[~ 9 minutes]
Listening to: Conjure One feat. Azam Ali, Nargis
From unremarkable to eye-catching hair with henna
Some women are born stunners; they could walk into a supermarket dressed in sackcloth and still have jaws drop as they glide into the dairy aisle.
That is not me. At all.
When people stare at me, it’s usually because there’s a one-foot long paintbrush sticking out of my hair bun, or because I look like a raccoon-eyed lunatic after having distractedly rubbed my eyes and smudged my kohl powder in the process.
However, these days I’m being stared at in an admiring way (not my words; R, the very intelligent husband, confirms this). It’s my hair people are gazing at —despite there being no paintbrush, not these days.
If that weren’t enough, something astonishing happened a few days ago that confirmed my suspicions. As we were being served our caffè macchiato at the caffeteria close to the office, a girl I couldn’t for the life of me remember having ever seen behind the counter smiled and asked, “Oh, new hair color? Looks gorgeous!”.
I was flabbergasted; a virtual stranger* complimenting my hair colour change?
*although I was evidently no stranger to her if she could notice the difference, of course.
Definitely not normal.
Then I remembered a line on my henna-dyeing manual I’d always thought was just a cute throw-away:
“At four days, you’ll see a big difference in your hair color. It will be darker and richer. It will glow gloriously in the sunshine. People will stop you in the street and tell you you’re gorgeous.”
So it hadn’t been four days, it wasn’t in the street, and the compliment was about my hair, not me. But still, I was surprised. Turns out that perhaps henna (Lawsonia inermis L.) does have certain superpowers, after all.
I didn’t grow around henna; I found my way into it as a curious researcher fresh out of college.
I had the good luck of discovering that my local erboristeria sold powdered henna at a reasonable price, and ever since I tried it out for the first time seven years ago, I’ve been dyeing my hair with henna at least once a year.
Why do I use henna?
Three main reasons: the colour, the history, and the (gloriously messy) process.
The smell, the texture, the rhythm… I have even come to enjoy the discomfort of it, and wear the bright orange stains on my hands like a badge of honour (unless it’s your wedding day; girls, I really don’t recommend hennaing your hair without gloves on the days prior to getting married).
I like my dyestuffs as unprocessed & natural as possible; I like knowing that I’m following more or less the same simple process that has been used to henna one’s hair for centuries: just dried powdered henna leaves and watery vinegar*.
*Not that it’s always been vinegar, mind. But that’s what I’ve used of late.
However, I understand that if you don’t like messy and slow, and don’t particularly care about using natural dyestuffs, henna might not be for you.
How do I use henna to dye my hair?
You still here?
Good. Let’s have some messy fun together.
First of all, you should know that there are many people out there who write about henna, and yet don’t really understand the process, the nature of the plant or its dye molecule, lawsone (2-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone).
Being a nit-picky researcher at heart who wants to do things the right way, I couldn’t just follow any website’s advice on how to do henna; I wanted to find somebody who had authority and who didn’t spew pseudo-scientific BS with no data to back it up.
Many recipes out there, but which one should you trust? Should you mix it with yoghurt? Lemon juice?
My mantra: show me the data.
It wasn’t long before I discovered what has become my henna go-to resource and researcher: Catherine Cartwright-Jones, PhD, one of the foremost experts in the subject who’s got an amazing list of free resources on all things henna which I wholeheartedly recommend checking out.
This is why, when the time comes, I get out her Henna for Hair guide (because I tend to forget the details, and I always double-check), and follow her instructions (which have gotten a lot clearer in the last iteration of her illustrated PDF how-to guide).
In my case, the process goes like this:
- Dried henna leaf powder (I buy it for c. 2,50€ each 100g via my local erboristeria; if you don’t know where to get it from, I would advise you find a trusted source of additive-free henna —because yes, it can be adulterated and the things you can find in the mix aren’t so good for you);
- Enough vinegar / lemon juice / mildly acidic liquid to mix with the powder;
- Plastic/pottery bowl + plastic bag;
- Plastic shower cap;
- Bucket, old/red towel, water (for rinsing)
My 10 steps to dye hair with henna
Aprox. time: c. 8 hours for dye release + 30 to 45 min (for medium-long hair) actual dyeing + 10 hours on hair (+ c. 30-45 min to get it all off)
Part One: Get it On
1) Buy the stuff (in my case I usually use around 300g, with satisfactory results).
2) Decide on a day I can stay home all day long and make a mess of the bathroom. If it’s summer, all the better: warmth works best to release and fix the dye.
