The urge to go a little wild above the hairline seems universal and ageless. For at least 5000 years, people have turned to henna (Lawsonia inermis) for their hair dye. No color can change an image or free a spirit quite like red, with which most people associate the henna hues. But the coloring agent from this tropical shrub or small tree now covers the color spectrum, delivering black, tawny, even blond shades in addition to the traditional vivid red. Although henna has long been combined with indigo or logwood to obtain other colors, a spokesman for one firm of henna importers told us that they use the leaves, flowers, and stems from three different kinds of Lawsonia to produce basic red, black, and neutral hues. (Botanists today recognize only a single species.) Those colors are then combined in varying proportions to produce a palette of a dozen or so intermediate shades. The red comes only from the leaves.
Through the centuries, henna has been a traditional cosmetic in Middle Eastern and Oriental cultures, used for coloring not just hair, but nails and skin. Even today, the powdered leaves are used to create decorative patterns on the skin of Indian brides. It has also been used as a dye for wool, cotton, and silk; henna-dyed cloth was the wrap for some Egyptian mummies. The essential oil from the flower has been used in perfumery, and the plant reportedly has had medicinal applications for headaches, skin irritation, and several diseases including leprosy and smallpox.
Henna’s biggest appeal to the Western world is that it offers a harmless alternative to commercial dyes. Concerns in recent years about the safety of hair dyes containing coal tars has focused more attention on natural dyes such as henna that are extracted from plant parts. With a track record that dates to Biblical times, henna has been proven safe to use.
Henna colors by coating the hair strand, at the same time adding shine and fullness, particularly on oily or fine hair. Because it does not strip the natural pigment, henna is a good choice for the timid or for people who want only to highlight their original shade.
Henna dye comes as a green powder made by pulverizing the dried plant parts. Use 8 ounces, or 16 heaping tablespoons, for average-length hair, twice that for long or very thick hair. The powder is mixed to a thick paste with hot water and applied to the hair. (Wear rubber or plastic gloves unless you would like matching hands and nails, and always work over a sink because this is a messy process.) Cover your head with foil, a plastic bag or an old towel to hold in the heat. The length of time the henna is left on—generally from half an hour to two hours—helps determine the intensity and duration of the final color. Then rinse it well.
As it is unrefined, henna is not as predictable as commercial dyes. The results are sometimes surprising. A sage rinse may help tone down a hue that is too red or lessen the garishness that can result from overuse. People who buy the pure henna in bulk rather than one of the shades of packaged henna sometimes add spices such as paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, coffee or tea to obtain subtle shading effects and a distinctive fragrance. Acids such as lemon juice and vinegar in a rinse can enhance gold or coppery highlights.
The henna color will last for two to three months, gradually fading from the hair, unlike dyes that reveal conspicuous roots as the hair grows out. The frequent use of henna can dry the hair, but adding olive oil or egg yolk to the henna paste can counteract this problem. Wait until the henna is completely out of the hair before switching to a chemical dye or having a permanent because the chemicals may not penetrate the henna coating evenly.
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