Henna Your Hair - as told to me by an Arab woman
The Color of Henna
This is not an easy process...but it IS worth it.
This morning when I woke up I had a very large worn out blue batik scarf wrapped around my head ala Aunt Jemima. It’s not a good look for me. Underneath that politically incorrect icon of another age was something that dated even further back in time…a head full of henna mud. Henna was the hair coloring of choice for the ancient Egyptians and it’s still a viable option in third world countries where chemical hair dye is expensively prohibitive. It is a natural product derived from the dried leaves of the henna tree that grows in the semi-arid regions of the middle and Far East. Henna's coloring properties are due to lawsone, a burgundy organic compound that has an affinity for bonding with protein. If it’s not red it’s not henna…no matter what the box says. Actually, the dried leaves are green but they produce a red color.
I’ve been using this stuff since the 1980’s when I read an article about how Lucille Ball would bleach then henna her hair to get her distinctive color. In those days I liked to fancy that I WAS Lucy…in my vintage 1950’s clothing. I liked to believe that I, like Lucy, had somehow escaped the petty prettiness syndrome that makes attractive woman lack humor. I had no role models closer to home so I imported one from Jamestown, NY and 30 years later I still strive to be Lucy.
To get back to the henna…at first I would buy it in small plastic tubs and follow the instructions carefully. All available henna was from Egypt in those days. I would mix the henna with warm water with a wooden spoon in a plastic or glass container (the instructions said that metal activated it), apply it to the hair making sure to get down to the roots, wrap my head in tin foil, sit under the dryer for one hour, and let it sit two more hours before washing it out of my hair. I’m not sure if you have ever sat under a hairdryer with tinfoil on your head…I do not recommend this even to those of you who understand my mother's sentiment that you must suffer to be beautiful. It will burn any areas of skin it touches so it is basically trial and error around the ears and back of the neck until I figured out the tinfoil actually did nothing.
I would then wrap my head in plastic wrap as recommended on the package of some heat treatment deep conditioners like Kolesterol. My sister used Kolesterol when she turned herself into a giant yellow Brillo pad after bleaching and perming her hair on the same day…the day before her daughter’s wedding shower. Although Afros were still in vogue…it was NOT a good look for her. Anyway, the henna treatment with Saran Wrap worked pretty well on my young hair without gray and I practiced this technique for many years…into my gray period. The color was unique. A kind of fluorescent wine over chestnut that would often get sarcastic comments like, “yeah, THAT’S her real hair color…” by construction workers. To which I would retort, “yeah…THOSE are his real teeth…” I was never really shy. I was happy with the color. It was distinctive. I loved the idea of red hair because the look carried with it a certain license to behave badly. It explained my intermittent explosive temper, my outspoken personality, and my sometimes indiscriminant choice of men. It was expected that redheads be different…no matter that it wasn’t natural…it was definitely me.
One day in the 1990’s I met a woman from the Middle East…Palestine to be exact. She was newly married to a man that owned the hair salon in the Ellicott Square Building in Buffalo, NY. I had befriended her husband Sam because there was nowhere more interesting to take my breaks than his hair salon with the lawyers and politicians heatedly discussing issues of the day. Sam was a Cleveland Browns fan in a city drunk on The Buffalo Bills. He was also an outspoken proponent of the rights of Palestinians to their homeland…many of his clients were Jews. Sam wasn’t kicking the Jews out of Jerusalem, he as trying to carve out a dedicated spot for the Palestinians. This made for heated and interesting coffee breaks that saved me from the humdrum of my job as a public servant on an upper floor. Sam was short tempered, good-humored, cuttingly satirical, and an equal opportunity offender. People were dedicated to him…he only cut men’s hair but he was not a barber…he was a hairstylist…and don’t you forget it.
Sam was single after his divorce to an American woman with whom he had three sons. It was ugly but it was over and Sam wanted a new wife. He was open to anyone…but, on one fateful day while visiting a cousin, he watched a video of a wedding in Jordan and spotted Nafiza in the crowd. He asked his cousin who that beautiful woman was and if she was married. The cousin laughed and said, “She was your neighbor…Nafiza.” She was a child when Sam left for the US at 17. Nafiza was now 38 and had never married. This was an accomplishment in a Middle Eastern country where a woman’s worth is calculated by her marrigability. According to Nafiza…it was her choice. All her suitors were unacceptable for one reason…their mothers. Nafiza knew that by marrying she would hand over her life to her mother-in-law as all good Arab women do. She felt too independent…she worked and made her own money. She lived at home with her family where at least she knew what to expect. Nafiza remembered Sam. He was the one who went to America and was doing well. She learned of his interest and decided to accept his proposal after the preliminary meetings. The best part for Nafiza was…Sam’s mother was no longer on this plane. Nafiza moved to America without two words of English and no one but Sam to take the place of her tightly knit family. I was in awe of her courage.
