Dyeing your hair with Henna and Indigo: a slightly abstract open to Red and Black week

I recently started dyeing my hair with henna and indigo again after a short absence and had the idea of posting a probably overly detailed tutorial.  I decided to save it for Sophitique Noir's wonderful Red and Black week because you use henna to dye hair red and indigo to dye it black, and I am abstract and a little cheesy like that. I promise there will be outfit posts to follow. I have dyed my hair this way for more than six years, with a short break because I thought I wanted to go back to my natural hair color, and then to make sure I wanted to go back to it (more on that later).

Why or Why not dye with henna and/or indigo:
The benefits are that it is: not just not harmful but actually really good for most hair types, also better for your scalp, less toxic to you and the environment than chemical dyes, and can be fun!  Additionally I have read that these dyes act as mild relaxers on natural African hair (but can't corroborate that from my own experience, obvs.) and are obviously much less damaging than chemical relaxers.
The drawbacks: it really is potentially messy, kind of smelly, way more time consuming, and results are a bit unpredictable (no, you won't turn your hair green unless you have bought something that isn't really henna from an unscrupulous dealer).  Personally, I enjoy the process, it's kind of like turning your hair into an extended science process, and consider it self-care time.  The main thing to consider however, is that neither henna nor indigo can be bleached out and attempting to do so will fundamentally damage the structure of your hair (I had clumps of hair literally melt off in my hands).  They will fade somewhat (indigo more so than henna), and you can always dye over them to get a darker color, but generally the only way to get rid of the color is to cut it out.

I have started dying my hair dark auburn and will explain that process in detail, then will add notes on how to get straight red or pure black hair.

  • Enough henna and indigo (2:1 ratio) to cover hair (100 grams will cover the same amount of hair as a box of chemical dye, so guesstimate from there.  I use 250 grams to cover bra-strap length, medium thick hair)
  • Lemon juice, purchased,  hand-squeezed provides no benefit and must be carefully strained so in generally more trouble than it's worth for this. 
  • A glass or ceramic bowl large enough to hold the mix (preferably glass as ceramic can stain)
  • a wooden or plastic utensil for mixing.  I use wooden chopsticks (never use anything metal)
  • A truly ridiculous amount of plastic wrap
  • Optional add-ins that are worth your time: cocoa butter and/or shea butter, about 1/2 oz per 100 grams of henna to make the mix even more beneficial for your hair (I started using this after trying Lush's henna, which is mostly not worth it but adding cocoa butter was a good idea), and essential oils that blend well with the smell of henna, I like jasmine and ylang-ylang
  •  Add-ins that are NOT worth your time: spices such as cloves and ginger which are supposed to intensify the color but do no such thing and can irritate your scalp, some people use many different liquids such as tea, coffee, or wine, in the belief that this effects the color, but they mostly don't.  Wine gives the color a very temporary nudge in the direction of purple, but meh.  Coffee and tea don't seem to do anything and since I leave my henna on overnight and caffeine can be absorbed through the skin....
Choosing a brand of henna: what makes a henna good or bad is the concentration of pigment (something you can't tell until you have tried it normally) and the fineness or coarseness of the sift.  Most of the major complaints henna n00bs have can be attributed to buying henna that has a really coarse sift, which just makes it harder to get in your hair (especially if it is thick), harder to wash out, and generally give poorer results.  Most of the kinds you can find in places like Whole Foods (Light Mountain, Rainbow, or Avigal brands for instance) are super coarse and terrible.  In fact, if henna comes in colors, miss that brand, that is almost always a sign or crappy quality.  Sometimes the best are the kind you get for a few bucks at an Indian grocery (or Amazon), Jamila is for instance high quality always, just make sure it says "100% henna" or "100% inidgo" and do a test swatch when using a new brand.  Another reliable shop mehandi.com, actually they have the best quality of anything I've used; I am just usually too cheap.

Step 1: Mix henna with just enough lemon juice to moisten
add a wee bit of water and allow to sit for a few hours to allow the dye to release.

