Recently, henna has become as popular in North America, as it has been in other countries for years, as a medium for temporary skin decorations similar to tattoos. But it first came to the Western countries as a hair dye, and it’s still a good one, within limits.
What exactly is it? Pure henna is simply the powdered leaves of a tropical plant called Lawsonia inermis, or the henna tree. So this is another one of those all-natural products I like to write about, which seem to have disappeared from our collective memory. The powder has to be mixed with water (lemon juice or vinegar can also be used to help release the color) to form a paste, then left on the hair for several hours and washed out. Yes, it’s messier and slower than a chemical hair coloring, and it’ll keep you in the house for a while, so be ready for that.
The color is pretty much limited to shades of reddish-brown, which will be deeper the longer you leave the henna on. It’s a nice color boost for brown or red hair. If your hair is black, though, it won’t have much effect, and if you’re blonde or graying, henna likely is not for you — it’s been known to turn light colored hair green! Recently, however, products have been developed that allow henna to work on gray hair, so stay tuned.
(You may see “black” henna for sale, but it’s really henna mixed with indigo — or PPD, a darkening agent made from coal tar, which causes reactions in some people).
Although all-natural doesn’t necessarily mean completely safe, by a long shot, henna is safe for most people to use. Allergic reactions to it are rare, according to the National Institute of Health. It also acts as a conditioner on your hair, rather than damaging it like a chemical dye, as I noted at the beginning.
Unless you’re careful to keep the henna off your scalp, your skin may be stained until you’ve washed your hair a couple of times. The henna in your hair will wash out more slowly.
Henna can be hard to find in North America — though when I lived in Europe, it was a standard drugstore item there. You may have to look in stores that specialize in herbs,natural medicine, or organic products, or order it online. Since it has to be imported, there’s a degree of risk, and you may have to hunt a little for a brand that satisfies you.
All this applies to henna used as hair dye. Using it on your skin is a whole other story — one we can get to another time.