Dyeing with Henna for Healthier Red & Brown Hair

We love our red- and brown-haired queens. From Christina Hendricks’ rust-colored tones to Zendaya’s chocolatey hues, there’s no shortage of evidence that red and brown hair can look fun and elegant. But as any woman who’s experimented with hair coloring knows, many of the popular chemical dyeing methods can leave your hair dry, brittle, and weak.

Our suggestion? Try using an organic henna dye instead! Not only is henna safe for hair, it can also give you healthier locks while you sport your fiery new look. Read on for our red-hot take.

The Dangers of Artificial Dyes

Most permanent and semi-permanent artificial hair dyes use harsh chemicals in order to achieve long-lasting color. While the thought of only re-coloring every six to eight weeks is tempting, the effects on your hair and skin can be dangerous. The most common nasty ingredients to look out for are:

  • Paraphenylenediamine (PPDA) - An additive used for dyeing hair dark shades while maintaining a “natural” look. However, PPDA has a reputation for causing skin irritation and rashes, and in some cases, severe allergic reactions. 
  • Ammonia and hydrogen peroxide - These chemicals allow coloring agents to reach hair strands by stripping away the hair’s natural protective layers. They might be great for cleaning your bathroom, but when used in dyes, they leave your hair drier, rougher, and exposed to future damage. 
  • Lead acetates - Intended to gradually darken gray hair. As with any products containing lead, lead acetates are literally toxic. The FDA repealed approval for their use in hair dyes in 2019, but to date this approval is still pending, meaning some products might still have it. Yikes!

Ladies, let’s do better for our bodies than this. Sure, artificial dyes are everywhere, but the short-term convenience just isn’t worth the long-term damage to your hair and scalp. Better to stick to what Mother Nature’s provided.


How to Choose a Natural Hair Dye

Humans have been coloring hair with natural ingredients since long before we invented all those harsh chemical compounds, so there are quite a few all-natural methods out there. Of course, just because it’s found in nature doesn’t automatically mean it’s good for you (think tobacco!), so vet your hair formula even if it’s certified all-natural. Here’s what you'll want to see on the box:

  • Allergen-free - While shopping for hair products, check the ingredients list for any of your known allergens. Once you’ve got your chosen dye in front of you, test a small amount of it on a spot of skin and wait 10-15 minutes. If you feel any skin irritation, don’t use that dye! 
  • Organic farming practices - Look for plant-based dyes made from organically grown crops. Specifically, make sure the plants were grown without the use of pesticide sprays, many of which can cause rashes and other unsavory side effects. 
  • Bleach safe - If you plan on eventually bleaching your color out, you’ll want to be sure none of the ingredients react negatively with bleach. This research can save you unnecessary irritation and hair damage down the road.

If your hair color formula meets all of these criteria, you’re good to go!

Benefits of Henna for Hair

So, why henna? While it’s far from the only natural coloring agent out there, pure organic henna powder can impart gorgeous red and brown tones while keeping your locks vibrant and healthy. The resulting dye won’t dry out or damage your hair; in fact, henna actually conditions hair. Long-term usage has been shown to promote healthy hair growth with fewer split ends.

On top of improving your hair’s ability to grow and glow, henna (known to scientists as lawsonia inermis) packs a variety of medicinal benefits. It inhibits the growth of dandruff-causing fungi; it balances your scalp’s pH level and natural oil production; it unclogs pores; it has antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. What’s more, it rarely causes allergic reactions in humans. It’s honestly no wonder people have made use of the henna plant for thousands of years.

Okay, enough science! How do I get that Rihanna look??

Achieving Your Desired Hair Color

Pure henna hair dyes can provide colors between reddish orange, at the brightest, to dark brown with red undertones at the darkest. The exact color you get depends on four factors:

  1. Your hair’s starting color. Blonde and gray hair will yield the brightest results, while dark brown and black hair will simply take on a reddish undertone when henna’ed. (You can generally expect your hair to end up darker after coloring. To brighten your hair color, you’ll need additional ingredients.) 
  2. How long you leave the henna in. Henna hair dye takes a minimum of 3 hours to absorb into your hair, but can be left in for up to 24 hours. The longer it stays in, the darker your hair will turn out. 
  3. Other ingredients. Anything else added to your dye can affect your final color. This includes other natural coloring agents such as black tea and indigo, as well as conditioners like aloe vera and coconut milk. Adding a conditioning component can repair your hair and fight off dryness, but it will also dilute the color. (Whatever you add, make sure it’s okay to leave in for as long as you want your henna to sit!) 
  4. How often you reapply. Henna hair color takes 48-72 hours to reach its full intensity, so don’t expect to see your intended hue as soon as you wash the dye out. If you still want a more intense color, wait at least one week before applying more henna.

For detailed instructions, check out the many step-by-step guides available online. With enough experimentation, you’ll find a henna-based solution that keeps your hair and skin healthy, and that warm, earthy hair tone will be yours at last.