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How do Natural Dyes Work

May 19, 2022

Just like how leaves & seeds can dye natural fibres, some plants can be used to dye hair naturally and safely. The natural dye from these plants coats each strand of hair. The dye adheres to the hair cuticle and develops the colour by natural oxidation. 

Henna, Indigo and Senna powders are dried powdered leaves and contain naturally occurring dye molecules that bind with the keratin of the hair & colour it. Henna contains an orange-red dye, Indigo has a blue-green dye and Senna contains a yellow dye molecule. These dye molecules will stain the keratin which is the protein of the hair and effectively dye the hair. Henna binds very efficiently with the keratin and dye is pretty permanent, but Indigo & Senna do not bind as efficiently as henna and will need to be refreshed more often. 

Henna, Indigo & Senna can be combined in differing proportions to give different shades of colour to grey hair.

Henna by itself can give shades of orange-red to auburn
Henna – Indigo mix can give shades of light brown to brown-black
Senna by itself gives a light blonde colour on greying blonde hair
Henna – Senna mix can give shades of strawberry blonde to copper red
Henna- Senna – Indigo mix can give shades of dark blondes to neutral to cool blondes. 
Indigo by itself is a blue to green-blue dye

If you use the same mix on different heads of hair, you will find that the shades could be slightly different. This is due to various factors. These natural dyes do not affect the melanin of the hair. But as they adhere to the keratin, which is the protein molecule of the hair, the structure of the keratin will determine the absorbency of the dye. Some hair are more absorbent than others, so the dye uptake is very good. For others, you may have to repeat a couple of times to get the desired colour. Once you attain the colour, then that colour is pretty permanent & you will need to colour only the re-growths often. The whole head of hair can be done to refresh the colour, or darken the colour, however often you want. 

There are some general guidelines which are covered in other blogs, but the best way to work out the colour, is to do a test run on some hair harvested from your brush. These plant dyes when applied, may appear bright after the first rinse. Don’t be in a hurry to re-colour, if you find the colour light or bright, the colour will take about a week or two to oxidise into its final color. Start lighter when in doubt. It is easier to re-apply with a darker mix than it is to lighten. 

Some fruit juices and fruit powders can be used as additives to Henna - Indigo - Senna base to add another colour dimension but most of these are not shelf stable & will wash off easily.  

  • Beetroot powder or pureed flesh when added to Henna will give a slight burgundy colour but will wash out easily.
  • Madder can temporarily stain hair rich red, but fades after a few washes.
  • Red Hibiscus flower when soaked overnight & the water added to Henna may give some red highlights, but again it is not shelf stable & washes off.

 Amla powder (Indian Gooseberry) is a dried, powdered berry. It does not contain a dye but when used with Henna mutes the brightness of the Henna. Amla contains an acid which lends ash tones to Henna – Indigo – Senna mixes.

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