This was quite a build up to my henna story but once my fingers get typing I have no control over them. The first time I actually met Nafiza, after seeing her photos and hearing about her from Sam for many months, I saw what Sam saw. A lovely doe eyed beauty but with a backbone of steel. She was a true life-partner for Sam. When I walked in Nafiza grabbed my hands…she had heard about me from Sam as well…looked over my hair and then looked me straight in the eye with a big smile, “Henna?” “Yes!” I said enthusiastically, feeling I had just achieved some sort of détente with this exotic Middle Eastern woman. “Bad job,” she then added in her very sparse English while shaking her head. She said something in Arabic to Sam. “She wants to henna your hair,” translated Sam. “She says you must be using Egyptian henna.” I laughed even though I was a little embarrassed I spotted myself in the salon mirror and the gray hairs all looked Lucille Ball orange. There were at least three different colors in stages down my long hair. I had known this for years when I put my hair up the ends did not match the means. I learned to live with it because, frankly, I was never that fussy. I agreed to the henna experiment.
That Friday I went down to the salon after work. They stayed open expressly for me and Nafiza took me into the private color room off the main style floor. She pulled out a jar of thick brownish liquid that did not even look the same color as my Egyptian henna I had been using. Nafiza knew a little English by now but mostly Sam translated. She told me that Egyptian henna is cut with spinach because it is cheaper. The best henna is from Jordan or Pakistan. She told me that good henna is glossy when you mix it with liquid and it has a bit of a slimy feel. She told me that in order to cover my gray and tone down the orange she added black walnut casings that she picked special off the lawn of the International Language Institute and boiled (an extremely messy job I’ve since found out) the night before. She also used the skins of onions and strong tea in the water to mix the henna…then a dose of olive oil…the ingredient used for everything in Middle Eastern beauty. I felt like a science experiment. I was waiting for her to pull out the eye of nuit. She lovingly covered my hair with the henna mud being extra careful around the hairline. She explained that for some reason, the skin at my hairline would not hold the henna like my hands would and that it would wash off in one day…she was right. She then took a hair dryer and dried the mud pack to a solid helmet. Next she wrapped a large cotton scarf around my head. I looked like a cancer victim with a head injury. Then came the big surprise. She told me to go home and go to sleep like this. I needed to keep this gunk on my head for 8-12 hours. The most I have ever kept it on was… in a crazy fit of rebellion… four hours just to see what would happen.
First my head was reeling from the weight of the mud. Next, I realized I had to go outside to the parking lot to retrieve my car and drive home looking like Hydrocephalus Barbie. Sam’s salon was on Main Street…people were still shuffling in and out of bars for happy hour…there were people in other cars driving home that would see me. Even with the fear of being seen, my biggest fear by far was waking up the next morning with a brilliant red baldhead. I had to trust her. She said that in her country, women get together every so often and assist in personal hygiene regimes…henna, threading, sugaring and nail care. I had to trust her. She seemed to know everything about this ancient ritual that I was doing wrong for 15 years.
The first time you try to sleep with a rag soaked henna head you may as well just turn on Turner Classics and give it up. You cover your pillow in a plastic garbage bag, you cover that with your oldest beach towel, and you hope for the best. I may have slept a few hours with dreams of explaining my baldness to my friends and family the next day. “It will grow back,” I’ll explain. Instead, I woke up the next day and washed out the henna. It seemed easier to rinse out the gunk because of the addition of olive oil…those Middle Eastern women know how to use a resource! I looked at my wet hair and was unsure of any improvement but when it dried I had a glorious head of brick red hair that looked expertly highlighted where the gray became a lighter shade but not an abrasive orange like the day before. I was thrilled! From then on, I didn’t care who saw me go into my car with my blue babushka over my swollen henna head! I wore it proudly because I knew that the ends would now match the means. Ever since that day I have been getting compliments on my hair color. I freely offer that I use henna but I also let them know that it’s an arduous process and not for the faint of heart.