3) The evening before, mix henna with some mildly acidic liquid, whatever I’ve got on hand, and leave it alone overnight (I mix it in a bowl, and cover it with a plastic bag to make sure it’s warm enough and not in contact with air, so as to avoid oxidation).
4) Get up early, and check the mixture. Add extra liquid if needed; it should look something like thick yoghurt, or beaten ricotta. Then, get ready for the mess…
5) Put on gloves (if you can do it with gloves; I totally can’t), and strip down to the waist (the only way I’m sure I won’t end up with yet another orange-splattered bra. I tried with plastic pieces on my shoulders; in the end it was just too much of a mess, but you can give it a go. And if somebody else is doing it for you, or if you have short hair, then plastic covering for shoulders should be enough…).
6) Divide hair (that should be as clean as possible) into sections as best you can. If your hair is as long as mine, it’s probably gonna be hard. Hold them in place with pins or whatever (just bear in mind they’ll get dirty, and you’ll have to manage them with your hands covered in henna goo).
7) Smear henna into hair sections, from the scalp down to the tip of each curl. No stinginess: lay it “as thick as frosting”, massaging it into your hair roots and caking each lock down to the tip. It should be thick enough to enable your curling every tendril flat next to your scalp and have it all stick together (this is salvation for long-haired girls that do self-henna. I ‘stick’ every hennaed hair lock out of the way as I work through my hair, both for comfort and cleanliness).
8) Forty-five minutes later, stretch and do a small victory dance. No, wait. First, put a plastic shower cap on. There’s inevitably gonna be henna around your ears, on the back of your neck… don’t worry. It’s gonna come off once it’s crusty, and the stain won’t last long.
(Your hands, on the other side… heh. Get ready for very interesting handshake conversations.)
9) Although ’tis said you can leave it on for as little as 2-3 hours, I tend to leave mine as long as possible —this time I finished hennaeing around 8:30 AM, and took it off 10 hours later. The longer you leave it, the more intense the stain can be.
Part Two: Wash it off
10) As hair dye-ready henna is no more than powdered plant leaves, at this point your hair is full of gritty sand-like stuff you need to rinse off. And it takes forever and a day—and, what’s worse: it takes tons of water.
I was raised an extremely water-conscious girl, which renders me incapable of filling an entire bathtub or two to get rid of the henna goo in my hair. I could, as advised on the Henna for Hair guide, fill a tub of hot water and then stick your head (yourself?) inside and swish it around.
But this will only do so much to get the plant-sand off your hair, especially if you have long hair. You might have to stick your hands in there and try to rub the mess out of the strands.
So I use a bucket and a water pitcher, and I slowly pour water over hair while massaging and squeezing the goop off. Then empty bucket once full (sticking my hair inside the henna soup has never been helpful in rinsing it…). And repeat. And so on and so forth, pouring parsimoniously and squeezing hard so as to maximise the amount of goo that comes off per water unit.
Oh, yes, I forgot. It’s a mess, so I have to strip for this step as well, and need to do it close to a shower so as to finish the process with running water.
I never get it all off on the first round (it would be way too much water, and I just can’t). But it’s okay. I use a red towel or an orange one to dry my hair off — it stains my white ones, but if the towels are red (or old) I either don’t see it, or don’t care. As my hennaed hair ‘bleeds’ colour for a good few showers after dyeing, that red towel stays at hand for many days.
This is a whole lot of messy work, and many acquaintances cannot understand the appeal. Oddly enough, I never get these comments after having hennaed my hair (okay, I do get some raised eyebrows at my orange hands —and fingernails; they stay orange for weeks!—; but the ones aimed at my hair are always admiring and curious).
It looks glossy and lovely, and if you can embrace the mess of it (or find somebody who will kindly help you with the process), I wholeheartedly recommend the experience.
It’s bound to be one you will never forget (and neither will your acquaintances, friends & family).
References – or, how do I go about this myself?
If I have convinced you to give it a try, then I’d definitely check out the free PDF handouts by Catherine Cartwright-Jones right here. You’ll find as much information as you could possibly want to make sure your henna experience is as smooth as humanly possible.
You will learn how much henna you need for your hair length, the temperatures and times it’ll take for the plant to release the dye, what liquids you can mix it with (and with what results), and so on and so forth…
(Yes, I know; the scientific name of henna isn’t always spelled correctly, and this would normally make me a bit hesitant; but the research is sound and amazingly detailed all the same, I promise).
Pictures of the henna process by a good friend, Maria Luisa Diana; others by R.