A Walk on the Wild Side

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Henna, or Egyptian privet (Lawsonia inermis), is a plant with a rich and varied history. Its use dates back to time immemorial. Originally found in North Africa, Australia, and Asia, henna has spread and naturalized in many areas of the world, including the subtropical regions of the United States.

Though we generally tend to think of it as a colorant, henna has a long list of medicinal properties and is still used in many parts of the world as an astringent for headaches, as a gargle for sore throats, and to treat stomach upset and pain. Though I’ve used henna primarily as an external coloring agent for hair, I’ve long suspected its powerful medicinal properties.

Choosing the right henna

It is essential to get henna from a good source. Poor-quality henna will not yield the dramatic lights that a good-quality product will. Undoubtedly, there are several good hennas that I don’t know about, but I have found that Rainbow henna and Persian henna are consistently good.

The basic shade of henna is red, and all henna has a whisper of red in it. But by carefully blending different parts of the plant that are harvested at different times, a whole range of colors is created.

Blond hair. I don’t recommend using henna on blond hair unless you want to go red. Even then, I would exercise caution. Since all henna–even the neutral and blond shades–has an undertone of red, blond hair and other light shades will pick up this red shade. And so-called blond henna doesn’t necessarily make blond hair blonder. It often makes the hair redder or darker. So if your hair is a light shade of blond, do not expect henna to lighten your hair–even if the package says blond henna.

Dark-blond to light-brown hair. You must be careful when selecting henna for light shades of hair, because the hair picks up the henna tones readily. If you want to just highlight your natural color, choose a shade that best describes your hair. For example, if you have dark-blond hair, use blond henna. If your hair is light-brown, use light-brown henna. A color selection that seems to be everyone’s favorite, and the one I certainly like the best, is a mixture of shades that creates a warm, coppery glow. I mix the following shades, but remember to adjust for your own natural coloring.

1 part neutral henna
1 part light brown henna
2 parts copper henna (use less copper to tame down the color)

Medium-brown to dark-brown hair. These shades are fun because you can be more daring and do so much more than you can with the more tentative, lighter shades. Look at the hair to determine the natural highlights, and select a shade of henna that accentuates the natural color. I find shades of red mixed with different tones of brown are beautiful. If the hair color has a lot of gold and copper tones, use copper henna. Here are some suggested formulas.

For reddish tones:
1 part medium brown
1 part red
1 part copper

For copper tones:
2 parts copper
1 part medium brown
1 part neutral to be conservative or 2 parts red to be wild

Dark-brown to black hair. Black hair generally has so much of its own light that henna adds little color, but it does condition and adds body. However, for a person with dark-brown hair, adding shades of bright-red henna can be just stunning.

People always react with “I don’t want my hair to be orange!” I can certainly appreciate that sentiment. Shades of dark-brown hair will never turn orange but will blend with the red henna to create rich auburns, fiery copper tones, and many other stunning colors. There are several shades of red henna available, such as burgundy and wine. They all have red as a primary color but shimmer with different highlights. Play and have fun with the shades. Experiment to find which color or combination of colors most suits you.

You might wish to begin by using only one color, then try combining shades. Leave the henna on for two full hours if you have dark brown hair. You need not worry about its being too bright. It won’t be. Henna was made for dark-brown hair. It colors it gorgeously. If anything, upon washing it out, you’ll wish it were brighter!

Gray hair. Most books and “experts” warn against using henna on gray or graying hair. It can, if done incorrectly, turn the hair shockingly orange. But applied correctly, henna can transform even the dullest silver hair into soft tones of gold and light strawberry red. The trick is to mix the right colors and to leave the henna pack on for only about thirty to forty-five minutes. If your hair is predominantly gray, use only subtle shades of henna, such as neutral mixed with a little light-brown and a dash of copper. Leave it on for about thirty minutes at first. The next time you do it, you can fine-tune the shades and decide if you wish to leave the pack on a bit longer. For gray hair that has not turned completely white but still has some of its original color, mix together:

2 parts neutral
2 parts light brown
1/8 part copper or blond

Note: Use less copper if you have more gray hair or prefer less coppery-red tones.

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