Identifying pure henna and other herbal hair colors vs. potentially dangerous henna compounds is tricky, even for the experienced user. While writing my book Coloring Hair Naturally with Henna & Other Herbs, I wanted to give my customers the tools to identify potentially harmful henna compounds, and illustrate how bargain henna might be bargain-priced for a reason.
One of these packages of Jamila Henna contains henna mixed with undetermined chemical hair dyes. Can you tell which is which?
Here are the key terms I’ll be using in this article:
Pure henna, 100% Lawsonia Inermis. Although it is sometimes called “red henna” it is the only henna. Other herbs have gained misleading names such as “black henna” or “colorless henna.” Don’t be fooled, henna is only one plant and the only color it stains is orange-red. Any natural hair color claiming to be henna that isn’t a shade of red has something else added, either other herbs, or in the worst case, undisclosed chemicals.
Herbal Hair Color-
A blend of herbs that is 100% plant matter. May be a combination of henna and other herbs such as senna italica (often referred to as cassia obovata), indigo, or amla.
Often a base of henna powder (or henna and other herbs) laced with some sort of chemical hair color, such as metallic salts or PPD.
Lack of Labeling or Deceptive Labeling
Even if the box says 100% henna, that isn’t always a guarantee of purity. This is because herbal hair colors sold in the U.S. are not regulated by the FDA, and because many places where these products originate, like India, do not have the same stringent labeling requirements as the U.S. and Europe. This enables some pretty stark omissions and means that you have to be extra vigilant when it comes to inspecting both the packaging and the henna itself.
Take the three boxes of Jamila henna at the start of the article. Two of them are 100% pure henna, and one is a henna compound. Even for the vigilant the differences are hard to spot.
Not all premixed herbal hair colors are bad
That is not to say that anything that isn’t 100% pure henna is bad, or that you have to mix your own individually-sourced herbs to get the mix you want. There are many reputable companies, such as Nightblooming, out there that sell quality herbal hair colors that are made from pure plant matter, whose ingredients are fully disclosed. These are a great starter step if you’re unsure about mixing your own herbal colors and just want a bit of extra confidence that your herbal hair color has been blended by someone who knows what they’re doing. Things to look for include:
- A fully disclosed ingredient list– Total failure to disclose any ingredients at all is a massive red flag.
- A realistic outcome– If a box of “natural hair color” is promising to make your black hair pale electric purple, there’s a high likelihood that there’s more than plant matter in that box.
- Referring to herbs by their correct names– An ingredient list that contains incorrect terms such as referring to indigo as “black henna” or to senna / cassia as “golden henna” or “natural henna” should be treated as suspect. While persisting misnomers may mean that there’s nothing afoot, it is a sign that the color warrants careful investigation.
- Responsive and knowledgeable product support– If you have any questions or concerns about an herbal hair color, contact the company. A good company will be responsive and able to detail their ingredients (though they may decline to tell you specific ratios) and be knowledgeable about their sourcing. A company that cannot tell you what is in their products, why it’s there, or where they sourced their ingredients from is a risk you don’t need to take.
- Passing the sniff test– Pure herbs should smell like plant matter. If you purchase a premixed herbal color and it has a chemical edge to the odor, discard it immediately.
Local vs Online
Perhaps you live near an Indian store that stocks henna or a health food store that sells herbal hair colors. How do you know if it’s any good compared to the henna and herbal hair color blends you can order online? Usually there are some tradeoffs to consider:
- Quality– Henna boxed and marketed as a hair coloring in brick and mortar stores often has a coarser sift, may have been improperly stored, and may not be fresh.
- Cost– Buying henna from an online supplier is often more expensive, especially once shipping costs are added. Buying in bulk can help mitigate this, but then you must store it properly.
- Confidence– The biggest benefit of ordering from a trusted supplier is that their henna is pure, often laboratory tested, certified organic, and they will have the paperwork to prove it. Trusted suppliers are most often, but not always, online. Their henna is often fresh with dated packaging, so you can be confident it hasn’t been sitting on a shelf for years.
Identifying quality henna and herbal hair colors vs. henna compounds
While this article uses Jamila henna as an example, the factors examined can be applied to any henna or herbal hair color. Jamila was chosen as an example because it is a high-quality henna produced in Pakistan by Abid & Company, and is readily found in many local and online stores, but is often targeted with counterfeits that mimic its packaging. Keep in mind that counterfeiters are constantly attempting to make their product even more convincing, and the differences noted here may change in the future. They are, however, excellent examples of some of the potential differences that may appear.
Look at the pictures below to consider each aspect of the packaging and how they help differentiate the two real boxes of Jamila (B and C) from the imposter (A). It’s important to also be aware that Jamila sells two different grades of henna: henna they intend for use on skin (C) and henna they intend for use on hair (B). Both of these are pure henna, but Abid considers the sift and dye potency of their skin-intended henna to be of superior quality.
All of the boxes of Jamila were wrapped in clear cellophane and factory-sealed upon purchasing.
Front of the box
The woman on the front of the box is nearly identical across all three boxes, with only slight variations. Box A seemed to be of lower print quality with some graininess to the image, the print quality of B was decent, and C was high-quality printing on foil packaging. B and C state that the henna was manufactured by Abid & Company and there is an ® mark by the word Jamila, while A does not have these identifiers. Also note the difference in titling. A calls itself “Superior Quality Hair Color,” while B is “Superior Quality Henna,” and C is “Preméirè Qualité Hénné.”
