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A Short guide to Henna and Herbal Dyes

Published on 14th February 2011

A short guide to Henna and Herbal Dyes
Did you ever think about dyeing your hair with henna, or do you wonder if the rumours about henna and its conditioning effects (or the worse ones like henna-dyed hair frying or falling out after bleaching) are true? If so, read on, but keep in mind that this is only a short guide about this topic, if you want to know more special things I added some useful links at the end of this text.

What is Henna?
The first thing to know is that the word “Henna” is often used to describe many or the most natural/herbal dyes. In fact, the “real” Henna is a plant, Lawsonia Inermis, which can dye your hair orange, red or auburn, depending on your natural hair colour.
“Brown Henna” or “Black Henna” doesn’t exist; the last one is called Indigo and all other herbal dyes are produced by mixing mainly Henna and Indigo and then maybe adding other plants that can dye your hair. (Or, if you use one of the lower quality brands, by adding dangerous chemicals, metallic salts or other stuff that can lead to many problems, so please get your herbal dye from a reputable source).
“Colourless Henna” is called Cassia, it normally doesn’t dye your hair (unless it is very light blonde, then Cassia can add a green tint) but has the same effects as henna on your hair.

Dos and Don’ts
Dyeing your hair with a herbal dye can be a great thing: it is completely natural, so chances of an allergic reaction are usually really small. It coats your hair and is a bit astringent and therefore leaves it shinier, thicker and with more volume. The colour results are usually stunning, too.
Henna is a bit similar to Directions, Special Effects and other direct dyes; the results depend on your base colour (the darker the base, the darker the result will be) and the time you leave it on your hair, it is quite conditioning and you can mix different colours to get your perfect shade. Oh, and it will probably stain your hands,skin and shirt, so please wear gloves and old clothes while dyeing.
But keep in mind that Henna, Indigo, etc. are natural dyes and because of that there are some things that simply don’t work:

  • You can’t dye your hair lighter with them.
  • If your natural hair colour (or the base colour you are working with) is lighter than medium brown, you can’t dye it black with indigo. Chances are high it will go a greyish blue or green, because Indigo is not a black colour, but a blue or green one. (Read below for more information on indigo and how to dye light hair black with it).
  • These dyes, especially Henna, are PERMANENT. You cannot bleach them out, and dyeing over it with a chemical dye can lead to serious problems if you used a dye that contained metallic salts . So always do a strand test (your hair can practically boil or explode because of metallic salts reacting with the dye) and wait at least 10 weeks before using a chemical dye on your hennaed-hair.
    Dyeing over chemically dyed hair should be safe, but because colour results are a bit unpredictable, do a strand test anyway and please wait about 4 weeks before you use a herbal dye on chemically treated hair and if you have your hair straightened chemically or have it permed, you should probably do this before dyeing and wait around 4 weeks, too.
    Direct dyes can be used over herbal dyes, but as usual, I strongly advise you to do a strand test because your hair won’t be as porous as bleached hair would be and therefore will need longer time to absorb the dye and give you the result you expect or want. There is a very good guide about dyeing unbleached hair on this site, too.
    If you decide to go for it, dyeing is quite simple, but make sure you got rid of anything that could prevent your hair from accepting the dye, like styling products, silicones or things like that.

Using Henna
For Henna and dyes that mostly consist of henna, just use very hot to boiling water, mix it with your herbal dye until it feels like something in between toothpaste and mustard and is easy to apply. Let it cool down to a nice warm temperature, put it on your hair (make sure to get every stand and your roots, too) and cover it with a plastic bag or something like that so it doesn’t dry out. Leave it on as long as you can stand it, but at least 2 hours.
Try to wash it out with water only, because the dye will “develop” over two days and shampoo can slow or stop that process and also wash out the dye molecules that aren’t completely connected with your hair yet.
You may need to repeat this process in order to get a colour as intense as you want it to be, especially if your hair is quite thick or doesn’t accept dye easily.
Indigo and dyes that contain more Indigo than Henna are better mixed with warm water and applied to your hair fast. Some people say you don’t need to leave Indigo on your hair as long as henna, but many had better results with a longer processing time.
Tweaking the Colour
To get a more intense result, you can mix different things to your dyeing paste and should not use others.
For Henna and dyes that contain more Henna than Indigo:

  • Mix it with strong black tea or coffee to get a more intense result or…
  • Add citric acid
  • Use red wine instead of water to get a darker, more intense and more red result
    For Indigo and dyes that contain more Indigo than Henna:
  • Never use too hot water, citric acid or other acidic fluids with it. Indigo needs warm to lukewarm water and acid destroys the dye molecules.
  • You can mix it with warm milk and Honey to get a more intense result.
    For both:
  • You can add a bit of Conditioner or oil to get an even better conditioning effect, but this can also lead to a less intense dyeing result.

Last but not least, let me talk about the more complicated cases:
1. -You want to dye your hair with henna, but it is bleached or quite colourful:
Yes, this is possible, and I did it recently, too.
First, you should dye your hair a colour that is similar to your natural hair colour, because otherwise, your roots will look very different to the rest of your hair if you keep on using henna. You can do that by using a semi permanent dye or try to use herbal dye. If you used a chemical dye, wait at least 4 weeks before you use your herbal dye. Your roots will probably need more applications than the part of your hair that has been chemically treated because the dyed or bleached (and probably at least a bit damaged) lengths will be more porous and absorb the colour better than your roots.
2. – Your Hair is grey and you want to use herbal dye, or your hair is light blonde to light brown or grey and you want to dye it black with indigo:
In this case, it is important to use Henna prior to using your desired dye. If you want to go black, the red Tones will cancel out the greenish-bluish tones of the indigo, resulting in a deep black, and if your hair is grey and you want to dye it with herbal dye , the Henna will prevent it from turning a bright orange or a muddy green (depending on the colour you want to use).
Dyeing your hair with Henna or other herbal dyes should not be decided from a spontaneous whim, but if you are sure you want to do it, it won’t hurt your hair and if you keep some important things in mind, it will give you fantastic results.
If you have any questions, feel free to write me a message or add a comment to this article.
For more information you can also visit one of these websites:
www.henna-und-mehr.de (german and french)

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Read on...


  • Henna is permanent... like grow it out permanent so is a big commitment.
  • Always do a strand test before applying henna and before using subsequent dyes or processes.