How to Use Henna for Hair 101

Henna hair
March 25, 2020

DISCLAIMER: This post is for informational purposes only. I am NOT a Doctor, Chemist, or Color Specialist. All of my information was derived from Google and trial. Individual results will DEFINITELY vary.  Also, before you begin, please note: Henna is permanent on hair. It will fade somewhat, and it can be bleached out (ugg!), but's gonna hang on till it's cut off. Also, if you mess it up, your hair stylist will chastise you forever and use you as a cautionary tale to others...Just so ya know ;)

  In 1992, my senior year of high school, I had a Spanish Exchange student living with me. She had been in my home all of two months before she was asked to go to the Reunion Tower (you know...the big ball on a stick in Dallas?)...Every teen in my generation wanted to dine there (the restaurant ROTATED!!! IN THE SKY!!!), and I had yet to experience it myself. The night of her date, she got dressed up, met her new boyfriend at the door, and walked out for a lovely evening. I was jealous as heck. (Sorry, Erica...I was...)

Here we go, 21 years later...We've made up since then...


After a short pity-party, my mom suggested that I just needed a change. So, we went to Sally Beauty Supply, bought Miss Clairol Red Ginger 47R with a 20 volume developer, and painted the town (or at least my hair) RED. And I haven't seen my natural hair color since...  

But NOW that I know a bit more about ingredients and chemistry, and the suspected potential effects of long-term exposure to permanent hair dyes (I'm sick of reading about it, but here ya go, in case you're curious...herehere, and yucky here. ), I decided to ditch the dye and check out a natural solution:


Let's take a quick look at how henna vs. synthetic hair dyes work: {Nerd Alert...ZZZzzzzzzzzzz}

Permanent synthetic hair dyes use ammonia to open the cuticle (the protective outer-layer of the hair) to get to the cortex (where your hair's pigment...melanin hangs out). I'm imagining an umbrella opening to reveal the post. Or that air vent blowing Marilyn's dress up to show her legs. I'm's just how my brain works...

Hydrogen peroxide is used to bleach out melanin in the hair shaft, leaving the strand colorless. When the natural pigment is removed, synthetic dyes penetrate the cortex, depositing the desired color. Extra ingredients are added to the product to lower the pH of the hair shaft, and the cuticle with it (it closes the umbrella). Read more about it here if ya like.

(Note: as synthetic hair colors fade, the bleached hair shaft is revealed, which is why hair looks lighter and dull as time passes from color application.)

  Henna actually penetrates the the cuticle (protective outer-layer of the hair) and bonds with the keratin of the hair, not the cortex. No lifting, no bleaching or lighting occur during the henna-dying process. Hot water can speed up the activation process, and teas added to the hot water can brighten or add warm tones to henna. But all-in-all...that's all it does: stains the outer layer of the hair strand. (Note: as henna fades (which takes a seriously long time), whatever was previously the hair color is STILL the hair color. Henna does not affect the cortex, where the melanin rests.)  

Now, let's talk about what Henna Can and Cannot Do:


  • Highlight (not lighten, but emphasize) dimensions that already exist in hair
  • Give hair very long-lasting pigment
  • Color hair varying shades of red, dependent on person's natural hair color base.
  • Temporarily Dye skin (this is the ingredient used in Mehndi's really beautiful, if you ask me....)
  • Henna tattoo BEFORE the henna paste is rinsed off. 
  • Make you LOVE your hair, and every other head of red that you see.
  • Cause attention everywhere you go ;) I've been red for 24 years, and it's only been since henna that people stop me to compliment my hair color- no idea why...
  • Cover grey hairs...there's a trick to it, but it'll work if you do it right
  • Be applied over or under synthetic hair dye (but give it several least a month... before doing so)
  • Cause a mild allergic reaction, if you are allergic to henna. Natural ingredients, just like synthetic ones, are sometimes allergens to some people. Symptoms are itching, burning, swelling, redness, (and more severely), tight chest, wheezing, and coughing. If you experience this within the first hour of application, or within 24 hours, you are sensitive to henna, and cannot use it. Patch tests are VERY important with the use of any hair color application, including henna.


