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).

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  • Gemma

    Well, I believe that everything has it’s ups and downs and that you can’t really avoid at least some type of negative effect with anything you put on or in your body. Henna is no exception. The thing is though, that in comparison to many other hair products and especially hair dyes, Henna is probably one of the least damaging. I personally only use it around 5 times a year, but if I used it more, perhaps I could find something that washes the laswone from my hair properly afterwards/ the next time I wash it?!
    As for the rash thing, some people are more sensitive than others. In fact I have always had very sensitive skin (including eczema and dermatitis from bio washing powder in the past) and have never had a problem with it.

  • Mystique

    I agree with this article. I had been using henna on natural hair and my hair would stay dry and brittle, no matter how much moisture and deep conditioning I would do. Hair products were natural with no sulfates, mineral oil, petroleum, silicone, and etc. Neither protein, nor moisture would penetrate my strands resulting in extreme breakage. It was when I stop using henna and completely stripping/cutting it from my hair, that I was able to grow and retain length. But to each their own. Henna just did not work for my daughter or me.

  • Shanice

    I disagree with this article. There are different sources of where you can get henna. Fake henna is bad for you. BAQ henna is all natural and has actually thickened my hair. It also stopped it from shedding badly because of the keratin. Some people need more protein in their hair than others. The only thing that is true is that it is unsafe for patients with g6pdh. i advise readers to look up their own information about henna. You can’t believe everything your told.

  • @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.

  • Hillary

    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.

    • Daniel

      Hey idk if you’ll ever see this post but you know Kevin Thompson? If so email me at dmmdanielg@yahoo.com

  • Audree

    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.

  • Cardi

    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.

  • Henna Girl

    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.

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