The 21st Century Herbalist

Natural Hair Dye Month: How to Use Henna

All last month we learned great ways to naturally care for our hair.  Now that we’ve got the healthy hair we want…let’s add some color, shall we?  Throughout the month of August I’ll be sharing great ways to naturally color your hair with specific weeks dedicated to blondes, brunettes and red heads.  This week I’m talking henna, where to buy it and how to apply it.

You probably think of henna as the colorant used to create wonderful temporary designs on your skin and while it does do that, it can also color your hair.  Henna works differently than the commercial colorants you find on the market today.  It is chemical-free and instead of coating the hair like the boxed hair dyes, it actually penetrates the hair shaft and changes the color from the inside out.  It does take longer for the henna to work but you’ll end up with beautiful color that you can customize and it can last for months, all without chemicals!

Buying Henna: Things You Should Know

Henna comes in several shades and is usually labeled similar to hair colors, so you’ll find blonde hennas, black hennas, etc.  Typically henna is red but mixing different parts of the plant together that were harvested at different times can produce other shades.  All henna, even those labeled “blonde,” will have a slight red tint to them, you should be aware of this if you have light blonde hair.  I’ll cover more about naturally boosting blonde color in next week’s column.

You can often find henna in a natural food stores like Whole Foods.  You can also get it online from herbal retailers like Mountain Rose Herbs.  When purchasing henna be sure to get it from a reputable resource because some henna is chemically treated in order to create the different colors and if you’re trying to avoid putting chemicals on your hair…well, you see the problem with that.

Applying Henna: Things You Should Know

Materials Needed

henna color of your choice*, hot water, plastic or glass mixing bowl**, plastic spoon or spatula**, plastic or latex gloves, shower cap or plastic wrap, old towel, olive or jojoba oil, petroleum jelly

Don’t wash your hair at least 12 hours before you color, a little of your hair’s natural oils is a good thing.  When you’re ready to color, dampen your hair then pat it with a towel to remove any excess water.  Follow with a small amount (start with 3-4 drops rubbed together between your palms) of either olive or jojoba oil and massage it onto the ends of your hair.

Mixing Henna

Most henna will have mixing directions on the container.  If it does not then all you need to know is that you’re trying to create a paste that is thin enough to spread onto your hair but not so thin that it will drip down your face and neck once applied.  For short to shoulder-length hair you’ll need about 3 oz. of henna and for longer hair you’ll need about 6 oz. of henna.  Start by mixing together the henna with a small amount of the hot water, stirring constantly add more water until a smooth paste forms.  Do this slowly because it’s cheaper to add more water to the mix, then it is to add more henna to a mix that got too thin.

Applying Henna

Remember when I mentioned that this is the same henna that is used to create temporary skin art?  Now’s the time to make sure you have gloves on.  Otherwise your fingers will be red for the next couple of weeks!  For this same reason, you’ll want to try and keep the paste from coming in direct contact with your scalp, just like any other hair color.  And just like any other hair color, some of it will get on your scalp and that’s okay, just don’t rub it into your scalp and you’ll be fine.  You can help prevent the color from dying your forehead and neck by rubbing a thin layer of petroleum jelly around your hair line.

Apply the henna paste the same way you’d apply any other hair color.  Section the hair, start at the roots and work your way down the hair shaft.  Once you’ve covered all of the sections, go back and cover your entire head with any leftover paste to make sure it is thoroughly applied.

Now you’ll want to let it “bake”.  If you have long hair you can pin it up in a loose bun on top of your head.  Then cover your hair with the shower cap or by wrapping it in plastic wrap.  Cover the shower cap, or plastic wrap, with an old towel to insulate the hair.  The heat will allow the henna to penetrate deep into the hair shaft giving you a wonderful depth of color and coverage.

The longer you leave the henna on your hair, the darker the color will be and the longer it will last (same as when you apply it to your skin).  I’d wait at least 30 minutes for the color to penetrate light hair but you can go up to 1 hour or 2 hours if you prefer.  For darker hair and henna shades you’ll need to let the henna sit for 1-3 hours.  It’s worth it!  You’re hair is being colored and conditioned by the henna.

Rinsing Henna

Once you’ve allowed the henna to sit for the desired amount of time, rinse it out in the shower.  Rinse in warm water and gently move and work your fingers through the hair to get out as much of the henna as you can.  Then shampoo and condition your hair as you normally would.  It’s okay if some of the henna stays in your hair just make sure you use a dark towel when patting your hair dry after your shower.  Once your hair is dry, then you can brush it a few times and the remaining henna will come right out.

