finished hair

Coloring your hair with henna

I am meant to be a redhead. My skin tone and personality both support this hypothesis. Sadly, my god-given tresses didn’t follow suit–they’re a really nondescript light/medium brown. Deep in winter = dreadfully mousy. No good. About 10-12 years ago, I started coloring my hair with drugstore kits. Some worked better than others. While I loved having red hair, the color generally faded quickly, leaving me with reddish highlights. Still better than mouse brown, but not ideal.

The white patch in the middle of my bangs shed dye even faster than the rest of my hair, which bugged the hell out of me. Some co-workers recommended a product called No-Gray: you mix it into your dye and it improves the way the dye permeates the gray. Or something. With the No-Gray, the color stuck to my white hair for about three weeks instead of four days, but I still found those results disappointing. And sometimes wound up with burgundy hair. Sigh.

Then my friend Bernadette said the magic words. “You’re looking for really red hair, right? My friend Kerry uses henna. She’s got great color and her hair looks natural, you should talk to her.” B was right on all counts. Kerry directed me to a website with body-art quality henna, all kinds of great instructions, and a forum where people share their before and after photos and mixing secrets. Perfect. I ordered some henna. Two years later, I believe that was one of the best beauty decisions I’ve made. My hair looks thicker and shinier. The color lasts longer–even on my stubborn white spot. The red looks more natural–no more burgundy. My husband likes it better. I get compliments on my hair color from strangers on the street. Definitely the right choice.

Last weekend Tim did my hair and I took photos throughout the process. Henna requires some patience; you need to mix the powder with some acidic liquid like lemon juice and let it develop overnight. Then it needs at least two hours to works its magic on your hair. If you’re a “Hey, I think I’ll do my hair today!” pop-down-to-the-drugstore-and-grab-10-minute-dye kind of gal, henna is not for you. It’s also not for those folks who want to switch up their color frequently–if you go from red to blonde to black to fuscia, avoid the henna. Using chemical dyes on hair colored with henna will get you unexpected results. Don’t do it.

On the other hand, if you’re ready to commit to a rich, glossy red for the rest of your life, the stuff is a dream. Let me walk you through my typical hair-coloring process.

henna box

The color I use, along with the mixing tools.

 I order henna from the website www.hennaforhair.com (as does Kerry, the friend who inspired this adventure). The site has fantastic instructions and offers far more information that I will ever provide in this blog. Henna comes as a powder. Since you mix it yourself, you have some control over the color; you can also mix up just the amount you need. Chef Alton Brown weighs dry ingredients for recipes; I weigh the powder to get the right amount in my mix.

I have chin-length baby-fine not-so-thick hair. I need about 50 grams of powder. Kerry has waist-length hair–she needs 200 grams. If you’re somewhere in between, 100 grams is a safe starting point.

powdered henna

Powdered henna with special secret ingredients.

Here’s the powdered henna. It looks green and kinda smells like hemp. I spice the mix up, literally. Paprika cranks up the red some more, while turmeric lightens it a little. (They also improve the smell and taste great with lamb.) The concoction needs to go in a glass or ceramic bowl–something non-reactive that won’t add other elements into your mix.

henna with lemon joiuce

Add lemon or orange juice.

Add lemon or orange juice. I’ve also added some cinnamon here, because I like the way it smells and the paprika and turmeric really did get me thinking about lamb, and I like cinnamon on my lamb. Anyway. The acid in the lemon juice reacts with a component of the henna to create magic hair-coloring stuff.

Now the fun part: mix everything together. DO NOT GET IT ON YOUR HANDS. Aim for something about the consistency of mashed potatoes. I realize mashed potatoes vary dramatically in consistency. Some folks like them creamier, some like thicker…however you like your potatoes, that’s fine. This isn’t rocket science. Feel free to add some warm water to create the desired consistency.

Mixed henna

Your mix should look like something that came out of the back end of a cow.

You now have a bowl of stuff that looks like poo. You didn’t mess anything up, that’s really what it’s supposed to look like, and yes, that vile greenish brown slop really will turn your hair a lovely shade of red. Trust me. I’ve been doing this for two years. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit somewhere warm and out of the way. If you have a spot where you put bread dough to rise, your henna will be happy there. Let it rest overnight. Now you’re ready for the fun part.

My husband colors my hair and over the last few years we’ve worked out a pretty good process. Add a few tablespoons of water to your poo-like mashed potato mess, stirring them in one tablespoon at a time to create a yogurt-like texture. (Not Greek yogurt. Too firm.) You need to be able to put this in your hair and work it through without dripping all over yourself. Err on the side of not quite enough water: you can always add a bit of water when you put it on your head, but if you put too much in now, the color will drip all over you, run down your neck, and generally make you miserable for the next few hours. Tim and I learned this the hard way. Once you’ve created something yogurtish, spoon it into a zip-top bag. Typically, Tim puts gloves on and holds the bag open while I spoon in the mess. Next, he collects plastic wrap, a bottle of water, and paper towels while I slather petroleum jelly all over my ears, forehead and neck to keep the henna from staining. While henna doesn’t stain clothing, it will discolor your skin. Do not skimp on the petroleum jelly.

Now we go to the designated salon area. Your hair should be clean and dry for this. Tim cuts a corner off the bag of henna and applies it to my hair, working it in from the roots. If the yogurt-paste seems too thick, dump a little bit of water on your head (this is what the bottled water is for). The mix may feel a bit gritty, which is fine. Throughly coat your hair. Wipe up any drips with a paper towel. Do not let the henna paste hang out in contact with your skin. There’s a reason I keep reiterating this.

When you’ve got all your hair covered and thoroughly coated your hair with the poo-yougurt-paste, wrap your head in plastic. This keeps the mess from dripping all over and retains heat to help the henna do its thing. Tim likes to secure my Cling-wrap turban with a few strips of painter’s tape. He’s an engineer. He’s thorough. It works.

henna turban

The cling-wrap turban. This is what I look like sans make up. Also, please ignore the bra strap.

Hang out like this for at least two hours. It will not be your most glamourous moment. To counteract this, I try to do other things to make myself feel pretty, like give myself a manicure or read some fabulous beauty blogs. I realize in the photo here I do not look even remotely appealing and you have no desire to emulate my hair or take beauty advice from me. You can see that without makeup, I’m quite plain. I have light gray eyelashes and a dorky smile. Thank god Tim finds these things endearing. This picture will hopefully make the next one all the more dramatic. Once your two hours are up, rinse the henna out of your hair and shampoo. Again, it may feel gritty and will smell like wet hay. You’re doing it right. Rinse, rinse, rinse until the water runs clear.

Your work is done. Over the next three or four days, your hair color will fully develop, getting richer and deeper. Yes: the opposite of chemical dyes, which fade out. Enjoy your gorgeous new long-lasting color. When your roots start showing, it’s time to repeat. Until then: rich, natural-looking red.

finished hair

The finished product. And lipstick. Big difference.

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4 comments

      1. I get you. We have the opposite hair issues! My hair is super curly and it’s a real pain in the arse to get it straight. Though, I do like it straight and wore a bob hair cut for years. Finally gave into the curls!

        Your colour and do are great! xxxx

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