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Henna Hair Dyes: The Basics

Here are the top myths (or misconceptions) and truths about using henna in your hair. I'll include where these myths came from (as there is some truth to some of them) and what makes them false. Here I answer most questions that someone new to henna will have and is meant to help you decide whether henna is the right choice for you.

p.s. I don't mean to put hair stylists on blast here but there is a lot of false information being passed around that's coming from hair professionals and I hope to clear up some of it.

#1 Myth: Henna Melts Your Hair When You Apply Chemical Dyes Over

Truth: Compound Hennas Let's get this straight right away. Pure, natural henna will never melt your hair, ever, no matter what you apply over it or under. You can apply henna on the roots, permanent dye on the mid-lengths, and bleach lightener on the ends without any problem. There is nothing in this plant that will cause a negative reaction with chemical color or bleach.

That being said, henna has some limitations such as a longer processing times and limited color options which leads to companies cheating, essentially, by adding chemicals like PPD and metallic salts to speed up the dyeing time and create shades that henna alone cannot produce; yet it's marketed as 'henna'.

Adulterated or 'tainted' hennas can prevent you from switching to chemical-based dyes due to the additives; they can also cause allergic reactions for people sensitive to PPD. These are the two types of adulterated hennas that most hairstylists think about when they hear 'henna':

Compound Henna
A popular compound henna sold in stores. This is NOT natural and contains toxic artificial ingredients.

#1 Metallic Salts - NOT Compatible with Chemical-Based Hair Color

Man-made additives like metallic salts are added to henna to produce a wider range of color options. These metals are what give fireworks their colors. Over time, as henna begins to fade, your hair is left with only the metallic salts in your hair which look purple, blue, and green (the actual color of the metal). It's not a pleasant look for most people.

These metals react negatively with chemical-based dyes which rely on oxidative agents peroxide and ammonia. When you apply either of these two ingredients (peroxide or ammonia) over a metallic salt, a combustion reaction might occur that can damage your hair. Most hair professionals out there, let's be real, don't know much about henna and assume that all henna will cause this.

A hair stylist once told me that all henna contained metallic salts because henna is a plant and metallic salts come from the ground.

Metallic salts are also added to hair dyes that claim to dye your hair in 15 minutes and "look more natural over time". These are known as 'progressive dyes' and I'll be the first to tell you that they do not look natural. Metallic salts can be very difficult to remove and it might be best to simply cut your hair as it grows.

#2 "Black Henna" - Chemical Based Hair Dye

Black henna has a terrible reputation and for good reason! It's incredibly toxic-and it's also not actually henna. The reason why it's called black-henna is because it can dye skin and hair black. How? Using the same ingredient in chemical hair dyes, paraphenylenediamine, known as PPD. I don't see the point of products like these, why add henna to a chemical dye? As you can imagine, this is not safe and can trigger allergic reactions if you're allergic to PPD or it's derivatives.

A true 'black-henna'. Contains PPD and is NOT safe or natural.

PPD is added to henna to create dark hair colors (dark browns and black) in a shorter amount of time, just like chemical dyes (30-45mins). Type this of product is also used in body tattooing which can burn the skin and cause serious allergic reactions. There are even studies that show a link between receiving one of these tattoos on your skin at a young age and developing an allergy to hair dye later in life (this actually happened to me).

Natural henna is not black, instead it starts off a pale yellow and oxidize into dark reddish and brown color when the paste is left on long enough. The longer natural henna is left on the skin or hair, the darker the stain will be. Black henna is not to be confused with Jagua; a plant dye that produces a black stain.

Natural henna oxidation process.
Natural henna paste left of for 1 hour. Three day progression.

Henna left on overnight.
Henna stain from leaving it on overnight.

*Something to keep in mind: The FDA allows color companies to claim "free from" as long as the product contains less than a certain percentage of that ingredient (peroxide/ammonia/PPD etc). And according to the FDA, most hair dyes do not need to be tested or approved by them before they are sold. You should also consider that companies make slight alterations to the chemical compound PPD to be able to call it something else and claim "PPD FREE".

Myth #2: Henna Dries Your Hair

Truth: Henna coats hair strands with a pigment that remains on your hair strand until it wears away or the hair falls off and the permanency depends on how long you leave it on for. The longer you leave it on, the more permanent it becomes. This coating helps smooth the cuticle and balance porosity, making hair appear thicker and more voluminous. While overusing it can cause build up, this does not mean that it's drying to your hair. You'd have to use it every day and leave it on for hours for henna to cause build-up worth worrying about.

On the contrary, henna is meant to leave a coating that reinforces hair strands and protects hair from the sun, breakage and split ends. This protective coating wears away and fades over time. The coating is the pigment that you see, once the color starts to fade, it means the protective layer is wearing off and it's time to reapply.

