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Daily Question: The Dark, Scary Truth about Henna

henna-ed hair by gumonyershoe henna-ed hair, a photo by gumonyershoe on Flickr.
Dear Nicki, I've been using henna as a natural alternative to hair dye. it makes my hair all one color but I think it is safer than regular hair dye. Any thoughts? -Dyeing Doll
Dear Dyeing, Henna, also known as Lawsonia inermis or the mignonette tree, is a flowering plant used to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather, and wool. It is rumored beautiful and substantial women, from Nefertiti to Lucille Ball, used it to achieve their desired hair color (Encyclopedia of Hair, 2006). Natural henna, the specific type of henna used to dye hair, is derived from the dried leaves of the Henna plant. Dried leaves are crushed and made into a paste, which traditionally was mixed with water and agents such as indigo or chamomile as conditioning agents before being applied to the hair. Keep in mind that other types of non-"natural" henna, including neutral henna and black henna, will not affect your hair color. Unfortunately, natural henna is terrible for your hair. The three big reasons:

#1. Henna makes it impossible to condition your hair.

The active ingredient in henna, is lawsone, also known as 2-hydroxy-1,4-naphthaquinone. Lawsone, also present in walnuts, works best at acidic (low) pH and when applied with heat. Unfortunately, over time, lawsone builds up on the hair, making it difficult, if not impossible, for conditioning agents to penetrate the hair (Chemistry and Technology of the Cosmetics and Toiletries Industry, 1996). As beauty expert Eva Scrivo notes, "[With henna use] treatments, conditioners, and even natural oils from the hair are not able to get through that heavy layer of gunk covering the cuticle."

#2. Henna eventually leads to hair breakage.

Henna is one of those agents that will harm your hair. There are several reasons for this. One, the lawsone in henna reacts with the hair in a largely unknown mechanism that results in toxic products being built up on the hair (Chemistry and Technology of the Cosmetics and Toiletries Industry, 1996). These toxic products can cause oxidative damage to the hair if they are not properly removed. Two, as previously mentioned, henna prevents the penetration of conditioning agents into the hair cuticle, rendering your treatments futile. Lastly, henna dehydrates the hair, making it more susceptible to long-term damage (Eva Scrivo on Beauty, 2009).

#3. Henna may harm your health or your skin.

Wait, I know long-term readers are thinking, did she just say something could be harmful? Despite the popular, very cautious, natural approach towards beauty products that has taken place lately, I am reluctant to declare anything is "unsafe" unless it has been proven so in strong, logical studies. That having been said, although the lawsome in henna has been proven not to be genotoxic (Mutation Research/Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis, 2003), it has been shown to cause a life-threatening hemolysis in patients with a condition known as glucose-6-dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PDH) (Archives of Disease in Childhood, 2001). Now don't be alarmed and think you need to run out for a G6PDH blood screen if you've used henna recently - G6PDH typically presents in childhood with symptoms like jaundice and anemia. Affected patients are usually males (due to X-linked inheritance) in Africa, the Middle East, or South Africa (presumably because the disease protects against malaria). That having been said, for men/women in the U.S. and Europe (my current popular demographic, thank you very much, Alexa stats), henna has been shown to frequently cause sensitization of the skin and a resultant contact dermatitis (rash) (Textbook of Cosmetic Dermatology, 2004).
Date: August 25 2011 at 6:14 AM
Hair Care

Comments (6)

  1. Henna Girl
    January 10 2012 at 7:40 AM

    Hi I've been using pure body art quality henna for quite a number of years and I can assure you that my hair is in perfect condition. The coating henna leaves on the hair is a temporary resin.. it's the lawsone that penetrates the hair and binds to the keratin.

  2. Cardi
    January 11 2012 at 12:28 AM

    I strongly disagree with this article. You say that henna can irritate skin, uh what about chemical hair dye? I've been using henna for two years and my hair is quite shiny and well conditioned. The only objective problem I would find with henna is that it is annoying to leave it on my head for hours to process and it smells slightly unpleasant. It's not fair to try and talk a reader out of it saying it may harm their health as a heading, when that only occurs if you have a genetic condition.

  3. Audree
    March 10 2012 at 11:25 AM

    This article is appalling. I have been using henna for many many years on my hair and skin, and my hair has never been healthier. When I was using chemical dyes my hair was brittle and dry, constantly. If you want to learn about henna, read up on it from a woman who has devoted her life to studying it. Thehennapage.com and the associated webpages with it. Much more reliable information than this.

  4. Hillary
    July 26 2012 at 9:46 AM

    i agree with audree. I've never had a bad experience to henna, and even after applying it to skin, my skin feels very nice and smooth. it is obvious that the 'facts' stated in this article are obsolete. do not bash a very natural, and healthy product that you don't seem to fully understand. my hair fell out, broke, dried out, etc. whenever i used chemical dyes. henna has been nothing short of a miracle product. it has reversed the problems i suffered while using chemical dyes. i don't know where you're getting this info from, but it is CLEARLY wrong.

  5. Nicki
    July 27 2012 at 11:19 AM

    @Hillary - Thanks for your input. I do honestly think that henna is bad - but even worse when you don't deep-condition or avoid the sun. If you do deep condition and avoid the sun, perhaps henna is still yielding you the results you want. I just don't like it, and i think there's good research to show it does make it more difficult for conditioning agents to treat the hair, as well as dehydrates it over time.

  6. Lalla
    November 15 2013 at 7:26 AM

    I have trouble understanding this part : "Unfortunately, over time, lawsone builds up on the hair, making it difficult, if not impossible, for conditioning agents to penetrate the hair"
    From what I know, conditioning ingredients are in general cationic (they have a positive electrical charge ) and work by absorbing or coating the hair which is anionic.
    From what you wrote, it just seems that henna is a particularly substantive conditioner. Additionally, since conditioners are not meant to penetrate the hair but to coat it thsu improving wet/dry combability, I fail to see how henna could reduce their effectiveness.
    I would be very glad to read an answer to my questions.
    Thanks,

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