Lawsonia inermis, commonly known as henna, is an ancient herb that has been used for centuries in India, Africa, and the Middle East for both body art and as a semi permanent hair colourant. Aside from its colouring properties, henna also strengthens and repairs the hair, penetrating deep into the hair shaft and depositing nutrients and moisture to each strand. There are a few different herbs that are categorized as “henna”, although the only true henna is lawsonia inermis, which has a distinctive orange-red cast. The other colours of henna typically use a base of lawsonia inermis with added herbs to achieve the desired colour result – black is indigo (indigofera tinctoria), various shades of brown will include true henna, indigo, and other herbs such as amla (phyllanthus emblica), and blonde will typically be a mixture of cassia obovata and chamomile (matricaria chamomilla). Neutral henna, also known as cassia obovata (senna italica), can be used for the same conditioning and repairing benefits as henna, but without adding any colour to the hair.
Using henna as a deep conditioner, hair repair treatment, and natural dye is straightforward, but there are a few ways to optimize your results and simplify the process.
My Personal Henna Journey
My first experience with henna was almost a decade ago, when I decided to clean up my beauty care routine, when I originally ditched the chemical dyes and conventional shampoos. Having chemically dyed black hair with a few inches of platinum blonde new growth, I decided to try black “henna”, which is a blend of henna and indigo, another colour depositing herb that provides a darker colour (true henna is only ever orangey-red). I bought a bag of repacked black henna, mixed it with water into a paste, and immediately smoothed the gritty, grainy decoction over my roots. I let the herbs penetrate my hair for about two hours, then rinsed. The results were nothing short of disappointing – hours of anticipation for absolutely no colour change! I was disappointed, and although I continued my no-poo and natural skincare journey, I continued using chemical hair dyes in spite of this experience. (In hindsight, I now know that henna must be allowed to sit and release its dyes).
Fast forward about 5 years. After at least a year into my chemical dye-free journey, and a good two years of using only natural, organic shampoos and conditioners (I had a relapse, okay), I had rediscovered henna. I wasn’t interested in colouring my hair, as I’d been working so hard at growing out the nasty damage I’d created and longed to see a full head of my natural virgin hair. I decided to try an application of cassia (neutral henna) for its conditioning and strengthening properties, as my coarse, curly locks need all of the TLC. I picked up a box of Colora neutral henna from my local health food store, mixed it up with water, and applied the gritty, clumpy, earthy-smelling paste to my hair. A few hours later, I rinsed, shampooed, and let my hair dry to see the results. Again, I was underwhelmed, and didn’t see any noticeable changes, even in moisture levels or strength. After reading some reviews online, I decided to try a different brand (and I’m glad I did).
My next attempt was about a month later, this time using Light Mountain Natural’s cassia, labelled “conditioner – neutral”. This powder seemed a lot more fine, and was easier to mix off the bat. There were less clumps, and the paste felt smoother and creamier. Application also seemed easier, as did the rinsing process. This time, I left the cassia on for just over 2 hours. However, I felt like my hair was quite dry and roughed up, similar to after a harsh bleach session. I learned that this is due to henna opening the cuticle – and simply rinsing with water isn’t enough to close it. This leads me to elaborate on a few things that I’ve learned along the way that helped me develop a henna routine that is the cleanest, simplest, and works best for my hair.
It is first important to know that henna works by opening the hair cuticle, which are the protective outer layers of the hair strand that envelop the more fragile inner structures. Lifting the hair cuticle is usually a practise we want to avoid, as repeated lifting and closing of the cuticle leads to damage, as seen in chemical dying, relaxing, and heat styling our hair. However, because the henna can also penetrate the hair and deposits nutrients within the shaft, it has a strengthening effect. This opening of the cuticle, however, is responsible for the drying or tangling results that some individuals experience from using henna alone. We can take advantage of this cuticle-opening property of the henna by adding other beneficial ingredients to our mix to allow specific nutrients (proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals) to deeply penetrate the hair, as you’ll see in the recipe I use. Also, following your henna treatment with an acidic rinse to close the hair cuticle will protect the hair, seal in moisture, and give you much more manageable, shiny, healthy feeling hair immediately following your treatment.
How-To Henna: The Standard Method
Select your henna colour based on your current colour and desired results. Note that henna can never lighten the hair, but only add darker colours or translucent tones to the natural hair colour. Please be aware that due to the depth in which hennas colour deposits into the hair, it is very difficult to remove from the hair. Although the colour will fade over time, it is often impossible to entirely remove the colour (even with chemical bleaching), and growing out the colour is often the only option. If you don’t want to change your hair colour, use cassia (neutral henna) instead.
