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Henna for hair - is it safe?

Reviewed by SarahK July 3, 2013 23 Comments

Maybe you’re going gray and aren’t ready to do so. Maybe you’re looking for a natural way to color your hair. Or perhaps you just want to spice up your tresses with a little red or chestnut hue. There are plenty of reasons why people consider henna when they are thinking about dying their hair. But what exactly is henna and how does it work when applied to hair?

Henna is a plant that is scientifically called lawsonia inermis. It is native to parts of Africa and South Asia, and has been used for centuries as a leather stain, but also as a tool to dye hair and skin (think temporary tattoos). The part of the plant that is responsible for that burgundy coloring is lawsone, a dye present in the plants’ leaves. When applied to the skin or hair, lawsone reacts with proteins, resulting in a semi-permanent stain. Benefits of henna for your hair include strengthening and shining properties.

There are plenty of other advantages to using henna, and not all of them are cosmetically based. In ancient times, lawsonia was listed as a medicinal herb; it is also known to repel pests and to act as an anti-fungal agent. There are numerous studies that demonstrate the positives of henna, including one that names lawsonia as an antioxidant. According to the study, extracts of lawsonia inermis “have a strong and significant positive correlation” to the radical-scavenging potential and cyto-protective efficiency against cellular damage. Another study claims that henna is antibacterial, antiviral, antimycotic and antiparasitic, offering the plant as a naturally available alternative to many synthesized medicines. More studies claim that lawsonia inermis has wound-healing abilities (it may strengthen collagen and increase fibroblasts) and can even help in treating cancer.

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But with all of this good news regarding henna, why does the FDA feel the need to approve its usage on hair but not on skin? After all, I am certainly going to think twice about applying the dye to my hair if there is a reason I am not supposed to put it elsewhere. According to the FDA, other ingredients are often added to the naturally reddish/brown henna in order to make its effects darker and longer-lasting. This type of dye is often marketed as “black henna.”

Technically, black henna is not henna because it is not a natural plant derivative; instead, it often contains coal tar, acetone, lighter fluid, turpentine and PPD (p-Phenylenediamine), which Marta discussed in a previous article on hair dyes. The ingredient causes allergic reactions such as dermatitis, eye irritation and tearing, but may cause more severe reactions, including asthma, renal failure and high levels of toxicity. And once you are sensitized to PPD, it becomes a lifelong issue, meaning that you may have future allergic reactions to everything from perfumes to sunscreen to printer ink. Essentially, the FDA says henna is okay in your hair because it will not come into contact with your scalp or other parts of your skin for long periods of time, if at all.

Still, it is concerning that henna can be considered dangerous in any regard. In fact, the Directorate-General for Health and Consumer Protection (European Commission) does not believe that there is enough evidence to label henna as being safe at all, even for use as a hair dye. And there are studies that show cause for concern when it comes to lawsonia inermis - many claim that temporary henna tattoos cause dermatitis and other ailments. However, these studies only cited henna applied to skin as being an issue, not hair dye. And the studies note that pure henna rarely causes reactions of any kind; it is the PPD-infused impostor, black henna, that is the problem.

So, in order to be safe, stay away from any henna products that promise to turn your hair black (except for indigo-based products, which are safe and often mistakenly labeled as black henna). Real henna only stains hair and skin orange, red, burgundy, brown and like colors – never black. There’s a good chance that any black henna products you buy have PPD in them. And even if they don’t, you know that some unnatural ingredients were added in order to alter the henna’s natural color, so it’s probably best to steer clear of these items.

If you’re interested in safe henna products, however, check out Surya Henna Brasil Cream, a reader reviewed and recommended product. And be sure to leave a comment if you’ve tried other safe, effective henna hair dyes.

Ingredients in Surya Henna Brasil Cream: Deionized Water, Dipropylene Glycol Methyl Ether, Genipa Americana Extract, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetrimonium Chloride, Orbignya Oleifera Seed Oil, Glycerin, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Essential Oils (Rose Flower, Canaga Odorata, Jasminum Officinale and Santalum Album), Achillea Millefolium Extract, Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf Extract, Arnica Montana Extract, Bertholletia Excelsa (Brazil Nut) Extract, Chamomilia Recutita (Matricaria) Extract, Corylus Rosatrata (Hazel) Seed Extract, Daucus Carota Sativa (Carrot) Root Extract, Euterpe Oleracea (Acai) Fruit Extract, Lawsonia Inermis (Henna) Leaf Extract, Malphigia Punicifolia Fruit Extract, Malva Sylvestris Extract, Paullinia Cupana (Guarana) Fruit Extract, Phyllanthus Emblica (Amla) Fruit Extract, Ziziphus Joaseiro (Jua) Extract, Aminomethyl Propanol, Sodium Citrate, Benzyl Alcohol, Dehydroacetic Acid, HR Red 3, HC Yellow 2, HC Yellow 4, Disperse Black 9

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  • December 25, 2016

    by Draconis

    I have used all natural organic henna powder from an Etsy shop called EarthHenna, just mixed it up with water and let it set for 2 hours then applied. Rinsed and shampooed after 3 hours of it being on my hair and it is glorious! Nothing but pure henna and water, I have sensitive skin and had almost half of my hair fall out using a box dye from Revlon so this is a great natural solution! My hair is shiny, soft, and a beautiful color with no hair loss! Make sure you use Body Art Quality henna, so there are no other ingredients in it and it is finely sifted so it mixes well.

  • December 8, 2015

    by Dawn

    Thanks so much. Im just starting to gray and have been "hiding" it with blonde streaks but am concerned about using bleach. Im definately going to look into henna instead thanks to your trusted info. :)

  • October 17, 2015

    by Annette

    PS the most important thing I forgot to mention was that when I used the Suriya henna it made my hair fall out in clumps . But I kept using it because it was supposedly all natural . Now when I use real henna I lose like five hairs at the most . Suriya is supposedly a natural product? Look at the second ingredient in the Surya.. Di propylene glycol methyl ether, it's the second ingredient listed which means that there's only one other ingredient that there is more of in that product . Here's a link to the CDCs page about it under hazardous chemicals

  • October 17, 2015

    by Annette

    WHO CAN RECOMMEND a high – deposit indigo brand for black that is not crumbly?? I'm surprised the writer of this article recommends Surya. One of the main ingredients is a chemical Solvent. I used to use it religiously, because it really does color your hair pretty darkly. Then I noticed my hair was really getting a horrible texture especially the bottom half which had been exposed more often. So I researched each ingredient that was not an herb and found one of the ingredients was a petrochemical. I forget which one now. I now do the two-step process – first henna for a couple of hours with the heat cap. Then a few days later indigo, also with the heat. It works great! Henna Guys henna is fantastic, and very reasonably priced . It makes my hair a deep red. But their indigo does not deposit well . So I use Star West botanicals indigo . I don't like that one because it is grainy and crumbly and gets everywhere and does not stick on my hair too easily. But it does deposit very well

  • January 29, 2012

    by Michelle G.

    Faith... to get brown, you'll need to mix indigo AND henna together. You can also add Amla powder to get a more "cool" brown. Check out this link to read up on coloring with Henna (they have an ebook that I found very helpful!):

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