99% of my clients apply henna only to their roots once every 4-6 weeks for gray coverage & scalp care and do an all-over application every 6 months or so to restore color vibrancy.

Why Hair Feels Dry After Using Henna When henna paste is left in your hair for a few hours, hair strands (being porous) absorb moisture and swell up. What you're actually feeling that you think feels dry, is a swollen hair cuticle (which feels a bit rough to the touch) and possibly leftover plant residue. This feeling subsides as your hair returns to it's normal state within a day or two after you shampoo it out. Think about how the skin on your fingers feels when you've been sitting in water for a while, wrinkly and rough to the touch until the excess moisture evaporates.

A client said to me once that the person who cut her hair told her that henna was drying out her hair. She was getting henna applied once every month by me and could not figure out why the ends of her hair were so brittle. I asked her to tell me what her daily hair styling routine was like. The first thing she said was "after I dry it, I flat iron it". I asked, "so you're shampooing and using your flat iron every single day?" She then made the connection and said "oh, it must be the heat, huh?". What I'm trying to say is that it's important to consider a holistic approach to concluding why your hair feels dry, rather than immediately connecting it to henna. Henna, being the 'unknown' to hairstylists will likely be what is blamed for whatever deficiency your hair is going through. In her situation, I recommended a gentler hair styling tool that would minimize the damage.

Myth #3: Henna Makes Your Hair Orange

Truth: Henna is Orange, But it Doesn't Have to Be

The natural pigment of henna is a reddish-orange color that matures into a reddish-brown over a few days. The reddish-brown pigment that henna releases is translucent and will not completely transform your hair color into an orange shade if your hair already has pigment. For example, if you have brown hair, your hair will not turn orange, instead it will appear a deeper reddish shade of brown. The darker your hair is, the less you'll see a noticeable color change. If you hair is black henna or any other herbal dye will not produce a visible color change.

Before & After Henna on Natural Light Red Hair

Henna & Indigo on Black Hair
Before and After Henna on Black Hair with Grays

Orange is Important! The reddish-orange warmth of henna mimics the natural underlying pigment of human hair and is necessary to create most herbal colors that I offer. Even cooler tones that are indigo-based, like the one below, need henna to produce a natural looking color. A combination of herbs in different ratios is how I create all of the hair colors that I sell and use on my clients but not all clients can achieve any color they want. There is a range of shades that are possible depending on the existing pigment in your hair.

A cool-toned blend of Henna, Indigo, & Amla.
Two step process on white hair to achieve soft black.

Myth #4: You Can't Remove Henna from Hair

I know of plenty of people who were turned away from hair salons because they've hennaed their hair and some that were even persuaded out of switching to henna because of the idea that it cannot be 'removed' from hair.

Truth: Henna Cannot Be Removed, But it CAN Be Lightened! Henna is permanent because the pigment bonds to the protein in your hair, making it part of the hair strand. While it does fade over time, there is no way to 'remove' henna from your hair but a color professional can lighten your hair to achieve the desired level. Depending on how dark your henna hair color is, you can lighten your hair in steps to prevent excessive damage from the bleaching process. Your hair stylist can then use toners to neutralize any unwanted tones leftover from henna.

Bleaching hair previously dyed with henna and indigo using bleach powder with 30% developer.

Henna Limitations

1. Henna will not lighten your hair. To lighten hair color you need oxidative chemical agents like peroxide and ammonia. This is why you are not able to achieve any color that you want with henna. The existing pigment in your hair contributes to the overall result which leaves certain color options out of the realm of possibilities. Most clients can only achieve colors within their existing shade range, unless they have white, gray, or lighter hair color. Clients with white hair have the most color options and can achieve a shade in any color range by mixing different herbs. This is what makes henna and herbal color so great for gray coverage!

Herbal Dye: Indigo, Cassia, Amla blend.

2. Long Processing Times Nature takes time, there's no way around it. Most clients can expect to leave their henna on for at least 3 hours for best color deposit, some do less, some more. Some clients even sleep with it on overnight! Clients who want lighter or less permanent results can leave their henna on for 1-2 hours .

Henna hair colors
All of these colors are made up of herbs and include henna in various ratios.

Don't Believe Everything You Hear: See it for yourself!

As you can see, there are a few limitations to using henna but that does not mean that it's bad for your hair. Before purchasing henna make sure to read the ingredients and look out for any chemicals to avoid buying from companies that greenwash their products.

Always perform a strand test or patch test if you're unsure of what you've purchased. A strand test checks for color results and a patch test is to make sure you're not allergic to anything in the product. When you're using pure natural henna, no damage to your hair will occur!

Henna has been used for thousands of years throughout the world not only for cosmetic, but medicinal purposes as well, unlike chemical dyes. While color options are limited, consider that plants are what's dyeing your hair..not chemicals. I can say that if you're realistic about color options for your hair, you will be very happy with henna!

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