products and textile dyes
Commercially, you have lots of choices when it comes to henna. Ready-made pastes are widely available, but it’s important to make sure the product you choose is high quality.
Davis worries about the lack of quality control in henna products.
“Dishonest manufacturers may simply sell contaminated products or add chemicals to reduce production costs,” she says.
She avoids henna altogether with her clients.
If you choose to use it, she advises finding a product that’s:
- free of PDD
- free of pesticides
- free of additives
- safe for the skin
Godrej Nupur Henna is one popular option used by Bloom. Sukumaran recommends it, because it’s mixed with Ayurvedically beneficial herbs
In India, Shahnaz Husain products are well-loved and widely used.
The brand offers many Ayurvedic skin care and hair care products created using only plant-based ingredients and herbs. The company also includes recipes to create pastes and masks.
Shahnaz Husain products include:
Forest Essentials offers an Intensive Hair Repair Masque made from banana pulp, fenugreek, hibiscus, and other herbs to help combat the dryness that henna can cause.
Traditional recipes for a henna dye may include tea or coffee to enhance its staining potential. If you’re using pure henna, you may also want to add ingredients, like:
- coconut oil
- amla powder
- hibiscus flower powder
- bhringraj powder
Plain henna powder can serve as a base to create a custom paste, but henna powder doesn’t mix easily with liquids and may be difficult to use.
If you’re going the DIY route, make sure to follow your recipe for henna dye closely, including safety precautions.
Post-dyeing hair care is just as essential as prep. Here are the best practices:
- Rinse the henna thoroughly with water.
- Leave your hair alone for 24 hours.
- Shampoo and condition after the waiting period.
- Treat the hair with a moisturizing mask.
“After applying a Henna hair mask and washing it off, it’s best to leave the hair alone for 24 hours,” Sukumaran says. “This helps the color to deepen and the beneficial properties to integrate.”
She suggests waiting until the day after to shampoo and condition to get optimum results.
Davis also recommends treating your hair with a good conditioning and moisturizing mask.
Like any beauty treatment, it’s important to know how your hair and skin will react if you dye your hair with henna.
Knowing what’s in your henna dye will greatly increase your chances of ending up with a gorgeous head of healthy, richly-colored hair.
Be sure to do your research into the safety of available products and follow up with aftercare. Always do a strand and patch test first to see how your hair and skin will react.
Nandita Godbole is an Atlanta-based, Indian-origin food writer and author of several cookbooks, including her latest, “Seven Pots of Tea: An Ayurvedic Approach to Sips & Nosh.” Find her books at venues where fine cookbooks are showcased, and follow her at @currycravings on any social media platform of your choice.