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? Unlike so-called natural hair color dyes—all of which contain potentially toxic chemicals—henna is 100% chemical-free. But can it actually cover gray? 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.
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.
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. 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 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 a medium brown like this henna from Light Mountain and to reduce the red, we added indigo powder.
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 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. Next, we tried mixing equal parts henna and indigo, and kept it on my hair for an hour, but didn’t sit under the dryer. 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.
Finally, I went with pure black indigo, which delivers brunette color with less red tones. This is my favorite result! Two to try are Hannah Natural 100% Pure Indigo Powder and Henna Maiden Pure Indigo Powder.
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 to determine what ratios you’ll need to get the color you’re looking for.
- Some hennas need to be mixed as much as 24 hours in advance, but you can mix a big batch and freeze the remainder to use a second 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.
Have you tried henna or indigo? How was it? What’s your natural hair color of choice? Let me know in comments below. Thanks!