I will share my recipe for successful henna hair dying. Please remember that you cannot use henna on hair with other chemical treatments. That means no permanent waive or straightening or other coloring agents. It will make your hair brittle and it will break off in clumps. First, get a hold of high quality henna. You can generally find it in Indian grocery stores… since it is almost impossible to get Jordanian henna in the US, look for Pakistan or India as countries of origin. Do NOT buy Egyptian henna. I was purchasing henna online at www.shahdistributors.com/ until I found a local Indian grocery store that had it in stock. Next, find a source for Powdered Black Walnut Hulls (Juglans nigra)…this is much easier than boiling black walnut hulls from nature which I do not recommend. I get mine from www.frontiercoop.com but have purchased it as a natural basket dye from other sources. Just a little goes a long way.
Once you have your henna and black walnut powder you are ready to begin. Dress in a tee shirt and comfortable pants that you don’t mind getting stained. I use the same tee shirt and pants for my monthly henna treatments. Before you get started, gather the following: rubber gloves that fit past your wrists, an old washcloth, a freestanding mirror, a large cotton scarf that you can dedicate to henna, an old beach towel and a large plastic garbage bag.
Take a small pot and put in three black tea bags, the papery skin of several onions (not the actual meat), and a tablespoon of instant coffee if you have it. Sometimes I’ll use a brewed coffee instead of water if I have it on hand. Bring this all to a boil and strain. Put henna (usually about 6-8 oz's…use the whole small box if that is how you get it) and a heaping tablespoon of black walnut powder in a large glass bowl. Gradually, pour in the dark water and use an old whisk that you will save for this process to make a mud the consistency of pancake batter. It can be thinner but becomes even messier when you try to apply. Add a tablespoon of olive oil (do not substitute any other oil…it is NOT the same). Once it is all mixed up I suggest applying it over a sink with a garbage disposal.
Lean over the sink and hang your hair directly over the drain with the bowl of henna in the sink. With your rubber glove on scoop up some henna and start applying at the back of your head and work your way forward concentrating on saturating your roots first then working into the ends. This takes some time as the henna solution is thick and not very wet and you’re working with dry hair. Be patient…massage it into your scalp paying special attention to your hairline if you have grays. Once you are sure your hair is totally saturated work it into a ponytail at the very top of your head…you are still over the sink with your head down…make a bun of sorts of your hair and check the mirror for loose henna bits on your face, neck and so forth. The henna will stain your skin but your face is not as susceptible as your other body skin. Carefully, smooth the henna up away from your face. You are making a mud pack of hair and once it is all off your face check the hairline in the mirror and make sure the grays (they are wiry and harder to cover) are caked in with henna. Take the washcloth and clean off your ears, neck and other areas where the henna has splashed. Be careful not to wipe it off the hairs at your hairline unless you like the graying temples look. You will also need to clean up any stray henna on surfaces, as it will also stain those. This is a messy job but the results are spectacular.
Once you have the henna in place you can use a blow dryer to make a helmet. If it is not dripping just keep it uncovered for a little while until it dries slightly. Once it is sort of like drying mud you can put on the scarf Aunt Jemima style like a turban. Fold the scarf in half to a triangle. Bend your head down and put the folded part of the triangle at your back hairline letting the front point hang down over your head. Take the two long ends at the sides and bring them up over the front point and tie with the point kind of hitting your forehead. Pick up your head take the front point and pull it up over the knot and knot again over the flap. Tuck the ends into the turban over your ears. You may want to practice this first before applying the henna. It is second nature to me now but as I’m writing it sounds confusing.
Cover your pillow with a plastic garbage bag. Use the old beach towel over the plastic because you don’t want to sleep directly on plastic. Get as comfortable as possible and try to sleep. In the morning go to the same sink with the garbage disposal. You’ll need the beach towel, the rubber gloves, shampoo, conditioner and a plastic prong hairbrush or a large tooth comb. Remove the scarf. Rinse out as much henna as possible with clear water with the gloves on. Take a large glob of shampoo and wash your hair over the sink with the gloves still on. Make sure you scrub your hairline because the henna will be dried in those spots and stick pretty fast. After you rinse out the soap take off the gloves and use a large amount of conditioner and comb or brush it through your hair. Rinse and use the beach towel to dry so you are not ruining another towel. Air or blow dry. You will notice your hair feels thicker…this is because the henna actually coats your hair it does not penetrate the hair shaft. Once you see how healthy your hair is you will not be tempted to go back to regular chemical dyes again. Your hair will look young and healthy and very shinny. Yes, it is a bloody mess to do but it is worth every minute of mess. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me. I realize that because I’ve been doing this for so many years I may have missed a step or not been very clear in my description.
Good luck and let me know if you try it!