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Henna for hair - is it safe?

Henna
July 3, 2013 Reviewed by SarahK 25 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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  • June 24, 2017

    by Lisa

    I have lost a significant amount of hair from coloring and am looking for a safe easy way to color naturally....I keep getting conflicting stories. Anyone with the same experience have suggestions? I have very fine hair...

  • May 21, 2017

    by Cathi

    I cant believe this product, laden in chemiclas, is recommended as a natural hair color. Its no better ingredient wise, than any commercial hair color product. Truly natural henna hair color, will be just henna, with one ir two more natural plant spurce ingredients to alter the end color. I use Colora with great results.

  • 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 chemicalshttp://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0241.html

  • 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!): http://www.mehandi.com/shop/hennahairbook/index.html

  • January 29, 2012

    by Marta

    Hi Faith, this one from Surya comes recommended <a href="http://truthinaging.com/hair/natural-hair-dye-with-surya-henna-brasil-cream" rel="nofollow">http://truthinaging.com/hair/natural-hair-dye-with-surya-henna-brasil-cream</a>

  • January 29, 2012

    by Faith McCullough

    My hair is a beautiful white with dark black undertones in back. However, I am TIRED of white hair, and have dreams of going brown, again! What do you recommend i try? I want only natural ingredients like henna!

  • December 4, 2011

    by Michelle G.

    I began using henna again recently after I've become allergic to regular hair dye. I LOVE it and will never go back to anything else! It's VERY important to use Body Art Quality henna to get the purest form without nasty additives. There are many other natural ingredients you can use to get different colors: Indigo, Cassia, and Amla. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you go to www.hennaforhair.com to read up. Mehandi is a very good place to order, as is www.hennasooq.com. I have medium brown hair and wanted a great red... I use straight Jamila henna and get gorgeous results... so many people comment on my color and wonder how I get it. It covers my white hairs very well too. I mix up a batch and keep it in the freezer. Every 4-6 weeks when my roots need covering, I bring it out, slather it on, and rock out with it on my hair a few hours. If you're looking to increase shine, henna will do it! My hair always looks awesome right after an application. Check out the websites I mentioned to get tips on mixing and getting the color you want.

  • April 21, 2011

    by Oksana

    about every 3-4 weeks I glaze my light brown hair with "Auburn" Light Mountain henna. I release dye with lemon juice; mix with Aubrey GP conditioner and leave in my hair for about 45 min. I end up with beautiful shade of gentle golden auburn, and thicker, glossy hair.
    Commercial semi-permanent colors be gone!

  • April 21, 2011

    by Rainy

    I recently had a visit from Breast Cancer, and now that my hair is back.. of course its white. I didn't want to use dyes as you can understand why. I started looking at Henna's and found Lush Caca Noir, it gave me a nice steel sort of Dark Grey. I've also ordered from Mehandi, their Indigo. Its pure, it tones down the Purple that tries to bleed thru, but all in all I love using the Henna and indigo on my hair! Ilove the thickness, softness and manageability.

  • November 7, 2010

    by jessica

    l: i was looking around on that henna for hair website that the other two ladies posted about and on there it talks about mixing indigo with the henna to get more of the brown effect, there's also brown henna mixes that contain indigo so you may want to look into that. good luck! ^_^

  • November 5, 2010

    by Patricia

    I use only body art quality (BAQ) henna on my skin and hair with beautiful results. The website http://hennaforhair.com/ has all the information you need for buying and using henna. Mehandi.com is a great site to purchase henna and related products. This henna is a powder and requires a little more effort to mix and apply but it is so much better than anything you buy in a jar or bottle. It is organic and good for you and the earth. They also sell cassia, buxus, amla, and indigo as well as essential oils, shampoo bars, and lots of other related products. On the website you can see different mixes to make to get a range of reds, browns and blacks. They also have a henna forum for questions, shared experiences and advice.

  • November 4, 2010

    by A

    The surya product mentioned here is full of stuff that you can react to instead. The HR Red 3, HC Yellow 2, HC Yellow 4, Disperse Black 9. Are all chemicals a sensitive person could react to. Also several nut extracts.

    I use www.henna-boy.co.uk for natural products. Mark is super person to deal with and the website is full of factual information and recipes.

