Henna - When All Natural Isn't All That

Years ago when it was all the rage, I dyed my hair with henna. A friend and I both fell for the earthy packaging design and promise of all natural, plant-based hair color, so we embarked upon an afternoon of henna-dyeing experimentation.

The Process

Skin-protective gloves were donned as we mixed and applied the greenish-looking mud to our hair. Heated towels were wrapped around our heads and changed regularly to ensure maximum effect. Rinsing out the mixture proved to be time consuming, required extensive cleanup and resulted in permanently stained towels. All in all, it was a lengthy project. Nonetheless, we were pleased as punch at having achieved the coppery tone that was the 'it' hair color of the moment.

After that first experience, the thought of repeating the arduous and messy process kept me from more than a very few repeat performances. In retrospect, I'm quite pleased I was such a lazy susan, because henna carries all kinds of warnings I was blissfully unaware of at the time. 

How Henna Works

Henna is able to dye or stain because of its natural content of lawsone. Lawsone is an organic compound that binds naturally with protein, and then reacts with the keratin in skin and hair. It is this reaction that causes the coloring. This is nothing new. Mankind has known about hennas abilities to color since the Bronze Age.

Hennas Roots

As far back as around 1200 BC, henna has been used to dye skin, hair, fingernails, and even textiles such as silk and wool. It may actually be the first nail 'polish' in history. The ancient Egyptians dyed their fingernails with henna. Traces of it have been found on the hands of mummies that were several thousand years old. The decoration of skin with henna has functioned as part of religious, spiritual and cultural traditions for centuries.

Henna – Are You Sure?

The henna name is from the Arabic word hinna. Over time, this name has made its way on to a selection of products that unfortunately don't have much to do with henna. True henna has only one color – a relatively light terra cotta shade. Any other 'henna color' has additives. If you are presented with a range of 'henna colors' to choose from (such as 'black henna', 'burgundy henna', 'brown henna') it's probably a wise idea to be on your guard.

Some henna dyes have been found to contain additives that cause inflammatory or late-onset allergic reactions. These additives include such things as silver nitrate, carmine, orange dye, chromium, or the suspected toxic pyrogallol. Most of these extra ingredients have been found in pre-mixed body dye pastes, but that doesn't mean you can feel 100% confident if you're working with a powder.

Beware the VayCay Henna Tattoo

Having a henna tattoo done while vacationing may seem like a bit of fun, but be aware that some henna tattoo artists add petroleum to the henna so the color will 'take' better. Petroleum is absorbed into the skin along with the color, and can give serious and irreversible reactions that may show up within a few days, but may also take up to 10 years to surface.

'Black Henna' - The Worst News of All

'Black henna' in particular has been found to contain all kinds of undesirables that can cause severe allergic reactions and even permanent scarring. The most undesirable ingredient of them all is p-phenylenediamine – also known as PPD.

PPD is illegal to use on skin in most western countries. You will, however, find it in hair dye where it is allowed with a maximum dosage of 6%. Hair dyes that contain PPD also come with warnings that the dye must not touch the scalp and must be rinsed off quickly.

Black henna skin tattoo pastes have PPD dosages from 10% up to a whopping 80%. Couple that with the fact that the paste is left directly on the skin for up to half an hour and you are begging for trouble. A black henna tattoo may very well leave your skin blistering after a few days. To add insult to injury, sensitivity to PPD is lifelong. A person with PPD sensitivity may have future allergic reactions to everything from perfumes and printers ink to dyes and sunscreen – and even some medications will provoke reactions.

I'm Using 100% Real Henna. Then There´s No Worries, Right?

Well.... have you ever gone swimming in the sea? Then you've experienced firsthand how salt water wreaks havoc on hair. The henna plant – lovely as it is – has a very high natural salt content. So, even if you have done your homework and are absolutely certain you are using 100% natural henna coloring, you are not benefiting your hair or scalp with it.

A Final Caution (You Mean There's More?!)

There is a chemical similarity between the lawsone in henna and PPD. Cosmetic scientist Colin Sanders writes, in a post entitled Can Your Hair Dye Kill You? :
"The lawsone found in henna has enough similarities to p-Phenylenediamine that there is still a risk that it would provoke the same reaction."

Maybe I Missed Something

I really hoped when I started researching henna that there would be some redeeming qualities. After all, it's got history and that should count for something! Unfortunately, the facts seem to point in a different direction. Please drop a comment and correct me if I'm wrong, but from what I have been able to find, henna just doesn't have much to offer in the way of care or nurturing for either skin or hair.


