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Henna: a natural hair dye but not for the faint hearted!

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Henna: a natural hair dye but not for the faint hearted!

People dye their hair for all sorts of reasons: for fun, wanting a new amazing look or to hide grey hairs. In my case I probably go for all of these as reasons for wanting to dye my hair. My natural hair colour is off black but I would really like to go a bit darker.
I am not keen on using synthetic permanent hair dyes which are damaging to the hair and carry the risk of adverse events such as severe allergic reactions. I would much more prefer a natural solution to dying my hair such as pure henna (not to be confused with modified henna products such as Black Henna which isn’t 100% natural and contains a chemical and a permanent dye called PPD or p-Phenylendiamine).

Henna (also known as Lawsonia inermis) has been used for centuries for cosmetic purposes. Famous ancient Egyptians like Cleopatra and Nefertiti were known to have used henna. The dyeing properties of this amazing plant are due to the main active ingredient called Lawsone or 2-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone. It has been reported that the concentration of Lawsone in henna leaves varies between 1 to 2%.
To make the dye the leaves are dried and ground into fine powder which is then mixed with hot water to produce Lawsone by fermentation.
The colour that results from using henna varies e.g. from auburn to orange. To achieve a brown or black hair colour, indigo (a plant dye) is usually used with the henna to get the desired colour.

So are there any downsides to using henna? I am afraid so and some of the issues raised by those with experience of using henna are:

  • Dyeing with henna can be a messy and lengthy process. Care is needed to avoid staining clothes and surfaces.
  • Henna may not give consistent results each time and so there’s a chance that you may not achieve the desired colour. Also the colour needs a couple of days to properly develop after application. Unlike chemical dyes, henna is deposited on the hair cuticle and does not penetrate the hair shaft like permanent chemical dyes. This means that the more times you use henna, the more is deposited on the surface of the hair strand and so a change in hair colour is likely to occur. There is a good illustration of this here. This coating effect may also explain why some people report a loss of their curls.
  • Henna is not very effective at covering grey hairs.
  • Henna is not a hair conditioner. In fact henna can lead to dry or brittle hair due to its effect on the hair cuticle. Henna coats the hair cuticle and causes it to close which reduces the amount of moisture the hair receives. It is therefore important to moisturize your hair using a deep conditioner.
  • The smell of henna (resembles that of grass / hay) can linger on the hair for a while after an application.

So far I haven’t been discouraged from using henna but I am starting to realise that using henna is not that straightforward. I also wasn’t prepared for the next bit of information I came across. Unknown to me until now, there is scientific evidence that questions the safety of henna. Apparently the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) has evaluated the safety of Henna and Lawsone several times in recent years. The situation is that doubts still remain in relation to the genotoxicity potential of Lawsone. My understanding of something genotoxic is that it has the potential to cause cancer. Oh no, surely not henna! This plant has been used for thousands of years and is so widely used as hair and skin dye especially in India that any risk is surely likely to be rare.
The SCCS concluded cautiously that henna is safe to use as a hair dye when formulated and applied as indicated. The SCCS considers 100 g henna powder mixed with 300 ml boiling water as safe for the consumer. This is based on formulations of henna hair dyes with a Lawsone content of up to 1.4%.

While it is a relief that henna is still safe to use, personally I think the SCCS’s opinion has generated some unanswered questions e.g.

  • There are different varieties of henna which is naturally grown in different parts of the world e.g. north-east Africa and India. Henna being a botanical product means henna products are not standardised. Surely the content of Lawsone is therefore likely to vary. So should the consumer just assume that the presence of Lawsone in 100g of henna leaves in 300 ml of hot water will always be up to 1.4%?
  • According to the SCCS’s report the exposure time to henna by consumers is up to 2 hours but I have seen longer times being recommended. So I assume that a maximum of 2 hours is the safest contact time per application of henna? 
  • I have noticed online that some instructions state to add lemon juice or tea to the henna paste to promote the release of Lawsone. Is this practice still advised as the report by the SCCS only mentions adding boiling water?
  • For peace of mind, I assume that it’s always best to source a high quality product of pure henna to start off with but how does the consumer know which supplier to trust when you hear reports like that covered by the Newcastle City Council newsletter? Interestingly, the City Council’s test house examined samples of henna products for hair and skin for compliance with the EU Cosmetic Product Safety Regulation. They looked at three areas concerning the safety of henna; compositional issues, misleading labelling and lack of key information. It is worrying that over half the samples analysed failed to meet the safety standards. Furthermore some natural ingredients which were claimed to be present in the products weren’t even there!

At this point you are probably thinking, will she or will she not? Well, I can tell you that I am in no rush now to dye my hair! I honestly don’t feel confident in sourcing and using henna which requires a lot of time which I don’t have at the moment. I am a mother of two small children and time is really precious. I also think to get the best results from henna requires knowledge and skill which is acquired over a long period of time.

I would love to hear your views or tips whether you are an experienced henna user or a newbie looking to try henna.

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Guest Sunday, 24 February 2019