  • November 3, 2010

    by Tessera

    L - I have dark brown, greying hair and am allergic to regular hair color. I color my hair to blend the grey with a combination of henna, indigo and buxus from hennaforhair.com. Henna will ALWAYS color red. Adding indigo and buxus helps it tone more brown, but it's my understanding that if you use henna in the mix, you'll always get some copper/red highlights. Check out the website; it has a huge amount of info.

  • November 3, 2010

    by Jan

    Thank you for all your posts - I am not a henna user but have toyed with the idea for a while. I understand the color lasts a very long time and of course much healthier than the traditional chemicals used for coloring. I have finally found THE color that works best with my skin tone, etc., and the thought of attempting to match it in a henna is very daunting at present however I am not giving up on the idea and shall continue to chew on it!

  • November 3, 2010

    by L

    So glad to learn mote, ladies! Thanks for the posts.
    MC or anyone else, have you found a way to get back to
    dark brown hair using henna? When I use it, it always has
    a touch of copper/red. I would love to get back my dark brown again.
    Thanks,
    L

  • November 3, 2010

    by MC

    If you're interested in using henna and/or indigo for coloring hair, check out the site www.hennaforhair.com. It's full of useful information, including a forum where you can ask questions. You can also buy henna and indigo there. The resident expert there, Catherine Cartwright-Jones, seems like the most knowledgeable person in America when it comes to henna!

    I'm a brunette going gray. I don't use straight henna myself (the application time is a little too long for me). However, one of the more natural henna-based mixes out there is Logona Color Cream, which comes in a few colors. I use the Teak color, leave it on for 2 hours, rinse it out and apply a mixture of about 75% indigo/25% Teak Color Cream for another hour. This two-step process seems to cover the gray better than a one-step process.

  • November 3, 2010

    by Lynn

    For henna, cassia, indigo, etc I rely on http://www.hennaforhair.com/ They have tons of information on henna and application methods, they even have samples.
    Deoborah - for blondes you might want to try cassia, also available at hennaforhair.com
    I personally have used the "cinnamon" bundle with extra cassia and it was almost an exact match to my natural color.

  • November 3, 2010

    by irene harvey

    i have been using henna on my hair for nearly 40 years. the best pure henna is AVIGAL henna available at ball beauty supply. i used it initially to cover a few grey hairs (in my 20's!) & as my hair has gotten more gray, the henna effect is ever more spectacular.
    whenever & wherever (los angeles, nyc, new mexico, etc.) i have my hair cut, all the stylists converge on me & admire my coloring. it looks expensive because the covered gray is a slightly different shade. it costs me about $15 a year! it also makes my fine hair seem thicker. i wear it long & it is healthy. the color does not fade & i use red.
    when applying the henna it is fun to add various essential oils and/or other conditioning treatments. it's all win/win.

  • November 3, 2010

    by deborah rodell

    I am a natural blonde and going silver as I slide into an older version of myself. I have tried henna, not this kind but it turned my hair VERY RED...I wanted a hint and left with a Lucille Ball look. Are there any hennas that will just grace our blondes hair and not overpower it?

  • November 3, 2010

    by L

    How is the Lush on covering grey hair?
    Thanks,
    L

  • November 3, 2010

    by kannd86

    I have tried Lush's Caca Marron ( http://www.lushusa.com/shop/products/hair/henna-hair-dyes/caca-marron-mama ) with good results. It didn't change the color of my hair dramatically because I already have dark auburn hair, but it did add a red sheen that shows up great in direct light. The only negative I can think of is the application process. It is long and difficult to do by yourself. I would definitely try henna again, maybe this Surya product because the application seems simpler.

  • November 3, 2010

    by L

    The Surya is a good product. I used that for probably 2 years.
    I now use Morroco Method and like it better. I have used it for about
    As long. I like it better. It takes longer for application, but I think it is
    well worth it. I do my Moms hair as well and she loves it. It leaves
    hair softer feeling and also thicker feeling. It is like a great conditioner.
    I like their shampoos also. Don't have to shampoo as often and the hair
    actually feels fuller after a few days after washing. I am trying other shampoos
    right now, but the Morocco Method is amazing shampoo to go a few
    days without washing and still have so much body. It doesn't lather like a lot
    of other shampoos, but it does clean remarkably well.
    This has been my experience with henna. I also have super sensitive
    Hope this helps.
    L

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