Thursday 26 January 2012

Sh!tshow: Or, a Poop Helmet Party

Some time ago, I promised to follow up my blog post on tricks for keeping skin happy despite the rigors of performance makeup with a post on hair. As ever, I am late with this, but I hope that a flamboyant title and photos of me covered in what appears to be goose poop will make up for the delay.

For years, my hair has been a key identifying feature—when there’s more than one Kim around, I’m usually the redheaded one. It may be of some surprise that my natural hair color is not in fact red, but rather blonde.

I grew up with inspiring redheads like Red Fraggle, Ariel, Anne of Green Gables and Pippi Longstocking. My first foray into the ginger realm was at the age of twelve, when I used a temporary red coloring to great comic effect. It wasn’t until much later, when I was out just out of high school, that I revisited red hair, and that time it went much better. Thus began a longstanding relationship with Feria, which I broke off over three years ago in favor of henna, which is the topic of this post. (For those who have met my husband: our natural coloring is nearly identical, which has of course led to more than one joke about our potential relation to each other. But I digress.)

Henna is a plant—lawsonia inermis—which has been used for thousands of years to color skin, hair and nails. It works by releasing an organic compound, lawsone, which is able to bind to keratin, a protein present in hair, skin and nails. Henna has gotten an undeserved bad rep, thanks mostly to the impatience of the 20th Century, but prior to that it had a long and illustrious history as a beauty aid and auspicious ornamentation for special occasions.

Henna is not to be taken lightly, however. The only method of henna coloring I’d recommend is using either pure henna powder or Lush’s wonderful henna bars. Anything else, and especially anything that comes in a box marketed as “natural” hair coloring, I’d avoid like the plague. Most of the horror stories about henna turning hair green or frying hair come from the admixture of chemicals, especially metallic salts, which are meant to reduce the time it takes for henna color to develop on the hair. (In some of these boxed “herbal” hair colorants, there may be little to no henna at all.) When using pure henna, be prepared to allow several hours for the lawsone to saturate the hair; anything that promises to do the same job in less time is using chemical trickery which can produce very mysterious results should you decide to change hair color down the road. (It is chemical reactions between the hidden nasties in these “natural” colorants and other products like peroxide which has lead so many stylists to be negative about the use of henna.)

The single best reference I’d recommend to anyone contemplating the use of henna is Catherine Cartwright-Jones’s Henna for Hair, which is available as a free ebook from her website of the same name. Cartwright-Jones has devoted herself to the research of henna’s history and use, and her reference is an excellent guide to those curious about using this ancient method of beautification. The Wikipedia entry on henna is also a good place to start—in fact, the section detailing henna’s history as a hair dye features a photo of the very henna bar I use on my own hair.

Henna is for the dedicated. I started researching henna for hair after several years of using synthetic dyes. I did lots of testing on samples of my hair to see how the color looked over the synthetic dyes, and I also tested re-coloring over hennaed samples to be sure that I wouldn’t have any surprise chemical reactions should I decide to change my color down the road.

I would not recommend henna to anyone who changes her hair color frequently; however, if you are interested in a lovely, stable, conditioning red color without the use of burning synthetic dyes, it is a fantastic choice. With henna, my hair has never had the instability of color that I battled with synthetic dyes, and the dryness and breakage I used to experience is a fading memory. My long hair has more shine and life in it now than it ever did before.

Okay. Onto the poopy stuff.
I use Lush’s Caca Rouge bar to get my hair as red as can be. Lush’s bars have some advantages over powdered henna, in my opinion: they are pure henna powder, with fragrant spices, bound together with cocoa butter. This makes them wonderfully conditioning, and the scent is more akin to a spice cabinet than the usual freshly cut hay aroma of henna alone. Also, Lush’s bars (which look like giant blocks of chocolate) have lines that allow the savvy user to chop off just the right amount, or come up with recipes for colors by incorporating bits of various shades. (There’s also a Caca Brun, Caca Marron, and Caca Noir, which are more brunette, chestnut and black-blue, respectively. These mixtures contain coffee or indigo to balance the coppery red of the henna and produce different hues.)

