The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

August 9, 2012

Coloring Hair with Henna: Non-toxic and Almost Plastic-free

I don’t color my hair often, mainly because I’m lazy and don’t want to take the time to do it. But once a year, when it’s time for the annual BlogHer conference estrogen fest, I feel the need to cover my graying temples that make me look older than I feel.


(It’s also the time I get my annual pedicure and clean up my crazy eyebrows with homemade sugar wax.) But hair dyes are pretty toxic — even the “natural” ones — and all come in plastic packaging. For a while, I would go to a salon and use the “Don’t ask; don’t tell” method of living plastic-free. If I didn’t see a plastic bottle, it didn’t exist. Clearly, that was cheating.


So I was very happy when I discovered that I could buy henna (which is about as safe as it gets) with less plastic packaging and that it would actually cover my gray! [Note: Your mileage may vary. I’m only gray at the temples so far. I don’t know how it would work on an entire gray head.  Please leave a comment if you have tried it.]  I tried two different brands:


I found Rainbow brand henna in bulk at Rainbow Grocery (no relation, as far as I know) in San Francisco.  I filled up a reused paper bag (I reuse paper bags until they fall apart and then I compost them).   Yes, the henna is stored in a big plastic container, but as I’ve said before, buying in bulk generates much less plastic waste than buying smaller sized containers, even if the bulk bag or container is plastic.


I bought the dark brown color and followed the directions for gray hair on the Rainbow Research website, adding brewed black coffee for a darker color and apple cider vinegar, which is supposed to help the color hold onto grey hair.  (See the website for exact measurements and recipes for other colors.)  I also added some ground clove, at the suggestion of Michael’s sister, and it made my hair smell wonderful.




While the Rainbow henna necessarily comes in some kind of large container for delivery to the store, Lush solid henna bars have just a single paper label around them.

To prepare, you grate or chop the bar into pieces and mix it with boiling water.  (See instructions on bar for exact measurements.)

Lush henna bars are made with cocoa butter to condition the hair, and they are also loaded with various essential oils, herbs, and spices.  The brown bar does contain coffee and cloves — two of the ingredients I added to the Rainbow henna.  But it also contains perfume, which can include some undisclosed synthetic ingredients.  Fragrances are problematic because they can contain hormone-disrupting phthalates, and unless a company discloses all the ingredients in their fragrances, the customer has no way to know if they are safe or not.  Here is Lush’s statement about the perfumes they use.

If you want Lush to quit with the synthetics and to fully disclose the ingredients in their fragrances, please send them a message.


I applied Rainbow henna to half of my head and Lush henna to the other half.  The instructions always say to wrap your head in a plastic bag, but I never do that. I just cover it with an old towel that I use specifically for this purpose.

Caveat:  You should ALWAYS wear gloves when applying henna!  Here is what happens if you don’t:

My gloves are natural rubber and cotton ones from Casabella.  Another company, If You Care, offers FSC-certified natural rubber gloves, which is even better.

I left the henna on my hair for about 2-3 hours and just went about my household chores.  If you don’t have gray hair, you can probably leave it on for a lot less time.

Later, I discovered that I could save time by just applying the henna to the gray bits without coating my entire head with it.



I’d say both brands of henna accomplished the same desired results: covering my gray.  But I wouldn’t buy the Lush henna again because the smell was just too strong with all the many different essential oils and perfume in it.  My simple Rainbow henna recipe smelled great and contained no synthetic chemicals.

So, if you color your hair, what plastic-free or less plastic method do you use?  I know some of you wear your gray like a badge of honor.  I salute you.  I have to confess I am not there yet.  At least not all of the time.

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Hi! I know i am super super late for this discussion but i have just recently started being zero waste so i will leave this comment for someone who might come later on. I am eighteen and asian so i don’t know why few years back my hair started turning grey (doctors also don’t know, but i think they because of chemicals in shampoo or the filtered water) so i was thirteen and my grey hairs looked alot werider for someone with dark brown. My mother suggested me to use henna (which she used when she was younger to give… Read more »

quicksilver8519 The information in this link is very accurate. I used to be a stylist many years ago, and used henna as well. In this link there is a photo of a Hindu woman with orange/red colored hair. This is an effect of true henna on very grey or white hair. True henna probably should not be used on hair containing too much grey or you will be in for a BIG surprise! Take a color patch test on a small area of hair before proceeding if not sure. The neutral doesn’t change hair color as stated in the article,… Read more »


I too am way too young for the amount of grey hair I have;). I am looking to make a more natural switch. How long does the Henna color last on grey hair?


