How to Apply Henna to Your Hair at Home

Red is your colour!
a bowl of henna mehndi and lawsonia inermis leaves
© Can Stock Photo / bdspn

If you’re thinking of dyeing your hair but are hesitant about the chemicals in salon and drugstore fare, then henna may be a great option for you! A fabulous natural alternative to synthetic hair colouring, henna is a red dye prepared from crushing the plant leaves of Lawsonia inermis to a powder and making it into a paste called mehndi. In addition to ravishing red, henna can be mixed with other elements like indigo or cassia to make darker or more neutral shades of red. Used since ancient times in the Middle East and India, henna is also used in body art to create beautiful and intricate patterns that stain the skin with the dye. Treating your hair with henna isn’t difficult, but the process differs from regular dyeing in the time it takes, so some patience is required. Plan on people stopping you to compliment your hair!

Healthy henna benefits

In addition to gracing your crowning glory with gorgeous shades that you can't achieve with boxed drugstore products, henna is so safe you could eat it (!) and benefits the scalp by balancing the pH of the hair, thus helping with dry scalp and dandruff. Henna is also antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and detoxifies the hair shaft by removing excess oil but it also locks in moisture, helping to prevent split ends and breakage.

BEFORE YOU BUY HENNA

There are a lot of cheap, not so “edible” hennas out there, so choose good quality. Buy powdered henna only, not the pre-mixed liquids and pastes, and avoid buying it from a conventional retail beauty supplier, grocer, or even a health food store. Fresh henna powder should be a vibrant green, similar to spirulina or chlorella powder in appearance, and old, expired henna may appear slightly brown or dingy/ashy.

Inferior commercial henna, like so many cosmetic products, may contain additional ingredients to enhance its effectiveness such as coal-tar hair dye containing para-phenylenediamine (PPD) which can cause itching and blistering. Heavy metals, plants besides Lawsonia (not including cassia or indigo—see below), or other impurities may also be included, which could not only impact the colour of your hair, but your health. If it’s really low-quality, the colour may not take at all or it may result in one that you didn’t bargain for!

WELL, COLOUR ME HENNA!

Lawsonia inermis on its own will only dye hair red or shades of it and you cannot lighten your hair colour with henna. Indigo can be added for people with naturally dark hair or those who want to achieve a really dark red or burgundy. Cassia is added for neutral colour or just a little colour—more desirable for naturally lighter blonde hair or those who want a strawberry blonde result. There are products that combine these herbs together with henna or you can buy more than one colour and mix them yourself. Henna naturally brings out a variety of sparkling red highlights and does not look flat like boxed chemical colouring.

Amla powder (Indian Gooseberry)

If you want your hair to be even smoother, less red, or darker, or to cover grey hair or achieve an appearance of overall thickness, amla powder is your friend. It can also benefit the scalp and is antimicrobial too. You can buy it in capsules but getting the straight powder will save money—just remember that it's an herb and won't be at its best after about a year, so buy according to how much you plan to use it. Indian Gooseberry is also a supplement that’s high in vitamin C and is a great addition to smoothies and juices too!

DO IT, THEN DYE IT!

Find at least two days in which you can do the henna hair packs as it needs time to prepare, apply, penetrate the hair shaft, and rinse out. For example, make the mix on Friday night, apply on Saturday, chill on Sunday (or wear a hat!), and wash on Monday morning or later.


Strand test

Before going all the way with henna, always do a strand test! Mix according to the directions below and apply to a small bunch of hair with from a brush or comb or in an inconspicuous location on the underside of your hair. Let the paste soak in for at least an hour—covering grey hair may require six to ten hours for good results—then rinse well, using no shampoo. Wait up to two days for the colour to oxidize and reach its final colour so you’ll know if you should leave it on longer or not. You can store the rest in the fridge while doing this test or freeze for later use. If you have sensitive skin, you may also want to apply to small patch of your scalp and let it sit for 20 minutes or more to ensure you don't have a reaction.


Step 1: Making a mehndi

Henna and metal do not play well together, so do not use metal spoons or containers of any kind for mixing. Also avoid plastic, as it will stain and is worth avoiding in any case.

