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Henna, known botanically as Lawsonia inermis, is one of the main components of many commercial body and hair dyes. It’s one of the oldest plants used for this purpose.
Henna leaves have also been used since ancient times in North Africa and Asia for psychological and medicinal benefits, as well as for ornamentation.
In traditional medicine, henna is known as an astringent, purgative, and abortifacient. However, it’s also used on hair.
“Henna has antifungal properties, which make it beneficial for those with dandruff and hair-fall related issues, as well as other microbial problems,” says Dr. Khushboo Garodia, a certified trichologist.
Henna also helps reduce premature graying of hair, because it’s loaded with tannins, a plant compound found in teas that contributes to their rich coloring.
Henna contains vitamin E, which helps to soften hair. The natural leaves of the plant are rich in proteins and antioxidants that support hair health.
Henna has also been used since ancient times as a natural hair dye.
Henna is typically used in a powdered form mixed with water. It’s then applied to dry hair.
To achieve the best results, apply henna and keep it on overnight. Alternatively, you can apply in the morning and wash off after 4 or 5 hours.
Henna causes stains, so, when applying, make sure to cover your shoulders and work area with an old towel or sheet to avoid staining your clothes. However, henna stains on skin are not permanent and tend to come off after a few washes.
To get a rich brown color on the hair, you can brew some coffee or black tea and add it to your henna mix. Similarly, brewed red tea, hibiscus petal powder, or beetroot juice can help with achieving a deep red color.
Some believe that mixing henna in metal may cause undesirable reactions. Henna may also stain plastic. Garodia suggests using a ceramic bowl.
What you’ll need
- old towels or sheets to cover your shoulders and work area
- rubber gloves
- hair dye brush
- shower cap
- non-metal, non-plastic bowl and stirring tool
- lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to help release dye
- filtered or distilled water (or coffee or tea, as suggested above)
- hair clips to separate hair (optional)
- hair dryer for heat treatment (optional)
How to mix
- Add water by the spoonful to 1 cup of henna to create a thick paste resembling pancake batter.
- Add a moisturizing ingredient of your choice (more on this below).
- Squeeze in some lemon or apple cider vinegar and mix.
- Cover and leave in overnight. You can keep it in the fridge if the weather is hot.
How to apply to hair
- Cover your shoulders with an old towel or sheet to avoid staining. Put on gloves.
- Starting from the center of your head, take a few strands of hair and start applying henna with the brush. Make sure to cover your scalp with henna, too.
- Gather your hair on top as you go. You can use hair clips for this.
- Once done, cover your head with a shower cap or a polythene bag.
- Leave it on for 4 to 5 hours or overnight, depending on how dark you want the color.
- Ideally, apply it during the day and sit under the sun if possible. You can also sit under a dryer. The heat will help with deeper penetration of the color.
How to wash the dye from your hair
- Rinse the henna slowly under cool water.
- Do not shampoo immediately after. Let the color settle in for a day, and shampoo your hair after 24 hours.
- Wipe with a towel and let your hair dry naturally.
How to avoid drying out your hair
Henna can also be mixed with moisturizing ingredients to make a nourishing mask. Garodia recommends this to avoid drying out the hair.
You may also want to oil your hair after washing off the dye. This can help to replace the moisture lost in the dying process and ensure a deep, rich color.
Garodia recommends the following ingredients to make a nourishing mask for your hair during the dying process. Mix the recommended amount with 1 cup of henna powder.
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup yogurt
- 1/2 cup shikakai (Acacia concinna) powder
- 1 cup fenugreek seeds (Soak them overnight, then make them into a thick paste.)
- 1 cup amla (Indian gooseberry) powder
- 1 cup aloe vera gel
- 1 cup flax seeds soaked and made into thick paste
Henna comes from the leaves of Lawsonia inermis while indigo powder is derived from the leaves of Indigofera tinctoria. Both have been used as natural dyes for centuries.
While henna tends to give hair an auburn color, indigo gives it a deep brown to black. Normally, indigo powder is applied after washing off henna dye to get the desired black or brown hair.
Indigo powder can also be mixed with henna. It’s effective on gray hair and works as a permanent dye, as opposed to henna which is semi-permanent.
While henna tends to dry hair if not mixed with natural moisturizers, indigo nourishes hair.
Henna is often sold in a powdered form that can be soaked overnight and applied to the hair. However, Garodia suggests that not all packaged henna is a good buy.
Some henna products may cause allergic reactions to the scalp, she warns.
Research has shown that henna products often contain contaminants due to a lack of quality control. These contaminants may cause allergies and permanent scarring.
Garodia mentions there are three types of henna products available on the market:
- Natural henna. Made of natural henna leaves, this gives auburn color to the hair.
- Neutral henna. This adds shine to the hair without dying it.
- Black henna. This is made of indigo and is not technically henna. It consists of a chemical called paraphenylenediamine. If kept on for too long, it may cause an allergic reaction.
In addition, Garodia warns that some hair types should avoid henna.
“People with dry and frizzy hair should not use henna,” she says. “However, if they still want to apply it, they should mix it with some kind of natural moisturizer to maintain the hydrolipidic balance of the hair.”
Many packaged forms of powdered henna contain contaminants. Read ingredients carefully, and research a product before using.
Dyes containing paraphenylenediamine can cause irritation or scarring of the scalp and should be avoided.
The practice of applying henna on skin and hair is rooted in South and Central Asian cultures. Henna’s earliest use dates back to the time of Egyptian pharaohs, where it was used for mummification. In many Muslim countries, men traditionally dye their beards with henna.
Henna’s most common and long-lived traditional use can be seen in wedding ceremonies where women paint their hands and feet with intricate patterns.
During wedding preparations, a day is dedicated to this body art, commonly known as mehndi. The women in the bridal party sing songs and dance together while the bride gets her hand decorated with henna.
Growing up in India, there was a henna tree at my maternal grandmother’s house, just outside the veranda. In summer, my nani, or grandmother, would often pluck a few leaves of the tree, and crush them on a grinding stone.
She’d then place a lump of henna paste on our palms and close them into a fist.
This had a cooling effect and added a deep orange color to our hands and fingers. She also applied henna on her hair. She’s had auburn strands of hair for as long as I can remember.
Henna is an ancient medicinal plant that’s been used as a natural dye for over 4,000 years. Its antifungal and antimicrobial properties may be beneficial for the hair and scalp, particularly for premature graying and reducing dandruff.
However, special care is required when applying henna to frizzy and dry hair — henna tends to dry out hair.
Henna is most beneficial in its natural form. A number of brands now sell powdered henna, but there’s a possibility of contamination due to lack of quality control. Using contaminated henna may cause an allergic reaction.
When using henna for hair and skin, it’s important to get it from a trusted source.
Shirin Mehrotra is an independent journalist who writes about the intersection of food, travel, and culture. She’s currently pursuing an MA in the Anthropology of Food.