Stephanie said…
Thank you for all the homework you do on these ingredients! I was toying with the idea of trying hennas again (like you I used them a couple times many years ago), but now you've saved me the mess (and the potential dangers)!
LisaLise said…
Hi Stephanie - thanks for your kind words! Yeah, I kinda can't help myself when I get curious about something and I seem to have a non-stop curiosity about cosmetics ingredients. I was actually a bit disappointed that I couldn't find anything better on henna--
By the way- have you had trouble posting comments to this blog? I've had to fish 2 of your comments out of a filter area-- can't for the life of me figure out why this system would think your comments needed to be 'parked' instead of published... Let me know if you've had probs.. ok?
Debbie said…
I've heard about some of these dangers, the PPD in particular. I've heard you should always use body art quality (BAQ) henna and that ensures it is pure henna. "Black" henna, "neutral" henna definitely not safe because they don't exist in nature. Henna cannot be black or neutral or blonde. Cassia can be used as a "neutral" treatment similar to henna for brunettes. Indigo is the name of the plant if you want your hair black. There are some reputable henna sources where you can get the pure henna, cassia, or indigo. I've purchased and used cassia from Henna Sooq and never had any problems. I'm highly allergic to all sorts of things as well as being chemically sensitive and didn't have any issues with the BAQ cassia. Rainbow henna and others you can buy in stores - I would steer clear of. As for the benefits, I've not used henna, but cassia benefits were worth the mess for me. My scalp issues subsided, my hair was thicker feeling and very shiny. It did seem dry at first but I did a coconut oil treatment overnight which fixed that.
LisaLise said…
Hi Debbie - excellent input, thanks for sharing! It was actually my hairdresser that got me started on this henna information excursion. Some of the things he was saying about it sounded so outrageous I had to check it out. Sounds like you have had some success using cassia, but you know, now you have me all curious about cassia.... I feel another research session coming up...
Anonymous said…
Hi Lisa! I've never dyed my hair, but I know that in Poland exists very popular company KHADI. They sell natural henna, cassia, indygo and some mixes of herbs that can colour your hair. On their website you can see the results of using their products sent by clients - http://www.khadi.pl/stosowanie-farb-khadi-przyklady :)

LisaLise said…
Hi Foster Marine, thanks for your input. It's a good idea to have a customer input gallery (I checked out the site), and it is admirable that someone is trying to offer safe henna products. It's a pity that this kind of thing is necessary though, don't you think?
Anonymous said…
After nice reviews about Khadi Henna, I purchased Khadi Henna Black and Dark Brown. Unfortunately I had severe allergic reaction. Later I found out it contains PPD and was told it contains more PPD than L'oreal hair dye (:.
LisaLise said…
Hi MsLucky Star - what a sorry thing to discover - and in such an unpleasant way! I hope you healed quickly.
Unknown said…
So what am I supposed to do about my grey hair??? I stopped using commercial hair dye a few years back but I really don't like looking ten years older than I am, which is what lots of grey does for you. Was considering trying black henna but was concerned about its ability to color resistant grey, but now I find out black henna is as bad as the commercial stuff. Thanks for that by the way. Does Indigo dye grey hair blue? Old lady blue hair would be worse than the grey.
LisaLise said…
Hey there Cora ktp - I sympathize! I got by for several years with the 'don't let the product touch the scalp' method. Have you ever had 'streaks' of color added to your hair? A section of hair is coated in dye and the section is wrapped in foil. With this method, the dye doesn't touch the scalp, but the main portion of hair is colored.

Whether you use henna or a traditional hair color,the result is a lovely nuanced color where only bits of the grey show through with this method.

Indigo might give you a blue hue.

I have been meaning to try a strong mallow infusion (as this is said to be strong enough to cover grey), but the mallow makes a very deep purple hue, so this might not be your best bet either. It's also quite messy (why I haven't gotten serious about trying this method yet).

Finally: there are some hairdressers now offering 'ecologically friendly' and 'all nature' hair dyes. Perhaps it would be worth a try seeing if there are any in your area?

Best of luck with it. and do let me know how you get on.
Jo said…
Oooo I love me a bit of henna, I have a lot of grey hair like Cora above and I wanted to colour it.... I tried Nutratint but that dried my hair out as the PH is soo high It damaged my hair and I also became sensitive to the ingredients. I shaved my head in 2013 and rocked that for a while.

I discovered henna again through online hair colouring research and came across henna for hair online, and that was a revelation. I understand the very real disasters for adulterated henna and also the long palaver mixing, waiting for dye release, application, rinsing, after care. However there is PPD in natural sources all around us, in bio available and non bio available forms, such as Orange peel.

For me, henna (from a single reputable source with traceability) applied with a piping bag to get to the roots, pH adjusted water to rinse and a 15min deep moisturising treatment, works for me. Repeated applications(every 6 wks) intensifies the colour so against my black hair, my greys are copper coloured. I've bought some indigo to use separately when I am bored of the copper and want a darker hue, but this will be another step and I'm all about the simple.

So in short I think for a whole hairdressing industry to sweep henna with the same brush is discouraging. It is a natural product and people will have sensitivites to it, patch test every batch like we are meant to with every new hair dye (Which we don't as we trust the big companies and hair dressers to keep us safe) Millions of men and women around the world use henna for cosmetic and topical medicine (helps to cool the skin and body, handy in hot dry countries) clearly they have the good stuff. It is for us to find the good stuff.
Wow I really didn't mean to rant...
Jo x
LisaLise said…
Hi jo - You are absolutely right about patch testing and using reputable suppliers - this is the way to approach henna to be sure. I have been meaning to revisit some of my research on henna and may just have to do an updated post.

Thanks for your input.