What you need

  • Glass or ceramic container—large enough to accommodate 4 cups with room to stir

  • Non-metal stirring tool (a chopstick is good)

  • Old towels and washcloths

  • Old sheet and clothes

  • Rubber gloves

  • Comb

  • Light, water-proof wrap for head

  • Henna powder (including indigo or cassia, according to the colour you’re aiming for)

  • Acid for dye release—apple cider or other vinegar, or lemon juice

  • Filtered or distilled water—do not use tap water

Optional

  • Amla capsules or powder

  • Oil for extra moisturizing and easier rinsing—olive, coconut, or avocado, e.g.

  • Aromatic herbs, spices, or essential oils (for enhancing scent)

  • Water-resistant balm (to protect skin at hairline)

  • Hair dryer for heat processing

Instructions

  1. In your container, mix one to four cups of henna powder with a corresponding one to four tablespoons of amla powder, if using. You will need at least one cup of powder for short hair, two for shoulder length, and up to four cups for longer or thick hair. It freezes, so don’t worry if you make too much.

  2. Bonus optional step: You can add in some aromatic herbs or spices to the henna as aromatherapy, to help diffuse the smell (it smells a little like hay), and to add some highlights. Use what you have in the spice cabinet! Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, chamomile, mint, lavender, paprika, allspice, chai tea, or whatever else is brown, red, or smells good! (I have even used curry!) A sprinkle to a teaspoon will suffice. Adding essential oils can also enhance the smell and help the dye stain hair better. Try adding a few drops of one or more of tea tree, eucalyptus, lavender, geranium, or cajeput oil.

  3. Add one teaspoon of apple cider or other vinegar per one cup of henna to help the dye release (especially important if trying to cover grey hair). You can also use lemon juice alone or in combination with vinegar. There is no need to be precise in this process—you aren’t making bread or a rocket, you are having fun! 

  4. Add in a teaspoon of oil to the henna if your hair is long, dry or damaged, or tangles easily, to facilitate rinsing later. Coconut, avocado, sesame, kukui, argan, olive, and safflower oil are all good choices that can boost moisture, add shine, and help the scalp be less itchy or flaky. Be careful of adding oil to the henna mix if your hair is naturally oily and/or very fine or thin, as it can take a few washings to not look like greasy. Adding oil is not needed for short hair unless the other benefits of the oil are desired.

  5. Slowly add water stirring to make a thick-ish paste about the consistency of mayo or pudding. You can also use coffee or tea at room temperature. I do not recommend using hot or boiling water, no matter what the directions say—it will release the dye too quickly and can make the final result look patchy (or just downright funky!).

  6. Cover the container (I usually leave the chopstick in it and wrap the cover around it) and let sit for at least an hour up to overnight on your counter or in the fridge. It may develop a slight crust—just stir it back in. Add more liquid if it becomes too thick.


Step 2: Dyeing for a beautiful change!

Make sure your hair is clean—though it doesn’t need to be freshly washed—and free from any product. Hair can either be wet or dry when applied but wet makes it easier.

  1. Comb hair and put on rubber gloves. Wear clothes that you don’t mind being permanently stained and cover the floor beneath you.

  2. Apply a water-resistant balm on the skin near the hairline to prevent staining if skin is lighter in colour but avoid letting it touch your hair.

  3. Stir the henna and add some more water if the paste has become very thick.

  4. Apply to ¼-inch sections beginning at the top center of the head directly to the scalp, pulling it through the lengths of the hair. Continue until entire scalp and strands of the hair are covered.

  5. Gently work henna well into the scalp. You may need to re-apply more mix to hairs that pop out around the hairline, at the crown, and around the ears. Cement it down! Gather all the hair and pile on top of your head.

  6. Now cover the entire head with a wrap that will retain the moisture underneath. Plastic wrap or an empty shopping bag are often suggested but be creative about finding something you can wash off and reuse next time! Don’t forget to cover the hair on the nape of the neck. You can also use wet paper towels and apply to hair line under the edge of the wrap to keep hair moist (totally compostable later!). Use an old washcloth to clean up skin around hair line and any henna that has dripped. The balm around the hair line can also be wiped away.

