In the past, I experimented with less-toxic natural hair color for fun but now that I’m seeing more gray strands I wanted to find something that I could do on a regular basis without feeling like I was poisoning myself. In college, I used to use henna as natural hair color—we would buy it at the health food store and mix it up in the sink. Then, I was looking to go red. Now, I wanted to stay brunette—without gray. Could a truly natural hair color deliver?
Even those “natural hair color” dyes contain some level of potentially toxic chemicals. They also can strip your hair: When the dye fades, the hair is a lighter color. I like my natural brunette color–I’m just not a fan of the grays!
Luckily, henna is really, truly 100% chemical-free and will not change the color of your hair at all. Henna itself is actually a plant; the henna natural hair color is made by powdering and drying its leaves and stems—there are no chemicals, metals or salts added. You can use henna–or a mixture of henna and indigo, which is also plant-derived–to achieve a blonde, brown or red color.
Unlike chemical dyes, henna doesn’t strip the hair, it simply coats it—the resulting color is a mix between the henna and the base color of your hair. You can get pretty much any color you want with henna—except your shade cannot go lighter. The dye lasts about six weeks, and when the henna stain washes out, your natural hair color remains the same.
My college days applying henna at the sink were seriously messy, and I didn’t want to deal with henna stains in my house. So I called up my friend and hairdresser, Viviane Sellam at Marina Beach Hair in Venice, CA, and asked if henna was in her repertoire. Viviane is Parisian by way of Algeria, and I remembered her telling me stories of her mother applying henna. Turns out, for several of her clients—especially those who are cancer survivors—Viv uses natural hair color henna to dye their hair.
We decided to first test how my hair would react to neutral—i.e. no color—henna, which proponents claim makes the hair thicker and shinier, regardless of color. After researching different brands, we went with Morrocco Method neutral/colorless henna. On the day of, Viviane mixed up the henna with water and applied it to my head in sections, like she would with any other hair dye.
Then I sat under the dryer. One great thing about Morrocco Method henna is the way it smells—like freshly cut alfalfa. There is no stinging to your eyes and it actually feels like a conditioning treatment as it’s applied, which takes about 30 minutes. After another 30 minutes under the dryer, Viviane washed the henna out. My hair was super shiny and felt thicker, but there was as slight red tint to my natural color. Newsflash: Neutral henna is not totally color-free.
Six weeks later, I was ready to try again. I wanted to cover my scattering of grays with a dark brown color with subtle red tones–matching my natural hue. We went with Morrocco Method medium brown henna and to reduce the red, we added indigo powder. On the Morrocco Method website, I found an “after” photo of the color I was going for.
Our ratio was three parts Morrocco Method henna powder to one part indigo, which we then mixed with about one cup of warm water. The resulting henna mixture has the consistency of yogurt.
Viviane applied the henna as before. (We didn’t follow the directions not to shampoo for 72 hours. I just couldn’t smell like a hay barn for three days!) The results were mixed: The Morrocco Method henna covered my gray hairs, for sure.
But my hair was distinctly…red!
Luckily, you can reapply henna as much as you want to get the color you’re going for–it won’t damage your hair. I contacted Morrocco Method and they recommended that I try mixing equal parts henna and indigo, and to stay away from the dryer. I went back to Viviane and voila: The perfect color! However, my grays were a slightly brighter color so they looked a little like highlights. I like this effect, but you might need to adjust the color to get more coverage.
Moral of the story? STRAND TEST! I think using henna is probably what hair coloring used to be like, before there were thousands of shades of toxic chemicals calibrated to deliver a very specific hue. With natural hair color henna, you’re avoiding the toxic chemicals but you have to work a little to find the perfect blend for your ideal henna natural hair color.
The difference between hair dye and henna is like the difference between painting and staining wood. A light colored wood will look the same as a dark colored wood when painted; but a light colored wood will take stain completely differently than dark. It’s the same with henna. It’s not like a box of hair dye when you can just paint on a color and expect your hair to come out exactly that shade. With henna, you have to experiment with the way the stain works with the existing color of you hair.
Here are the steps I recommend:
- Work with your hairstylist or a henna manufacturer (I love Morrocco Method) to determine what ratios you’ll need to get the color you’re looking for.
- Day of, mix the henna powders first, then add warm water.
- If this is the first time, use the hairs from your brush to do a strand test and make sure you’re getting the color you’re going for.
- Apply the henna like any other dye—covering your hairline and ears with a non-petroleum jelly to minimize skin staining.
- Let the henna sit on your head for at least 30 minutes. (Use cotton at your hairline covered with a shower cap to catch drips.)
- Remember: The length of time will vary depending on your hair and what color you’re going for: The longer you leave it on, the darker the shade will be. Which is why the strand test is paramount.
- Rinse out the henna. If you’re a wuss like me, shampoo and condition. If you’re hard-core, you can use conditioner but don’t shampoo for 24 hours. (This is said to make the color stronger.)
- The full color will appear after 72 hours.
Here are the benefits that I found when using henna:
1. My hair is super shiny.
2. It feels thicker and deep conditioned.
3. The henna colors my grays so that they look like tiny, very fine highlights.
4. The color lasts for two months and fades out gradually, without changing the base color of my hair.
5. I’m not putting any toxic chemicals onto my body and down the drain.
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About The Author
Better known as “Mommy Greenest,” Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff is a journalist, consultant, sustainability advocate and former CEO of Healthy Child Healthy World who was Editor in Chief of Children magazine—before she had three of her own. Rachel was featured in Los Angeles and Lucky magazines and appeared on “The Today Show” and “CNN Headline News,” among others, to share advice about healthier living with less judgement. The author of The Big List of Things That Suck and partner at Give + Take swap shop in Los Angeles, Rachel also publishes MommyGreenest.com, where “you shouldn’t have to be a scientist to raise healthy kids.” Follow her Facebook.com/MommyGreenest and at YouTube.com/RachelSarnoff.