Always wait 6 weeks after chemically colouring your hair to do henna, and likewise, wait 6 weeks after using henna to colour or condition your hair. Although it is rare, it is possible for the herb to react to the chemicals in the hair dye, turning the hair an undesirable colour.
Are you scared yet?
When preparing your henna mixture, never use metal utensils as it can react and make the dye less effective. I use a wooden spoon (or my hands) and either a pottery or glass bowl. Depending on your hair length, density, and texture of your hair, the amount of henna you need to prepare will vary. I have shoulder length, wavy/curly hair that is very dense and moderately course – I use about 1/3 of a package of henna per application, which is equivalent to about 1 cup of powder (maybe a bit less). Using clean, filtered, boiled water (still hot), add just enough liquid to create a pudding-like consistency. There should be few to no lumps, and the mixture should be creamy. The colour pigments take several hours to release, so after mixing your paste, cover your bowl with a natural fibre cloth and let it sit overnight (or at least 6-8 hours).
When you go to apply your henna, make sure you’re wearing gloves. It can also be helpful to apply a thin layer of an oil or butter around your hairline to prevent staining on your face and neck. Shea butter or lanolin work best because of their thickness and water repellency, but tend to be comedogenic (pore clogging). If you have acne prone skin, use a high linoleic oil such as pumpkin seed or hemp seed oil, and just take extra caution not to drip the henna on your face. Henna will stain your skin so take this step seriously!
Make sure you hair is fully detangled before application. For the application process, I part my hair in the centre, and work on one side at a time. With wooden clips, pin up any hair you are not currently applying the henna to, and apply the paste starting at the roots and working your way down the shaft to the tips. When I’ve successfully saturated my entire head in henna, I separate my hair into two halves, and wrap them into tight buns to prevent from dripping on everything I own (I am literally the messiest human). Depending on the depth of colour you’re trying to achieve (or the depth of conditioning and repair), leave the henna on for anywhere from 2 hours to overnight. Please beware that 2-3 hours is the optimal time for most hair, especially if you’ve mixed your henna with water only, as it can be slightly drying (I will elaborate more on this below), particularly if it’s left on for too long.
Rinsing out the henna is arguably the hardest part. Because of the coarse, grainy texture of the herb, it seems to love to hide in the centre of curls and stick to the scalp. Despite the instinctual need to wash this gritty herbal mud out of your hair, it’s actually best not to shampoo for at least 24 hours after your henna treatment, as the colour takes up to 72 hours to fully oxidize.
My Repair & Restore Henna Recipe
The protocol I use for henna treatments is one that I’ve developed based on my personal experiences and research. First, I add organic, full-fat coconut cream (from the can) for its penetrating saturated fats, grass fed greek yogurt for its penetrating proteins, extra acidity, and probiotics (our scalp has a microflora too!), and local raw honey for its humectant (water-attracting) properties. These ingredients, in combination with the herbs (cassia or henna) provide all the micronutrients, fats, and amino acids needed for strong, elastic, and moisturized hair. These ingredients also make the henna much easier to rinse out due to the high fat content of the coconut oil, which doesn’t allow the mixture to fully dry on the hair. This combination of ingredients makes my hair feel deeply conditioned like no other product or DIY recipe I’ve ever used. The ratio of these products is about 2 parts henna to 2 parts coconut cream, 2 parts yogurt, and 1 part honey.
For the amount I need for my hair, that looks about like this…
1 cup of henna (or cassia) powder
1 cup of organic, full-fat coconut cream (canned)
1 cup of grass fed greek yogurt
1/2 cup of local raw honey
…but, you’ll want to adjust the ratio as needed to achieve the perfect pudding-like consistency.
I leave my henna in for 2-3 hours. After fully rinsing out my henna mixture, I add about 1/4 cup of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar to a 1-litre mason jar of water. I use this as a clarifying rinse to dispel any excess henna or oils left in my hair, and adds shine and moisture to the hair strands. Most importantly, apple cider vinegar helps close the hair cuticle by adjusting the pH back to a favourable 4.5-5.5, which is where our scalp and hair naturally thrive at. I then briefly rinse my head with water, and I’m done! I will lightly towel dry my hair, apply a sealing, high ceremide oil (such as wheat germ oil) to lock in moisture, and then air dry my hair. I won’t wash my hair for the following 48 hours (or more), which aligns with my normal wash routine anyways.
I try to do a henna treatment at least monthly, in addition to a lighter hair treatment (oil or protein) every week or two. For extremely dry, weak, or chemically damaged hair, you may want to henna every 1-2 weeks for the first few months to build up your hair’s strength and elasticity.
Have you ever used henna or cassia? I’d love to hear your experiences below and any favourite henna recipes you’ve tried!
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.