  7. Leave on for at least an hour, and up to twelve, as determined by the strand test done earlier. The longer your leave it on, the darker it can get. Consider sleeping with the henna on but be sure to protect pillowcases and sheets.

  8. For stronger red highlights, use heat from a blow dryer (from five minutes to half an hour) on your wrapped head to help the paste better penetrate the hair shaft. 

  9. Label and freeze any remaining henna in a suitable container for next time.


Step 3: Clearing the hair

It’s best to rinse in the shower rather than in the sink as the splash-back can become very messy!

  1. Gently rinse the henna from your hair. This may be a slow process so don’t hurry, be patient, and rinse very well. If your hair is long, thick, or curly, plan on at least ten minutes or more to fully rinse it out. Do not tug the henna through your hair as it’s fragile when rinsing.

  2. You can add a little sulfate-free conditioner to soften longer or thicker hair once the big pieces of paste have been rinsed, but do not use shampoo. 

  3. Once the larger bits and grit have been mostly rinsed out, use a comb (not a brush) to help remainder rinse out more thoroughly. Rinse repeatedly with cool to cold water until the water runs clear. Absorb excess water with a towel you don’t mind staining.

  4. Let freshly rinsed and hennaed hair dry naturally and do not wash for a day. It may feel a bit heavy and dry, and look somewhat coated and not-so-shiny at first, but the henna will oxidize and achieve its final colour somewhat over the next day.

  5. After at least 12 hours, shampoo, rinse until water runs clear and style your hair as usual. Use a dark towel when drying after the first henna shampoo as residual colour will lift away.

woman with beautiful red hair
Warley Venancio from Pexels

THE FINAL RESULTS

You will find your hair has more volume, is smoother, shiner, and thicker, with beautiful highlights and lowlights that are picked up by your natural colouring. The texture of your hair will not have the dried-out feeling that chemicals can give it and henna can make thin hair more manageable without hairspray, gels, and goopy stuff. Henna applications on thick hair can help it lay down better, reduce frizziness, and help the scalp feel better.

Maintaining a beautiful hue

Henna may gradually fade over four to six weeks but using a natural shampoo and conditioner in addition to a chlorine filter for the shower head will help preserve the colour. You can also add henna powder to your conditioner to give an in-between-treatment boost. If your hair is grey or you have drastically changed the color from your natural hue, you’ll likely need to reapply the henna packs every four to six weeks as you would with any other hair care colouring system.

If you find the colour isn’t dark enough, you can apply another henna treatment right away, but be aware that building the colour this way can cause it to become permanent. To prevent over-darkening, apply to new growth only for future treatments.


Thanks, I hate it: henna rescue!

If for some reason you are not happy with the glorious shade of auburn, chestnut, or strawberry blonde you now see glowing back at you, act quickly! There are few alternative solutions:

  • Wash with strong shampoo (read: cheap) right away by letting it sit on hair for five minutes, then rinse, and wash again.

  • You can also saturate your hair with mineral oil (or other oils, but mineral seems to work best) and let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes, apply heat to grab out even more henna and then wash out with the strong shampoo. Repeat with another round of oil and shampoo if needed.

  • Sponging clear alcohol like vodka or rum to the hair can also help lift the henna. Wash hair twice with the strong shampoo, thoroughly wet hair with alcohol, letting it sit for 15 minutes, rinse and then saturate hair with oil, let sit with heat for as long as you can, at least 20 minutes to overnight. Wash again, then condition if needed.

Do not use bleach or peroxides to lift henna! A horrible fate of an odd assortment of unintended and certainly unnatural colors will await you. Wait at least a week before performing any other chemical process on your hair and let your hair stylist know you have used henna to avoid any reactions with other products or hair processing techniques.


If you’re looking for a little (or a lotta!) pick-me-up that’s safe, healthy, and doesn’t damage your hair, henna is a great option and a good excuse to find a little indulgent you-time!

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