Step 2: Add indigo and cocoa butter then stir in enough very hot water (just below boiling) for the mixture to have the approximate consistency of sour cream

Step 3: Let cool for about half an hour, but less than an hour.  Stir in any essential oils at this point.

Step 4: Rub petroleum jelly along your hairline, ears, and probably whole neck

I am a cone head
Step 5: Put mix on your head.  Generally just section out your hair and, starting from the bottom/ at the neck squish mixture into your hair.  Make sure all your hair and the roots are well covered and pile your hair on the top of your head and cover with a crazy amount of plastic wrap.  Mild heat helps the process so, if you can stand it, wrap a towel or something around as well.

Step 6: Leave in for as long as you can stand.  Generally if you can't leave it in for at least an hour don't bother.  Fours hours seems to be the sort of max time for really intense color and longer than that doesn't impact the color that much.  I generally leave it on overnight, because that is the most convenient, and I have enough hair that the weight of it covered in henna paste is hard to deal with for any length of time in any position but lying down.

Step 7: wash out.  I find that after an initial rinse out, adding conditioner to my hair makes the rest rinse out actually very easily.  Dry and style as usual
I am modeling this hair with my Applejack Ketylo hairsticks to add something to the Red and Black theme)
I ultimately want it redder than this but just as dark, so I may dye with just henna next time, but not necessarily.  An important thing to know about henna is that the color builds so that the first time you use it, it may be a pretty mild color change, but do it a few times and it will be more intense.  This is a few years of pure henna dyeing, and it was more atomically red in real life.

To dye hair black: If your hair is light (let's say medium brown or lighter) follow the steps to dye with henna (the lemon juice, wait, add more water, put in hair), only leaving henna in for about an hour, rinse out, dry, then dye with indigo (mix indigo with just water, put in hair without letting sit) and let sit for as long another hour.  The pure color or henna is red-orange, and indigo is green-blue.  If you just use indigo on light hair, it will be green-ish (that's probably what happened to Anne of Green Gables, unless she had adulterated dye), so the henna cancels out that unfortunate tint to give a neutral black.  If your hair is darker you may be able to skip the henna step for a dark, blue-black.  Do a test swatch.

To dye hair red: Leave out the indigo (yeah, pretty obvious) otherwise following the above instructions and note what I said above about how the color builds.  Since henna is good for your hair, if you want intense red ASAP there is no reason you can't dye it ever weekend (or day to be honest) until you get it like you like it.
This is my goal color, FYI

Category: 4 comments


VictorianKitty (Sophistique Noir) said...

Your hair is such a gorgeous color; it's very inspiring and a great testament to the potential of henna! Question: you can't bleach it out, but can you color over it with chemical dyes if you end up not liking the color?

Oh, and those are the Coolest Hairsticks Ever!

Anonymous said...

Such a great shade of red. I have never tried dying my hair with henna. It must be much less damaging. I should probably trying dying it black with henna before I am all gray. I fear henna won't work on gray.

MindLess said...

Does your henna colour really build up over time? I experienced (within 6 continous colouring sessions) that I always get the same orangy colour. This eventually lead me to use "Special effects dyes" again (non toxic, vibrant colourations). I can't stand orange! ^^

Sabayon said...

VictorianKitty - Yes, absolutely! As long as the chemical dye you wish to use doesn't contain lighteners (which you normally only see in blonde shades) you could use chemical dye over henna the very next day if you wanted.

Siouxsie - From what I have read it does work on grey it just tends to give much brighter colors or require a two step process: http://www.hennaforhair.com/gray/index.html

MindLess - The color definitely builds for me, but I have also never gotten a really orange color. It is always more on the orange/copper than the purple side of red but definitely red, and unless your hair is really light to start with you will never get the aniline brightness of Special Effects :). The orange sounds like it might have something to do with the particular characteristics of the henna you were using. The region it comes from and growing conditions can have a huge impact on the dye content and take-up. One of the reasons I recommend mehandi.com is because they lab test all their product and can give a very accurate description of what range of color is possible from a particular type.

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