What Could be Greener, or….Redder?

red hair

My hair, two days after henna.

I like colors, bright, vibrant colors. That would include my hair, and I can get away with vivid hair as an artist in shows and festivals. All other times, my cats really couldn’t care less.

tortie cat looking up

"There are some things about you I don't understand, even after 19 years."

So what does hair color have to do with cats? It’s part of keeping toxins out of your home and away from your pets, and choosing products that involve no animal testing at all. Besides that, you’ll love their expressions when they look at me with goop in my hair…

More on my reasons for color at the end of this article, but after trying salon color and drugstore color, chemically-laden and cruelly tested on animals, and imported color, not so toxic nor animal-tested but inconvenient, I remembered henna, the ages-old dye made from dried, crushed and sifted leaves of the henna plant.

Lawsonia inermis, sometimes called mignonette tree, is native to and cultivated in the Middle East and sub-tropical regions around the world, so it’s also a totally renewable resource. This powder made from the leaves, mixed with an acidic substance such as citrus juice or tea or even yogurt, will dye anything it touches. That’s all there is to it, no additives or chemicals, the whole mix is actually edible, if you wanted to, but it’s certainly non-toxic and never tested on animals for any reason.

five cats watching

Five cats are totally aghast, well, sort of.

So, one day before a festival several years ago I plastered it into my hair and have used it ever since. The color is the most permanent I have ever experienced, even on my gray, which resists any other dye, and it also leaves the streaks in my hair which other commercial hair dyes had completely covered up. I am complimented by total strangers on my hair color, and since many people have asked me about it, and I like to be able to promote less-toxic animal-friendly alternatives in the home and lifestyle, I’ve decided to write a little article explaining its use and application.

Purchasing henna

You can find henna in many places on the internet since it’s also popular for body art and henna tattoos, but I purchase mine from a local Indian grocery. Even the Indian grocery I visit regularly stocks several different brands of henna, each in different packaging—boxes, bags, plastic containers—so I can’t recommend a brand. However, the henna should simply be “premium export quality”, and the container should only hold the dry powder of crushed leaves. The packages I purchase usually hold 150g or around 5 oz., and rarely cost more than $2.00. Yes, the price is right.

I have also found it at natural food stores and my local food co-op along with other “variations”. One thing to be aware of is that henna does NOT come in colors. It may vary slightly in its natural shade of red earth, but if it is a color such as “black henna” or “mahogany henna” or the package includes anything else in addition to the powder, it is not simply henna but has other substances included. Please read carefully, and understand that it may not react according to these instructions.

red hair

Henna after six weeks.

What color will it turn out?

It depends in part on your hair, though the color will always be a shade of red but fairly deep. My hair was always a warm chestnut, though that dulled when it turned gray, so I’m working with mostly gray hair, and it turns out a deep red with copper highlights and lighter streaks.

Preparing henna

True henna needs to be prepared and to sit overnight in the acidic liquid in order for the dried leaf powder to absorb the acid and release the color, so plan for this when you prepare. Also bear in mind that the paste should be on your hair for two hours minimum, up to six hours optimally, and takes some time to rinse out. Plan to spend some time!

How much to use

A little bit goes a long way too—I have thick, curly hair about halfway down my back, and I only need to use half the package once it’s mixed. I have prepared half the package and kept the other half for the next application, but it’s actually a little more convenient to prepare the entire thing and put the unused portion in the freezer, thawing it in much less time than it takes to mix and prepare.

If you hair is short, try using only one quarter of the package. You’ll know after the first time you apply it how much to use after that.

henna powder

Henna powder in bowl.

Mixing the powder

Try to use all non-metal implements, and remember that henna stains everything, deeper for the amount of time it sits on the item. I use one plastic bowl that is shaped for easy mixing and also has a lid so I can toss it in the freezer if there is a second batch left, and I use a plastic fork to mix and apply it because the tines both whisk the mixture and comb it into my hair. You can use other implements or even your fingers. Have latex or rubber gloves on hand as well.

You’ll need a half-cup or so of your liquid on hand. The powder is very fine and a rich green and smells like either hay or grass. Pour it into a one-quart bowl of your choice and add your liquid a tablespoon or two at a time, mixing thoroughly in between.

mixing henna

Mixing henna.

The resulting mixture should be smooth and thick, like yogurt or pudding—it is slightly pourable but neither drips nor sits in a glob. It’s important that it’s not too thin, like pancake batter for instance, or it will drip off your hair causing a big mess, or too thick or the color won’t release from the powder and won’t color your hair well enough.

I’ve also used plain yogurt to mix as yogurt is acidic enough and it also acts as a conditioner for your hair. It’s a little easier to apply because the mix has more body to it, and it’s a little easier to rinse out because it doesn’t stiffen as it dries on your hair. The resulting color is about the same. I try to remember to have it on hand, though I don’t always.

henna under plastic

Henna covered.

Cover the mixture with plastic, laying it on the top of the mixture or wrapping the bowl so it’s airtight and doesn’t dry out, keeping it in a fairly warm place, for at least six hours, preferably eight to ten. When it’s ready, the color will have changed from green to the characteristic rich red.

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