I know I am very, very late to the party here, but I have just recently started henna-ing again. I use either a mix of BAQ henna and cassia, or Rainbow Light/Strawberry blonde. I have the much-maligned and evilly named “dishwater blonde” or very, very light “mousy brown” (another great name!) color. I leave on only for one hour. In this way I achieve a caramel color leaning toward reddish. It’s just the color I want and the one color I could never achieve with chemical dyes. I have just a few greys – at the temples, naturally! – and… Read more »


if you have left over henna can you save it?

Beth Terry

Check it out! This post says that you can freeze leftover henna paste.


Yup! I have frozen my henna many times (after dye release) and interestingly, the dye power seems stronger once it’s been frozen and re-thawed. That’s just me but I definitely notice this effect.


Very nice post. Now, Lush is actively showing the complete list of Ingredients on the pack. Sticking to them for now because of the convenience.

Plastic-Free Ericka Moderator

@Chitra Glad to hear Lush is now showing their ingredients for their fragrances. Thanks for the info.

Muffazal Tikiwala

I love henna as it gives great colors and shades. I generally use sesame oil on hair before applying henna as it provides conditioning and also does not let henna stick to the hair.


Forgot to mention that my hair is dark blond with some reddish highlights and I got a wonderful auburn colour with Red Henna. Now I’m in my sixties and have very long hair reaching below my buttocks. I’d love to get rid of the grey. Anyone out there with long dark blond hair using Henna? I don’t want my hair to turn red. Any colour of Henna that would just add some red highlights? Any other tips?


Henna is just one color – it’s always a red tone. Anything you see in a box that says it’s a different “color of henna” means it has henna and then something else added to it to get another shade. Often these additives are things you don’t want in your hair – and are responsible for the stylist who tells you that you can’t do a chemical process over hennaed hair. In fact you can, it’s perfectly safe, as long as you used pure henna without additives. If you go to, you can read about how to add cassia… Read more »

Beth Terry

Right. Both of the hennas that I used have indigo in them to make them brown. The Lush henna also has coffee. And I added coffee myself to the Rainbow henna.


@Beth Terry @Sulamit I just read the instruction sheet that came with my henna and indigo shipment from I’m posting this just as a data point. It says, “Don’t add coffee to your mix. That will make your hair smell bad, give you the jitters, and won’t improve the color.” So that’s her opinion on the coffee matter, but keep in mind she also says to avoid vinegar, and the only way I get great color from henna is by using vinegar! Her lemon juice recommendation doesn’t work for me at all. Just goes to show we all have… Read more »


@Saltwater Thanks! When I was young there were rumours about those Henna powders giving other colours than red contained some nasty substances. I know real henna is red. I’ll read about suitable additives at hennaforhair. Due to the length of my hair, I’m scared to end up with a disaster.


@Sulamit I totally understand! My hair is long, and I love it and take good care of it, and the idea of damaging it in some permanent way makes me feel sick.

I have a lot of confidence in the products (her shopping website is, and tomorrow I’ll be doing an indigo/henna mix to get my now-auburn hair back to it’s natural dark brown! I’ve never used indigo before so I’m really excited to see how it goes. :) Let us know what you choose to do with your hair!


Hey sweetie, I have a few greys and they come up a lighter, redder, more “sparkly” color. It looks like highlights. It’s really a very neat look.


Hi! When I was young I loved to use red henna and it made my hair look wonderful. With gray hair you should be cautious, as it can turn your hair an unpleasant greenish hue. Just make a test before trying any kind of henna if your hair is gray. Your hair looks fab. I used the ordinary powdered henna like the one you bought at Rainbow.