After Care

The color won’t look very different until your hair is dry, so be patient and let it dry.  But if you can’t wait, go ahead and blow it dry but be kind to your hair and use either a low or medium heat, never high!

The color will rinse out a little more in the next three washes then you’ll see the “true” shade of the color.  It will start to fade slowly over the next couple of months just like any other temporary color does.  Though for some people, especially those with lighter hair, it can last for 5-6 months.  And because it fades slowly, you won’t end up with a defined “dye line” as your roots grow out.

*I’ll talk more about specific henna colors in each of the color specific weeks (blondes, brunettes and reds) during the rest of Natural Hair Color Month.

**Don’t use metal bowls or spoons to mix the henna paste because they can affect the color of the final product.


Check back each week during August for specific henna colors that can be used on blonde, brunette and red hair.  I’ll also be sharing alternative coloring options for each of these hair colors.  It should be a fun month of Natural Hair Color!

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  • Lindsay Duer-Robertson

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  • Lindsey Aylward

    Thanks for the tips, I’ve been thinking about doing this for a few weeks now. I do have a question though. If I want my hair to be as vibrantly red as possible, which henna should I go for?

    • Jenn Hickman

      it will honestly depend on what your natural color is, or the color of the dye on your hair. The lighter the hair the more vibrant the red. Also wait about 3 days to get a true take on what color it comes out since it has to oxidize on your hair. It will also look darker inside than if you are out in direct sunlight. I highly recommend it! It’s the most natural looking red, that comes out differently and complementary
      on everyone.

  • Jenn Hickman

    Henna is wonderful for the hair! I have been dying my hair with henna for about 3 years from now. I am however slightly concerned about your instructions. Henna done right is not for those looking for a quick fix. Henna only comes in one color, RED. If you want BLOND, you first need to have white or pale blond hair and use Cassia. If you want BLACK you need Indigo, Usually 3 parts indigo to 1 part henna.

    Make sure the henna being used is body art quality, and pure! This is important if you want to keep your hair on your head.

    Second, it’s most unavoidable to mix henna with hot water, it can cause it to break down and not deposit much. The best liquids to mix it with are Apple Juice, Lemon Juice or strong chamomile tea. The time it needs to set varies with the acidity that is used and the temperature of the room it is setting up in. Once mixed it should be the consistency of yogurt and be covered with plastic wrap. The warmer the room the faster the set up time, this could take anywhere from 1 hour to 16 hours depending on the liquid used and the temperature. A good indicator that it is ready is when the top turns a brownish color and a small dab left on your dab on your skin for a min, leaves and orange spot in its place. I have found Lemon juice works best if you have the time, in a 75 – 80 degree room it takes about 8 hours to set up, where as Apple juice only takes about an hour at those temps. It will dry the hair hour but that can be overcome by using a deep conditioner after washing it out.

    As for time in the hair, for me personally, I sleep with it in and wash it out first thing when I wake up, the least amount of time I have left it in is 5 hours.

    As last, if you don’t want your hair to smell like a freshly mowed lawn add a tiny bit of cardamom to the mix.

  • Claire Elizabeth Tran

    Thanks for the inspiration! I have wanted to go red forever, but was so nervous about spending loads of money and damaging my long brunette locks. After seeing this I looked into Lush’s caca rouge henna, dropped into the store yesterday and took the plunge. I am soooo excited about the results, such a pretty vibrant cola red color and my hair is so soft and much healthier looking. I’m definitely hooked on henna now!

    Thank you!

  • Amy Rohman

    I have been dying my hair with indigo and henna for about eight months. Jenn Hickman’s comment is 100% correct: there is no such thing as blonde henna or black henna. Getting different colors doesn’t mean harvesting a different part of the henna plant; rather, you use other plants entirely (in my case, combining 3 parts indigo to 1 part henna gives me a deep brown with red highlights). You can also use cassia mixed with henna on lighter hair for strawberry blonde. If you want the most vibrant red possible, use pure henna.

    It’s good to remember that henna is a tint that binds to your hair protein, not a chemical to alter your actual color. If you have really dark hair, you won’t see as big of a change than if you are a platinum blonde.

    Henna has been a rewarding experience for me so far and I highly recommend it to everyone!

  • Lia Sea

    The science geek in me really has to point out that nothing about henna is chemical-free. Everything in the universe is made of chemicals. Coming from a plant does not change that fact.

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