Those who have been acquainted with me, one way or the other, will know one thing for sure: I am not a “girly-girl.” Owing to working in the creative industry, my choice of outfit for work is usually a hoodie or t-shirt, and the only time I wear a dress is in summer because it is too hot for pants. Make-up and anything fancy with the hair are reserved for special occasions (or I must really feel like it). Being stuck at home and changing into a new pair of sweatpants from the other made me wish for a more dramatic change. And so, as many people did in lockdown, I decided that dyeing my hair would be a nice little adventure. For this big change, I wanted to go for the ammonia-free and botanical route and hence, I chose henna.
So really, what is henna?
Henna is one of the oldest known pigments in the world and it is used to dye or tint hair, skin, fabrics and many other things. It is made out of a plant aptly called the henna tree or its botanical denomination the Lawsonia inermis. The leaves of this tree are dried and crushed to dust, from which to powder is used to create dye.
Henna is mostly used in the Middle East and Asia to dye fingernails, hair or skin in the characteristic shade of warm brown that comes from the red-orange pigment lawsone. Speaking from personal experience, the first thing that comes to mind when one mentions henna, especially if it is from a Turk, is traditional “henna nights,” a kind of bachelorette party so to speak. As part of a classic ceremony accompanied by an emotional song and a tray of henna, the bride-to-be gets the palm of her hands marked with a bit of its dye with a gold coin wedged inside. Friends, family and guests are also encouraged to paint a bit of the henna on their hands as well.
Probably the most popular and well-known way henna is used is mehndi (as is widely known by its Hindi and Urdu name) to create intricate designs on the hands. While a henna night is only one example, decorating the body with this natural dye is deeply rooted in many religions as well. Even ancient Egyptians used it to mark the hands and nails of a person before they were mummified. The actual origins of the dye, however, haven't been tracked down.
While henna itself is a dark green color, it gives an orange-copper color to the skin and hair after being mashed and it starts to release lawsone. Henna is not solely used for vanity, however, as it also has traditional medicinal uses It is employed as a healing agent to soothe burns and eczema, as well as a coagulant for open wounds. Henna also helps hair look and feel thicker, silkier and it helps it recover. Speaking of hair, it is also said to help with dandruff. Though this is true only for natural henna and not the black stuff used purely for decorative purposes. Other ingredients can be added to henna change its properties but these can cause allergic reactions. Black henna is also not advised to be used on hair.
Before you dive in to dye your hair with henna or try out some body art to create beautiful designs on your body (which can last about 2 weeks when fully cured), you will want to test it on a small patch of skin first. The inside of the elbows or the back of the ear is a great place to try it out. After applying some and waiting 24 to 48 hours and you have no negative reactions, you can proceed.
Dyeing your hair with henna
I have brown hair, which has a tendency to turn lighter in places if it gets enough sunlight and having recently joined the over 30s club, I have come across some strands of gray hair that have nestled their way onto my head. Henna makes a great and unusually bright orange that mixes with my brown hair turning into a deep auburn that I absolutely love! So, do you want to give this a try? Here is how you do it:
The basic “recipe” would be mixing the henna powder with some water and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Mix it well, gradually adding the water or powder until you get a thick paste. Make sure the paste is not too thin otherwise it won't stay on your hair or head. When the texture is similar to that of a clay mask, plaster it onto your head, making sure you cover your roots well. Once done, wrap your head up in cling film and let it cure for a minimum of 5 hours. The longer you leave it, the more intense the color will be. Some even leave it overnight. Of course, a major factor is the quality of the henna itself, which you should be able to determine during your patch test.
Wearing gloves and an old top is a must. The henna mixed with the oil will stain other things as well so you might also want to cover the floor. The color bleeding that will happen after washing your hair, however, can be easily washed off. I tested this by awaking to horrific-looking sheets after sleeping with wet and freshly dyed hair but luckily my pillow covers returned to their fresh selves.
How can I make the color darker or lighter?
For a darker tone, swap out the water for black tea or you will get the darkest tone of red by cooking fresh walnut peels (the green shells over the actual nut), although even the normal shells will help in achieving more depth. The longer your tea or walnut peel water is left to brew, the darker the result will be. For lighter colors, you’ll need to brew chamomile and use that as your mixing medium.
The most important thing here is to test it on some strands beforehand to avoid surprises. I knew what I was getting into as my mother has been dyeing her hair with henna for years and have followed the process many times. As another note, the color also darkens with time and loses its intensity in a few weeks.
While I was researching henna, I saw that it is used to dye fabrics as well. As an avid crafter, I had dyed my cotton Aida (a special cloth for cross stitching) with tea leaves and coffee to achieve darker beige tones. With henna, however, you can achieve more muted orange colors, depending on the fabric you choose and how long it has been cured.
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