An incredibly detailed guide to dying your hair red with henna

Updated May 1 2020
My local Indian store changes its henna brands every so often, but this is what I've been using lately.
My local Indian store changes its henna brands every so often, but this is what I've been using lately.

If you're reading this, you're probably into the idea of having RED! (and seriously, with henna you need to type it like that) hair without putting your tresses through the wringer with conventional hair dye. WELL, COOL, 'cause I've been dying my hair with henna for over a year, and I have a few tricks of the trade up my sleeve.

Preliminary notes

  • Henna takes some time: seriously. You'll need to wait twelve hours after mixing for the dye to release and then it needs to be on your head for 1-4 hours, depending on the shade you want.
  • All henna is not created equal: go to your local Indian store and pick up a box or bag of henna — you don't want to use the dyes you can find in some natural food stores. If you don't have a local Indian store, you can get henna online. (I love Earth Henna because they always have coupons running — if you use coupon code QUA20 to get 20% off your order!)
  • Your hair probably won't look like mine. Henna looks different on every single person that does it. You can follow this step-by-step, and you may not end up with a result that matches what you'll see in my photos. It may not be drastically different, but the shade of red you achieve with henna depends on what your hair looks like before you put the henna on.
  • You can't get rid of henna. Seriously. Henna gets into the shaft of the hair — so you can't even really dye over it with over-the-counter or salon dye. I imagine the only thing that would really work is bleaching your hair, so keep that in mind. If you don't want to commit to a hennaed head or take the time to grow it out, stick with a box dye that's easier to dye over. Henna is very, very permanent.
  • People with all hair types can use henna! It'll look different for everyone, but you can rock it regardless of your hair color or texture. Also, as long as you're using body quality henna, it's safe to dye over chemically treated hair.
  • In my experience, henna doesn't apply evenly. If you can't stand the idea of every hair on your head not being the same color, you may not want to commit to henna.

What you need

  • 100-500 grams of body quality henna (for reference, I use 200g, and my hair is halfway down my back, but I've been doing this for a while. The general rule of thumb is 100g for short hair, 200g for collar-length hair, 300g for shoulder length hair, and 500g for waist-length hair)
  • a medium-sized bowl
  • a spoon
  • plastic/saran wrap
  • lemon juice (not necessary, but it is for how I do it)
  • 1-3 free hours (depending on how intense you want your hair to be)

How you do it

1. Mix your henna

I always mix my henna twelve hours before I want to apply it. You'll want to put it in a darkish area (I usually put mine in a bowl on the top shelf of my closet and shut the door) at room temperature (around 70F or 21C). If you need to rush it, you can put it somewhere warm (95F or 35C) and it'll be ready in two hours — however, you want to make sure it's not TOO hot. Careful, careful!

Dry henna!
Mashed potatoes-y henna.

Here's my mixing process:

  • I pour two bags of henna into the bowl
  • Then I add between 1/4 and 1/2 of a 16 oz bottle of lemon juice — you basically want the mixture to have the look and texture of (green) mashed potatoes. If you have sensitive skin, you can water down your lemon juice (sometimes I do half lemon juice, half water), or substitute in orange or grapefruit juice. Some people warn against using tap water, but I always do and I'm honestly not sure why you shouldn't. Vinegar and wine are also alternatives, but they'll smell pretty rank (though some people think henna itself is funky smelling) — however, you want to stay away from using yogurt or coffee. If you're familiar with henna body art: don't add "terps."
  • Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
  • Let it rest! I always leave my spoon in the bowl. I don't know why, really… I just do.

2. Apply your henna

Henna after sitting for twelve hours.
Yogurt-y henna right before application!

It's twelve hours later! Alright. Another note: some people think it's easier if you've washed and dried your hair before you apply henna… but I don't. It's up to you!

Here's how the application process usually goes for me:

  • Retrieve your henna.
  • Put on protective gloves (those latex ones like dentists use are perfect). Henna STAINS everything — if it gets on your skin, your skin will be orange for a day or two. If it gets on the floor, the floor will be also. Eventually it goes away, but if you can't deal with stains err on the side of caution.
  • Divide your hair into sections. One of the biggest differences between henna dye and conventional hair dye is that it's MUCH harder to make sure you're covering your hair with henna. If you've dyed your hair before, you know that conventional hair dye is very liquid and easy to get onto your hair. Henna is thick, and it is more of a challenge. I've found the most effective division process is to go in small sections — I'll put all of my hair except for one small part up, and then work from there.
  • Unwrap your henna and add more lemon juice (or whatever mixture you're using). After this addition you want your mixture to look more like yogurt. I usually add another 1/4 of the bottle — you don't want it too runny or too thick.
  • Start applying! Try to avoid getting henna on parts of your hair that are pulled up — the parts that you're not ready to put henna on yet. Henna can really tangle your hair up if you're not intentionally trying to put it on a certain area.
  • You want to REALLY goop it on your head: don't be stingy. Apply henna in very thick sections for maximum coverage.
  • When you're finished, remove your gloves and wrap your head with plastic wrap. After you're wrapped, it's a good idea to start cleaning any spots of henna off your face, neck, arms, etc. that might be there.
  • Get comfy: I usually let my henna sit in for three hours. Some people do one, some do four — it depends on how deep you want to shade to be.

3. Wash the henna out of your hair

Ok, washing henna out of your hair is totally a thing. Make sure you're wearing your gloves when you do it, because you can still get orange stains on your hands. The first few times I used henna I just took a shower, but I realized that a) henna feels super gross when it's washing out of your hair and onto your body, and b) it's kind of hard to get henna out of long hair. So now I get on my knees and put my head under the bathtub faucet. It's not the easiest or most comfortable thing, but it works. Some people lie down in the bathtub and wash it out that way.

After the henna is mostly out of my hair I use shampoo for the rest — I always find that it really clings to my baby hairs at my hairline. You can use any shampoo you want. Your hair is going to smell like henna for a day or two — I like it, but some people don't. If you're not a fan, you can rinse your hair with lavender after washing it to get rid of the smell.

If your hair is super orange, DON'T FREAK OUT

This is the top of my head right after I dried it. Orange!
Orange sideview.

It takes henna around three days to really show itself on your head — my hair is almost always SUPER bright the first day, then it gradually deepens over a few days. Something that's really cool about henna vs. conventional red hair dye is that henna doesn't fade — you just have to touch up your roots as your hair grows.

IMG_1963 copy
My hair four days after application.

Also, you can use henna as often as you want — it's a great conditioner and is wonderful for your hair. Unlike conventional hair dye, it's totally safe for frequent use. You can do root touch-ups in between full hair applications, or if you like the relaxing effect henna often has, just do full hair apps every time.

Other things you can do with henna

You can also dye your hair dark brown or black with henna (you'll mix it with indigo), cover up grays, or dye it strawberry blonde. This site has a wonderful selection of various henna mixes people have made.

If you're still looking for even MORE info, you can download this free 60-page ebook from Henna For Hair. It's pretty dense, but also pretty amazing.

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