Henna vs Commercial Dye

By Nicole of HairLiberty.org

Henna is a plant that grows in the hot, dry climates of the Eastern hemisphere. For decades, women from North Africa, India, and the Middle East have used henna to stain their hair, skin, and nails. The red henna dye is contained within the leaves of the plant. After the plant is harvested, the leaves are dried, ground, and sifted into a flour-like powder. In the last few years, henna has become a popular treatment option for African American women seeking more natural remedies for their hair. Check out the most frequently asked questions.

Is henna safer than commercial hair dye?

Yes, but it’s very important that you only use 100% pure henna. Low-quality henna mixtures may contain additives like PPD to make the dye stain stronger and darker. Dye additives may cause allergy problems or react with chemicals that have been previously applied to your hair. Unfortunately, the FDA has approved henna for use as a hair dye, but does not regulate its safety. So, the seller of the henna is the only one who really knows the quality of what you’re purchasing. Mehandi.com and LUSH Cosmetics are two suppliers known for high quality.

Henna is gentler on your hair than permanent hair color because it only deposits dye on to the surface, not inside the cortex. The effects from henna are most similar to semi-permanent hair color. Both are safe enough for fragile African American hair.

Can I get the same color results using henna as with commercial hair dye?

Maybe. Pure henna powder can only produce a red to orange-red color. Different crops (depending on location) produce different levels of red, ranging from auburn to cherry. If you see henna advertised as producing black or brown shades that means the henna has been mixed with some other substance. For example, henna is commonly mixed with cocoa powder to produce reddish brown.

Since henna is a depositing dye, it cannot lighten your hair…only bleach can do that. If your natural hair color is dark black, henna may not show up at all or it may produce a red shimmer.

If your natural hair color is dark brown or lighter (including grey), you are likely to see a color change after your first henna application. The color should be subtle, but it will increase in intensity after every treatment.

If your hair is bleached or relaxed, your hair is more porous. Extremely porous hair absorbs chemicals more easily and the henna may absorb into the hair cortex instead of just coating the outer shaft. The color may still be subtle, but definitely noticeable in direct light.

*Henna is a very inexact method of coloring your hair. If you really want a substantial change in hair color, you’re better off visiting a licensed cosmetologist.*

Will henna loosen natural African American coils?

Sometimes. A quick Internet search produces thousands of results on the subject. The only thing we know for sure is that everybody’s experience is different. If you want to loosen your natural coils, you can experiment with henna. Any effect will happen gradually. Most women who report looser curls say that it took 3 or more treatments to see any difference. However, if you truly wish to transform Type 4 coils to looser curls, a chemical treatment (applied by a licensed cosmetologist) will deliver more significant and uniform results.

How do I get the most out of my henna treatment?

First, purchase your henna from a reputable supplier (see above). To get the most value for your money, choose pure henna with high dye content. Typically, 100 grams of pure henna only contains 2 or 3 grams of dye. The rest is just ground up henna leaves. So, for the most effective treatments, you definitely want the highest dye content available. Ask your supplier which henna they recommend to cover greys because that usually means maximum dye content.

When working with pure henna, the liquid that you use to help the dye release can impact the treatment results. An acidic liquid will help the dye release faster. Aloe vera juice is a great choice because its pH is low enough to smooth your hair’s cuticles without making your strands stiff or dry. Always condition your hair after a henna treatment, even if it already feels soft.

Henna treatments have been done by North African and Indian women for decades with little to no instruction. Unless you’re really hoping to achieve curl loosening or a color change, feel free to experiment by adding Ayurvedic herbs to your mix (supplier websites usually offer plenty of recipes). When attempting to change your curl pattern or hair color, keep it simple and just add an acidic liquid. A batch of high dye content henna can quickly become low dye content if you add too many oils and herbs to the mix.

The biggest advantage with henna is that you can do it yourself. Your henna supplier will give you all the instructions you need for a successful treatment. Whether your hair is natural or relaxed, a properly applied henna can add shine and softness to your hair. You can’t count on any other benefits, but feel free to try it a few times and see what you get!

Great piece! Ladies, what are your thoughts? Have you used henna simply for its dyeing properties? Do you prefer it over commercial dye?
For more interesting hair articles check out HairLiberty.org.

Black Girl With Long Hair

Black Girl With Long Hair

Leila, founder of Black Girl with Long Hair (April 2008). Social media, pop culture and black beauty enthusiast. bell hooks' hair twin...


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41 thoughts on “Henna vs Commercial Dye

  1. I have been debating about trying henna bc my semi-perm hair dyes dont bind to my greys very long. Ive been told my hair is so dark and has low-porosity so thats why even the permanents barely color my greys! I stopped using permanent bc I learned they contain ammonia & peroxide to achieve the permanent color binding. I decided anything that pentrates my cortex to work isnt hair healthy.
    Someone said I could STRIP my hair to make it more porous to color but thats a HELL NO! Im not breaking down my hair for a color! Then I heard about henna but also heard its permanent, not an exact science and it can dry your hair out. I don’t need the hassle. & i dont like the finality of permanent color.
    Right now i only dye the very front (3-4 inches) of my hair bc thats were the grey is springing up like crazy and the dye lasts for about 3-4 washes before it starts to fade! I think id rather dye my front every 3-4 weeks than to try henna. My hair is kind of fine(mixed grades of hair) & the front seems to be more fragile than the rest of my head so I think I’ll play it safe. Besides I feel better about my semi-perm bc its ammonia & perioxide free & i DC tha hell outta my hair with every treatment! My hair is thin in the front but Im attributing that to YEARS of pulling my hair into tight ponytails, always overprocessing my front when i used to perm for that “perfectly flat smooth result” and then using super HOT flat irons on the front to smooth my edges after my fresh perm started to revert!yikes! I’m sure all that abuse damaged by scalp & my hairs ability to rejuventate so it breaks easily and grows more slowly. The use of a harsh dye would be a bad idea on top of all that!
    As a side note, I remember back in the day when girls used to spray perioxide on their hair to get blond streaks or to change their entire hair to blondish! Nobody knew what damage that pure perioxide was doing to their hair…wonder what those girls hair looks like now? Know better, do better…

    • I started getting grey hair early and found that regular dye didnt last long on it. So I did try henna and it works great not only did it turn my grey hairs red it didnt fade or wash out. So yes henna will cover grey hair very well infact since I started using henna in December I havent seen any more grey. Make sure you use body art quality it gives more color. Hope this helps

  2. I have been trying to grow my hair for over 2 years so far from a shaved mohawk style to normally long hair and it has only reached the top of my shoulders right now, which means it grows extremelly slowly. I have the impression that commercial hair dyes slow down this procession even more and sice 2 months I use henna instead. It doesn’t actually helps my hair grow faster but keeping it healthy means less time to reach a back lenght.

  3. Almost two years ago, I used to henna my hair when I first did the BC and became natural. I soon got bored with it and missed having my wild colors, so I dye my unhenna’ed hair now. I never had a problem with color breaking off my hair, but I am vigilant about taking care of it. Personally, I love the versatility of haircoloring with permanents, but if your hair isn’t up for it, I would advise against it and go with the henna instead.

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  5. Oxidizing agents are usually hydrogen peroxide, and the alkaline environment is usually provided by ammonia. The combination of hydrogen peroxide and the primary intermediate causes the natural hair to be lightened, providing a “blank canvas” for the dye. Ammonia opens the hair shaft pores so that the dye can actually bond with the hair and speeds up the reaction of the dye with the hair..’

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