A Walk On The Wild Side: How To Apply Henna To The Hair

Applying henna to the hair

Not an instant dye nor a neat and easy process, henna requires time and patience. It also makes a bit of a mess. Whenever possible, I host henna parties outdoors with a hose hooked to the hot-water faucet for rinsing. An all-natural substance, henna is good for the garden, but in quantity it is not so good for the bathroom drain!

Step 1: Prepare the henna pasteWith a wood or plastic spoon, mix the henna with very hot water in a glass, ceramic, or plastic bowl to make a thickish paste. A perfect henna paste is neither too dry nor too wet. If it’s too dry, it will be difficult to apply and will flake. It will also tend to dry the hair out. If it’s too wet, it will be running down your face and generally making a mess. So aim for the perfect mix, somewhat like a bowl of cooked oatmeal–easy enough to put on but not so loose that it will run down your face. Getting the right consistency is tricky at first. Keep mixing it with water until it’s smooth and creamy. It takes far more water than you’d imagine.

Step 2: Prepare the hairThere’s no need to shampoo hair before a henna treatment unless the hair is dirty. In fact, I discourage it; too much washing is one of the major causes of dry, unmanageable hair. Try applying henna just before you’re ready to wash your hair. The natural oils in your hair and scalp will help moisturize your hair and prevent dry, flyaway hair.

Dampen the hair thoroughly and towel dry. Massage a small amount of olive or jojoba oil into the hair, especially the ends.

Step 3: Apply the hennaPut on plastic gloves, or you’ll have bright-orange hands for about two weeks. Section hair and cover each section completely with henna paste. If you don’t get all the hair evenly covered, blond and gray shades will end up with a streaked appearance. Short hair is easy; long hair takes time. It goes faster if two people are working on it at the same time.

When all the hair has been completely covered, take more henna and “grease” it thickly over the hair. Pat it on thickly! You’ll look like a greaser and feel as though you have a thick skull.

Step 4: Cover your hairIf you have long hair, pin it up in a bun. Cover with a shower cap, plastic wrap, or a plastic bag. Then wrap with an old towel to hold it all in place.

Step 5: Check the timeThe longer the henna pack is left on, the richer and darker the color will be and the longer the color will last. The times given here are just suggested guidelines. Everybody’s hair is different and will take the color differently.

Dark shades (medium-brown, dark-brown, black) should leave the henna paste on for two hours.

Light shades (light-brown, slightly or predominately gray) should leave the paste on for thirty minutes to an hour. The longer it’s left on, the stronger the color will be (not always a desirable effect!).

Predominately gray hair (more than three-quarters of the natural hair color) should be allowed to dye for approximately thirty minutes the first time. Gray hair can be successfully hennaed, but careful color selection and timing are essential.

Step 6: Wash out the hennaWhen rinsing out the henna, you may feel as though you’re washing out fifteen pounds of mud and that it is never all going to come out. In the meantime, all that shampoo is undoing the fine condition you have just given your hair.

The very best way to get the henna out is to wash once just as you regularly do. If you normally follow with a detangling rinse, do so. Then, even though you can still feel henna in your hair, let your hair dry naturally. Any henna left in the hair will brush out as soon as your hair is dry. It is so much easier and better for your hair.

You generally don’t see much until after the hair dries. And then–watch out–you may be hooked! It will be beautiful, you’ll feel divine, and you’ll be another henna junkie!

Henna will fade dramatically after one or two washings, and then it pretty much “fixes” itself and will fade gradually after two or three months.

Excerpted with permission from Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health, and Vitality (Storey Books, 2001) by Rosemary Gladstar.

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Click here for the main article, A Walk On The Wild Side.

Rosemary Gladstar is an herb lover, educator, activist, and entrepreneur. She is the founder and president of United Plant Savers and author of many books including Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal (Storey Books, 2001).

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