Henna Hair Dye 101: Everything You Need to Know Before Trying

Augusta Falletta
Henna Hair Dye
Photo: ImaxTree.

We’re not exactly first-timers when it comes to coloring our hair. For years, we’ve put our locks through bleaching, dyeing, highlighting, chalking and just about everything else under the sun. What we’re still curious about, however, is henna hair dye. Natural and a safe alternative for ladies who want to color their hair without damage or chemicals, henna is an excellent option.

To get the whole story on henna, we turned to, Leigh Casbourne, LUSH brand and product trainer, who explained every single thing we need to know. Keep in mind that there are many types of henna dye products, but LUSH is, of course, one of the more well-known brands to purchase from—and our go-to source for henna information.

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Who should be using henna hair dye?

LUSH’s henna hair dyes ($27.95 at LUSH) are perfect for anyone wanting to boost their hair’s natural shine or add a gloss of color with subtle shades of red, brown and black. Henna can be used on all types and textures of hair.

Henna covers the cuticle of the hair, varnishing it with rich color, all while maintaining the natural structure of the hair shaft. Unlike chemical hair dye, LUSH’s henna hair dyes do not penetrate the inner layer of the hair (called the cortex), which means that the hair retains its moisture and flexibility.

Henna is not one-size-fits-all color; the result depends entirely on the original color of the hair before application.

A lot of people say Henna hair dye is really messy. Do you have any tips for making it less messy to deal with?

LUSH’s henna hair dyes are a handmade experience in and of themselves, and you’ll want to take a little time to prepare before applying.

The preparation is very similar to all other hair coloring experiences. Prepare your workspace, like your sink and bathroom floor, by laying down newspaper to ensure that the henna doesn’t end up where you don’t want it to. As henna has been used for centuries as a body art medium, it will naturally stain and adhere to the skin. You can protect the hairline, around the ears and the back of your neck with Ultrabalm ($16.95 at LUSH), Ultrabland ($29.95 at LUSH) or a salve to prevent henna from dyeing the skin around the hair.

Wear an old T-shirt or something over your clothes to protect them from staining. Gloves are a must, to protect hands and nails from staining (we like reusable rubber gloves you can use over and over again for this purpose, so less plastic ends up in the landfill!).

Make sure to section your hair into manageable bunches, working from the back of your head to the front. This will ensure even coverage. When in doubt, phone some friends and make a night of it! Many hands make for easy application (and traditional henna application is still done among groups of women in the Middle East, Egypt and all around the Mediterranean). Your local LUSH shop will also be happy to apply your henna for the first time, and walk you through top tips as they do so, leaving you confident in your next application!

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What ingredients are actually in henna hair dye?

LUSH’s henna hair dyes are four unique blends of henna (lawsonia inermis), indigo (indigofera tinctoria), cocoa butter, raw materials, like coffee and irish moss, and essential oils. The henna and indigo work to dye the hair, the cocoa butter acts as a deep moisturizer for the hair, and the raw materials and essential oils promote scalp health and boost the natural coloring properties.

LUSH’s henna hair dyes are the product of Mark Constantine’s (LUSH co-founder) experience with herbal hair dye throughout his long trichology career and are his favored recipes. LUSH’s henna hair dyes are 100 percent natural, vegan and preservative- and synthetic-free.

Can someone with light blonde hair use it?

Henna is perfect if you are trying to achieve a shade of red, brown or black; it will not lighten the hair. Henna is tone-on-tone hair color, and it will stain the original color of the hair. In this sense, each application of henna is different and unique to the head of hair!

Our hair is composed of four colors: yellow, red, black and brown. Light hair will show very vibrant results with henna. Some color theory applies: Light hair is “yellow,” and adding the reddish dye of henna to it will result in an orange tone. Yellow combined with the blue dye of indigo may result in a greenish tone. If blondes are looking to go darker with henna, “filling” the hair first with an application of Caca Rouge is a good idea, and then proceeding with whatever darker color they might like. We always recommend a strand test, in every scenario, and especially when trying to achieve a much darker color than one’s original hair. If blondes want to stay blonde, however, LUSH makes some excellent products just for them, like Marilyn hair treatment!

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Will it damage your hair at all?

Henna hair dyes coat the cuticle, or outer part of the hair shaft, and do not penetrate the cortex of the hair, where the hair’s proteins and moisture are housed. This means that henna provides shine and condition to the hair, and the cocoa butter is deeply hydrating. Henna hair dyes are a great alternative to synthetic hair dyes because they do not alter the structure or texture of the hair, and have added benefits to the scalp as well.

Is it true that you should avoid permanent hair dye on top of henna?

Synthetic color, as well as perms and relaxers, lift the color to bleach, color or reshape the cortex inside. Henna coats the hair on the outside only, glossing over the cuticles. So, if you process synthetically, then henna over it, you will get a reasonably predictable outcome. The henna will varnish the hair tone-on-tone, meaning that if you have highlighted it, the highlights will still show up under the henna. However, if you henna first, you now have this varnish on the cuticles. When you synthetically process the hair, it lifts those cuticles, pushing the henna inside and chemically changing it, which can make for a very unpredictable and possibly unwanted outcome. If you must do both, do any synthetic process first, and henna after.

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Who should stay away from henna hair dye?

Those who foresee lots of chemical processing in their near future might want to hold off on henna, as we’ve discussed above.

How long does it last?

Henna stays rich and vibrant for 4-6 weeks, and you can layer the color as much as you want. The color will build after every application, making for dense, multi-dimensional color.

Why should someone use henna over another kind of hair dye?

LUSH’s henna hair dyes are 100 percent natural, vegan and preservative- and synthetic-free—and are a great alternative for those looking to color the hair without altering its natural structure and condition. Pregnant women who have been cautioned against synthetic dye may find their ideal hair color in henna. If you are feeling adventurous, want to enhance your natural hue or just want to interact with an age-old beauty ritual from times past, henna is for you.

A version of this article was originally published in May 2015.