Sides of the box
Here, our imposter (A) has no bar code and again refers to itself as “Superior Quality Hair Color,” while both the real Jamila boxes refer to themselves as “Superior Quality Henna” and have barcodes. The false box of henna has a time and color chart (A), while the real Jamila hennas refer to themselves as “Preméirè Qualité Hénné,” state a weight of 100g, and include company information for Abid & Company.
Bottom of the box
The bottom of the imposter box (A) is blank, while the true Jamila henna boxes (B and C) have a manufacturing date, an expiration date, and batch number, and in the case of C, the crop date.
Top of the box
All the lettering is the same across all 3 boxes, but the skin-quality Jamila box (C) is also sealed with a metallic foil sticker. Although not evident on all boxes, there is a price difference as well. A was purchased for $1.99 at an Indian store, B was purchased from Amazon for $5.96, and C was purchased from a reputable online supplier for $7.00.
Inside the box & packets
After removing the outer cellophane and opening the boxes, more differences reveal themselves. The inside of the imposter box (A) is bare kraft cardboard, and the cardboard has a thinner, poor-quality feel to it. The packet containing the herbal powder for A also seems smaller, and the cellophane package has a brittle feel to it. B has crisper cardboard that says “henna for hair” on the inside, and its packet is made of a more pliable cellophane. C has a plain white inside to its box and the henna is in a foil packet stamped with the words “premium quality Jamila henna.”
Henna and other herbal hair colors are often, but not always, sold in 100g quantities. The two boxes of real Jamila (B and C) had an advertised weight of 100g (3.52oz) that was also represented on the packaging. A scale showed that these stated weights were both what the product actually delivered,101g for B and 106g for C. The imposter henna (A) did not declare a unit weight on the box at all, and when weighed, found that it was only 59g, including the packet the herbs were in. If A had been pure henna, the price difference that at first seems like a bargain evaporates because of the 60g of missing product.
Powder observations and odor
Each of the powders was an acceptable shade for henna, ranging from greenish-tan to a more sandy-green color. All of the sifts were acceptable, although A felt a little grittier than either B or C. Smelling each of the powders, however, revealed that while all of them had henna and possessed that distinctive sweet-hay odor, there was a slight acrid, chemical edge to the aroma of A.
Samples mixed with distilled water before dye release (left) and after dye release (right).
When the samples were blended with warm distilled water, B and C behaved as expected, staying a greenish-brown color prior to dye release. A, however, emitted an even stronger chemical smell when made into a mud and instantly turned bright reddish-orange. Dye release can be quick when steaming hot liquid is used, but still never as quickly as A did, and never with the pungent chemical smell that accompanied it.
The samples were then allowed to dye release for three hours. Again B and C behaved as expected, turning orange-brown on the top with greenish mud underneath the top layer, but A’s color had turned an even more unnatural oxblood red. Henna’s lawsone molecule is orange, and pure henna would never release a color that bordered on maroon.
Mohair samples (oxidized)
After dye release, a piece of white mohair (a type of animal fiber similar to human hair) was put into each sample for four hours. Even upon immediately removing the locks and before oxidization, our imposter sample had a strange metallic pink hue to its color. This persisted through oxidization.
Powder observations under a microscope, wet 150x
Samples of all the Jamila boxes were sent to a biology Ph.D. candidate with a light microscope for closer inspection. When viewed 150x magnification it was confirmed that all of the samples did indeed contain ground plant matter (all of the tiny green grains), henna in this case. However, closer inspection also revealed important differences. In A, the imposter henna, there are grains of finely ground henna, but there are also larger pieces of plant matter (the large straight structure) indicating that its sift isn’t as fine. There were also unidentifiable crystalline structures in A not visible in B or C, indicators of some sort of added impurity.
Powder observations under a microscope, dry 600x
When viewed dry and at an even higher magnification, it became clear that B and C were comprised entirely of finely-ground plant matter, but that was not the case for A. While there was henna, there were also red crystals visible, something that would not occur naturally with pure henna. It is unclear exactly what these additives are, but they are the likely source of the chemical smell observed earlier.
This doesn’t mean that you always have to have either a microscope, laboratory, or scientist friend on hand to verify your henna or herbal hair colors. While it was an added bonus in this scenario to be able to confirm on such a specific level that there were impurities in A, there were other signs that all pointed to it being impure and suspect.
The best thing to do is to never use any henna or herbal hair color that you feel might be tainted by chemicals, have other additives, or be compromised in any way. Saving a few bucks is simply not worth the risk.
NightBlooming Herbal Hair Colors are always made with quality ingredients and are 100% plant matter
NightBlooming herbal hair colors are a great place to start if you’re either unsure of your ability to discern impurities in henna. The picture above is all of our red hair colors strand tested on donated human hair. If you ever have any questions just ask!
This content is excerpted from Coloring Hair Naturally with Henna & Other Herbs, which has tons of information if you’re hungry for more! More than 300 pages of text, pictures, charts, diagrams, and recipes make Coloring Hair Naturally with Henna & Other Herbs the definitive resource for natural hair coloring. With it, you’ll be able to give yourself the hair you’ve always wanted, naturally.