  • Blend hair color. If you have multi-toned hair BEFORE henna, you will still have it after. It will not even tone.
  • Lighten hair tone. Henna is a deposit-only.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY: Make your hair melt or burn. If you have heard/ experienced this with henna, you DID NOT have real henna in your hands- it was "Black Henna"-a blend of the (very toxic) chemical p-phenylenediamine (PPD) with or without henna in it.Don't ever use that stuff- it's nasty on every level in my opinion, and can cause SEVERE, long term allergic reactions. (Don't google pics of black henna reactions- you can't unsee that stuff. Take my word on it.)
  • Also, the use of PPD for tattooing purposes is illegal per the FDA. The problem is, if you don't know who the supplier for your henna is, they can pass on tainted "henna" to you, and you may not know it. This is the most important statement in this article: KNOW YOUR HENNA SUPPLIER. You can usually tell it's fake if it has other ingredients besides the word "henna" or "Lawsononia Inermis" (the scientific term for henna) on it. You might see chamomile or tea or coffee in the ingredient list, which is fine, like here, from LUSH, but generally, it should just say "henna". (LUSH's henna ingredients list their"perfume" as a natural ingredient, so I am assuming they're using essential or plant-based oils for scent. Not sure, though.)  Also, more easily recognizable, true henna for hair coloring (and tattooing) will look dark greenish brownish red when mixed, and will leave a stain that is light to dark brownish red on the skin. If your henna tattoo is black upon application, and leaves a black tattoo, it's the fake PPD stuff. (The pic of Christian's henna on her arm was taken before the henna was rinsed off to reveal the actual stain. It's not black- it's a dark greenish brown. Just so ya know...) 
  • This website has some pretty good, detailed info on henna. I haven't tried their product yet, but they seem to know their stuff. Read more about fake, or "compound" henna here. 
  • But most of all, READ YOUR HENNA LABELS AND KNOW YOUR SUPPLIER. It can save you from severe contact dermatitis, and a life-long battle with skin allergies. For Real. Watch out. 
  • And if you have already used fake henna, and want to cover it, consult your hairstylist by letting her/him know what you used- coloring over it too soon could cause you to leave the salon bald. For REAL. 


Henna is used very specifically when you want your hair to be RED. The tone of red will depend on the color of the base that it sits upon: 

  • Blond hair will be strawberry blond to orange red, depending on processing time
  • Light brown hair will be red or auburn 
  • Medium brown hair will become auburn
  • Black hair will have red highlights in the sun (they say you can process henna with red wine to get mahogany tones- I haven't tried it though)
  • Gray hair will vary from bright orange to bright red to auburn (gray hair needs LOTS of know-how to get the correct shade- I blend mine with indigo to get my color *more about that in latter post)


 Is Henna for YOU? 

I'd like to make a list of WHO henna works best for:

  • Those with virgin hair
  • Those who want RED hair
  • Those who have NO multi-tone issues (henna won't even out hair color)
  • Those who don't want to change their hair color with  the seasons
  • Those who want to stay away from the dying agent, PPD in permanent hair color, as well as ammonia and hydrogen peroxide
  • Those who are fully committed to the natural movement, and can hang with weird ways of doing things

And here's WHO would regret henna:

  • Those who like to change hair color regularly
  • Those who have bleached/ overly processed hair (although Cassia Auriculata, mistakenly called "neutral henna", is great for conditioning processed hair...won't color it though.) *NOTE: I have synthetically colored my hair since 1991, and have had no adverse reactions to henna over hair color, but according to lots of people online, it takes several applications of henna on bleached hair to get it just right.)
  • Those who aren't used to DIY hair color
  • Those who want to blend multi-tones of hair color
  • Those who DON'T want to have red hair for a long, until it grows out or is cut off...
  • Those who don't fully understand WHY they would choose henna over synthetic hair color.

Henna for hair coloring is a commitment. If you don't like your particular shade of red achieved with henna, you can correct it by adding other plants, like cassia or indigo, and reapplying it. But in general, you won't be able to completely remove your henna color without time or scissors or bleach. 

One final note: One of my BFFs is my hairstylist, and she applies my henna for me. She knows my long term desire is to keep it red (auburn), and natural, and she knows we are doing this until I decide to go full-on gray. I love working with her, because our combined knowledge of synthetic dyes and henna allow us to achieve perfect results every time. If you have this type of relationship with your colorist, perhaps he/she would be amiable to a similar agreement. It would be VERY beneficial for you to have professional help with henna application. 


Henna is not scary or disastrous (unless it's the fake stuff), but most hairstylists hate it because correcting it is a beast. And requires lots of bleach.

And if the client has used the fake stuff unknowingly, can cause the stylist to unknowingly burn the client's hairs off. And that stinks for everybody involved. So, make sure that you are fully aware of all the things I've just explained to you before choosing henna.  And if then, you think you're up for it, keep reading. 

Next up: I'm gonna post my personal experiences with henna, along with how I do it, and a TON of disclaimers attached to it.

Again, henna isn't for everyone, but if you meet the criteria listed above, you'll LOVE what henna can do for you. So- Here's another disclaimer to get us moving on: 

All information provided on this website is for informational purposed only. Neither Keri Lehmann or Savvy Bohème LLC nor any of its entities are responsible for damage incurred by practicing information provided. Reader/ user assumes all risk in application of information, expressed or implied.

And finally: In Layman's (Lehmann's) terms, with multicolor: If you mess up your hair with hennait's on you. Capiche? Perfect.

Now that that's clear... See ya shortly! Tutorial in next post.