Hi Beth,
My name is Araceli. I noticed in the pictures you posted in this article that you have what seems like a reusable coffee filter. I have the same kind of coffee maker, but I haven’t been able to find a reusable coffee filter that is not plastic so I have been using recycled paper ones. Do you have any suggestions? Any help will be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Beth Terry

Hi Araceli. I bought a hemp coffee filter from my local food coop. Here are some online: Also, you can get cotton ones. There are various Etsy sellers making reusable coffee filters and tea bags: If you order, make sure and ask them to send it to you without plastic packaging.

Beth Terry

It looks like that link got broken so you will have to copy and paste the whole thing, or just go to and search for “reusable coffee filter.”


Thank you so much Beth, I greatly appreciate all of your help! I’ll check these out. Again thanks!

Beth Terry

Oh, and if you or anyone else was wondering… the coffee cone is porcelain, not plastic. :-)

Beth Terry

It would be fantastic if everyone who buys their henna from would contact the company and ask them to package it without plastic. There are clear cellulose bags they could use. Of paper bags. One thing to be aware of is that often what looks like foil is actually mylar, another kind of plastic.


Yeah, the shipping has no packing plastic (at least mine never do), but I think the packets themselves are mylar. I will send them a note.


My hair is red, but it’s more strawberry blonde and auburn would be too dark for me. (90’s Nicole Kidman) What do I add to lighten the henna? Where should I look for more info? I’m not going grey, I’m getting a few white hairs and it blends in now, but someday the white hair will reach critical mass and it won’t be pretty.

Beth Terry

The instructions say to add lemon juice to lighten henna:


Cassia is often mixed in with henna to make it lighter. Check around the forums at for tips!

Mary Hastings

Thanks Beth – I needed this. Trying to work up the courage to mix up some henna and do my hair. Got it dyed at a salon 6 months ago (brain fart!) and vowed never again. Was going to try Lush but will look into other options first – great suggestions in your comments.


I use henna from (, and it’s beautiful. I just did an application about two weeks ago. I follow their instructions almost to the letter. One thing I do different is that I use vinegar instead of lemon juice. On the Henna For Hair website, they say to use lemon juice because vinegar will stink, but I’ve found that lemon juice doesn’t give nearly as beautiful an application of color. I have very dark brown hair that is sometimes, in the blue-tinted cool Seattle winter light, mistaken for black. It isn’t black, but it is dark. When I use… Read more »


@Saltwater You could try and mix Henna with coffee it is perfect for dark hair if you want to avoid any red accents.


I used to use henna, but the more grey my hair turned, the more it seemed I needed to treat my hair. So I stopped using it. But I loved it. I added a little Braggs AC vinegar and olive oil to the henna paste, 1-2 tbsp. of each, and my hair felt and looked very healthy and shiny. Also I mixed various henna colors, 3 different colors actually, to come up with a custom color that wasn’t a one flat color. It worked well. I had a pile of towels set aside specifically for doing henna, because it easily… Read more »


Any idea what to use to make hair blonder? Hopefully there is something that would not turn my hair into straw.

Beth Terry

Here are some ideas for lightening hair: I haven’t tried any of them but others have suggested lemon juice or chamomile in the comments below.

Marion Navassartian

I adopted henna too!! and love it!! plastic free AND chemical free on your head!!!


I started dying my hair with just henna and plain lemon juice 9 years ago (I started dabbling in henna tattoos about 14 years ago and it took about 5 years to build up the courage to try a dye that doesn’t wash out). It’s nearly plastic-free. I buy my henna in 1-2 kg cotton bags, but there is usually a flimsy plastic bag inside and since the henna I buy tends to be packaged in India or Pakistan I’m guessing that’s real plastic, not cellulose.

Shannon Adolph

Oh yeah, me too on the hair washing frequency.

My Plastic-free Life

I use baking soda too. It probably does strip it some, but I don’t wash my hair every day. More like once or twice a week, so it still lasts a long time.

Shannon Adolph

I do henna 2-3 times per year. I also use baking soda and it doesn’t “strip” the color at all. In fact it lasts much longer than “regular” hair dye.

Kelsey Joy Mathwig

I’ve been using henna for 2 years and LOVE it! My hair has never been so healthy! It’s done wonders for it and I love the color too.