Aside from the henna block, there’s some other equipment required. A metal bowl that can double as a bain marie is handy. A grater is good for taking that brick of henna down into a powdery form. Rubber gloves will keep the henna from coloring hands while grating and applying it. A pick or sectioning comb is good for parting the hair as henna is dolloped onto roots. I also use two black hand towels, plastic wrap, and duct tape—we’ll get to that later.

The first thing I do is get all my equipment lined up. Once all the henna is on, I want to be able to grab everything quickly and easily, or have it prepared for my lovely assistant. (I highly recommend having one of these handy as well—my husband is usually drafted for duty.) Also, do any damage control necessary before starting. Henna doesn’t stain most surfaces as fast as synthetic dyes, but it does make a mess, especially on fabrics. Henna’s lawsone pigment doesn’t turn things orange as much as one might expect, but the leafy greens do come out on towels, sheets and fabric shower curtains, making tenacious stains. I have a special pillow that’s reserved for henna nights, and I also put dark sheets on the bed just in case. While I’m getting my equipment ready, I also safety pin one of my black hand towels around my pillow.

If this talk of pillows and bed linens has raised an eyebrow, let me explain—I’m going to sleep in the henna. In order to get my deep red color, I leave the henna on for at least eight hours. Like I said, this is hair color for the hardcore.

Next, I put the kettle on. I boil a lot of water, and I make a cup of tea. Then, I get my gloves on and grate that bar of henna down to nothing. I recommend watching TED talks while doing this; it takes a while, and is a bit of a workout.
When it’s all done, I have a bowl of fragrant green powder. This bowl goes on top of a pot with about an inch of hot water, which I then simmer to gently heat the henna in the bowl. To this, I gradually add enough of my (now slightly cooled) hot water to form a paste—and I have to be careful. All of the liquid I add to the mixture will eventually be on my head, and it can drip throughout the night. Since the Lush henna bars are full of cocoa butter, the warm water and gentle heating will melt the solid fats in the powder, so less water is necessary than one might initially expect. I keep adding water and stirring until I have a thick paste, something like a cake batter or thick yogurt.

I should emphasize that this is really the tricky part. Boiling water (or boiling the paste) brings out brassy tones in the henna, so it’s important to be gentle and not overcook it. Also, getting the consistency right is crucial for all that comes after—too thick and there’s less henna to go around and poor coverage, too thin and the henna is tricky to put on and prone to running. However, this is also one of my favorite bits, because I feel like a witch, stirring my cauldron of fragrant herbal magic. Y'know... poopy magic, but magic nonetheless.
While waiting for the henna to reach a less torturous temperature for my scalp, I divide my hair into two sections—one from ear to ear over the crown, and the other gathered into a ponytail at the back. Henna paste doesn’t slide down the hair shaft the way that runnier synthetic dyes do, so I have to be more attentive to the distribution along the roots. As the henna heats, the paste gradually releases the lawsone pigment, and the color changes from mostly green to more of a brownish red. (This takes 20 minutes or so.) Once it’s a good consistency and reddish, I turn the heat off and let the henna cool a bit before I move the show to the bathroom.

I start with the top section of the hair, beginning at my usual part and working in rows down toward one ear. At each exposed section of root, I dollop henna to either side of the part, and then use my pick to flip the newly poopy hair out of the way, smooshing it flat against the head as I go. I take the hair a little at a time, and try to be thorough, making sure there’s good coverage and that the line between the crown and back sections is also covered. Once I’ve gotten all the way down to one ear, I go back up to the original part, flip the poopy hair over and repeat the process on the other side. Once the whole front of the head is done from the roots, I pile the hair up on top and double check my hairline, making sure that the areas around the forehead and ears look sensible and don’t have any big splotches waiting to happen.

I should mention here that this is a messy process, and there is a risk of dyeing skin if care isn’t taken. However, I haven’t found that henna takes to my skin quickly enough to warrant smearing Vaseline (or similar) around my hairline. Some would say this is risky--do as I do only at your own risk. With mixtures containing indigo, a protective barrier seems to be more important. If in doubt, definitely apply a layer of heavy protective goop to prevent coloring outside the lines, and clean up any plops of henna as quickly as possible.