Do it yourself or get a friend to help!!! I love Henna, I get it all-natural from
Make sure you check out this page particularly, and make sure that whatever you get doesn’t have extra chemicals and metallic salts…
I go with red, but there are other dyes and mixes that will work different tones, and you can dye as often as you like because its healthy for your hair =)

Melissa Brown

Chamomile tea should also lighten hair.

Jo Karrer Romero

I have really been wanting to try this but I use baking soda to wash my hair and I am afraid it will strip it fast. Does anyone know if this is true??


I have been ordering henna in bulk from for years. They ship the henna in a cardboard box with either little foil or plastic baggies of henna (depending on what kind you get) so its not really plastic free but its very light on plastic. They sell good quality ground henna without any additives and have a ton of recipes on the site for mixing the shade you want. I have blond hair that I color auburn and I get the Punjabi Prime and mix it with hibiscus tea, cloves, ginger, olive oil, and lemon juice and leave for… Read more »

Beth Terry

I wonder if they would consider changing their packaging. Any reason they couldn’t use a paper bag? Your recipe sounds delicious, by the way. :-)


Yes, my hair is long, too, and if you follow their instructions supposedly we should use 4 or 5 baggies! I did that last time and ended up with half a mixing bowl of unused henna. Now I know to use only 2 baggies, even though my hair is past my bra strap.


If you do mix too much henna you can always freeze it in a glass jar or old conditioner bottle and then thaw in a pot of simmering water. I’ve done this many times and it never seems to negatively impact the results. Its nice if you only have a bit left over to freeze it and use it to touch up roots/eyebrows throughout the month.


Thank you!

Cat LaRochelle

It comes sealed in a foil pouch and then in a cardboard box.

My Plastic-free Life

Cat LaRochelle, what kind of packaging does Henna for Hair use?

Tina Clark

I have a full head of grey hair and henna works very well on it. One caution, though: the directions say that you can apply heat to make the waiting time shorter, but if your hair has a tendency to turn red, don’t use heat. The first time I used it, I thought, no way my hair has a tendency to turn red, so I used heat. What did I know? I got bright red hair.

Beth Terry

Thank you for the warning! My hair is brown but has some red highlights. I’m sure it would turn red with heat. I haven’t used heat. I just keep it on for a long time.

Cat LaRochelle

Not sure if you’re interested but here is a little instructional that I made doing my own hair.


How long does it take before the color fades? Does your hair feel coarse? I found that happened with henna.

Beth Terry

Anna, my hair doesn’t feel coarse, but I don’t do it regularly. Also, when I do it, I only cover the gray areas and kind of “comb” it through my hair with my fingers but don’t worry about covering every strand. It fades in 4-6 weeks, but that really would depend on how often you wash your hair. As you know, I wash with the “No ‘Poo” method and only do it once or twice a week, so henna lasts longer for me.


My hair is dark but fine, and the henna makes it veeeeery soft. I haven’t had any trouble with coarseness. It’s possible that the henna you’re using has something else in it besides pure plant, which might account for the coarseness. Or perhaps it just responds differently!

Cat LaRochelle

This is where I buy my henna and get all of my henna information.

My Plastic-free Life

Raven Fyre, natural henna comes out red. To get any other color, they add other things to it. If you have red hair, henna will make your hair redder unless you buy one of the other colors.

Raven Fyre

What about red heads?


Beth, I just saw you a few days ago and I never would have guessed that you color your hair. Do you know any salons that do henna color? I would give up Aveda in a heartbeat if I could find something that covered grey and looked natural.

Beth Terry

Ronnie, there is actually a salon in Berkeley that colors hair with henna

but I think salons like that are rare. No idea if there’s one in New York. Doing henna takes a long time. I think most people just do it themselves.

My Plastic-free Life

I buy brown henna, which I believe has some indigo in it, and add coffee to it. I was excited to find two different brands nearly plastic-free. But I don’t think henna will give you a “blonde boost.” Lemon juice will!

Arup Roy Chowdhury

Henna with coffee would give you shades of black and brown. Thats what my wife uses.

Funky Little EarthChild

I don’t simply because I haven’t found anything natural enough that would give me a blonde boost. If I wanted to go red, I would use henna. :-)