Once I’ve reached the back section, I call my lovely assistant in from his Xbox. It’s also possible to do this alone, but with eyes mounted on the front of the head, it’s often easier to have a helping hand or two. Applying henna to the back is much the same as the top—starting at the part between the crown and the back ponytailed section, apply the henna, flip the hair up, repeat. Once the whole back section is done, hairline checked, I flip my head upside down and work the remaining henna paste through the length of my hair with my hands. Once the length is saturated with henna, I wind it into a poopy coil on top of my head and pop a hair elastic over it to keep it from shifting around. This is a very, very poopy process. By the end, I have a complete poop helmet. It smells great, though.

Now, I get ready for bed. I have my lovely assistant grab the plastic wrap, and we wind it around the poop helmet to contain any drips. (I prefer to keep the wrap tucked under my ears, which seems to seal tighter and prevents leaks from dribbling directly into my ears.) Then, I use the other black towel to construct a classic post-shower wrap, with a twist—this one gets duct taped in place. Starting with the back, where the longest bit of towel drapes down, my lovely assistant helps me tape around the base of this flattering headgear, making sure it’s snug but not overly tight.

Fully glamorous, it is now time to clean off any wayward henna before accidental tattoos become set. Then, I go to bed as quickly as possible--as the henna sits on my head, gravity starts to pull the excess liquid down, so getting horizontal prevents the drips from escaping from my protective headgear.

Rinsing henna out is an art in itself. The plant matter is like sawdust; in the Lush bars, there’s also cocoa butter to rinse, which requires warm water and patience. My best method for this bit is to run a shallow, warm bath, which I allow myself to enjoy for a moment before dunking my poop helmet in to dissolve. This gets the bulk of it out of my hair. I then drain this mightily green bath (seriously, it looks like Swamp Thing hit it) and then work a generous amount of conditioner through my hair, easing out the little leafy bits. Then, a quick shower with shampoo and conditioner gets everything back to normal. And then I scrub the bathtub.

The color one gets with henna only grows richer over time. With successive application, the color deepens, and even on very dark hair it can add a breathtaking glow that it at its peak in sunshine. There’s also something fabulously particular about how henna looks on any individual’s hair—the tone of your natural highlights combines in a unique way with the lawsone stain, so results vary. The natural red undertones in my hair, which made it a golden blonde in my youth, now layer with the red of the henna to create a deep, natural red that withstands the sun’s rays, chlorine in swimming pools and repeated shampooing. No synthetic dye I ever used could match it.

While this process may seem a bit over the top, in reality the “active time” is about the same as dyeing my hair with a synthetic boxed dye—I sleep through the long part. (As is traditional—often, when North African women do their henna, they indulge themselves in a women’s day full of bathing and napping.)

For all of this henna magic, I have to thank my gorgeous friend Natalia for being the brave pioneer amongst my pals. Without her experimentation with the best ways of wrangling the stuff, I would have stained a lot of things and might have missed out on years of witchery and gorgeous hair. And of course, I owe many thanks to Catherine Cartwright-Jones for resurrecting henna’s history and repairing its reputation. These days, my red hair puts me in solidarity with a fine line of fabulous women, from Fatima to the Pre-Raphaelite beauties and Lucille Ball, and I think that’s worth the effort.


  1. This is a brilliant post! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience Kim :)

    I was just wondering how often you have to re-henna your hair? I love having a red tone to my hair (naturally brunette) and usually get it dyed with semi-permanent synthetic dye every 6-8 months or so. I use semi so I don't damage my hair too much and so it fades more naturally - I hate roots and rarely get to the salon. Is the henna high-maintenance?

    p.s. signed in as google name but this is Hannah T from London - hi!

  2. Hi Hannah! Sorry it took me so long to see this--I never got a notification that you'd posted! I usually do my henna every 6 weeks or so. (I probably should do it more like once a month.) The color doesn't fade, and, since the color just goes over the top of your natural tone, the root situation is less brutal than it would be with dyes that lighten and color.

    I think, it I got into the habit of doing it more often, I could do a less intense version of what I've outlined above. It's totally possible to touch-up or blend the roots with a lighter, shorter application--it just seems that I put it off to the point of desperation. ;)