Dying hair black with henna and indigo

There is a lot on the Internet about this topic.  I am not a hairdresser, just someone who likes having black hair.  I spent a lot of time researching how to do this, so I am sharing it with you.  See the FAQ below for more information.


What you need:

  • A weekend.  The first time you do the process, it will require a 1-2 day lead time for the henna to develop, before you apply it.  For how to speed the process, see the FAQ below.
  • Henna powder (pure)
  • Indigo powder (pure)
  • A lemon
  • Salt
  • Cornstarch
  • Mixing bowl and spoon
  • Coloring brush
  • Cape (washable)
  • Some towels (old or that you don’t mind staining)
  • Plastic wrap
  • Plastic processing cap
  • Surgical gloves
  • A few hair clips for sectioning

How to do it:

  • You need to process in two steps: first henna then indigo.
  • Start with clean hair
  • Prepare the henna: In mixing bowl, use spoon to mix 100g (about 1/4 cup) henna powder with:
    • juice of one lemon or lime
    • enough water to make it the consistency of thick pudding
  • Wait until “dye release”.    This takes about a day.  For details on how to identify dye release, see below.
  • Apply the paste.
    • This is similar to the coloring application process you hairdresser might use.
    • Put on the cape.
    • Put towels on the floor to catch drips.
    • Clip hair into sections.  If you have thicker hair you will need to divide it into more sections.
    • Put on surgical gloves.
    • Remove the clip from one section.
    • Paint the henna on from the mixing bowl using the coloring brush, one section at a time, getting at the roots.  (Note: I have dispensed with the brush except for touching up my temples.  Now I work the henna in with my hands, in the gloves, of course.)
    • After you are done with a hair section, add a little more paste and curl the hair around your fingers like a spit curl, and stick it to your head so it will stay as you move to the next section.  If it doesn’t stick, use a clip.
    • When you are done with all sections, add some more paste and work it in so you have complete coverage.  Be sure to get to all the roots.
    • When you are done, you will look like you have a cap of green mud on your head.
    • If in doubt, use more paste, not less.
  • Processing:
    • Put plastic wrap around your head.  (Two pieces works best, one atop your forehead, and smoothed back, and one along your hairline at the nape of your neck, smoothed forward — getting it in one sheet is hard.  The objective is to wrap your head and hair and keep it warm.)
    • Put on a processing cap on top.
    • Clean up your work area and tools, throw away gloves.
    • Henna takes at least 2 hours to process.  It is also fine to sleep overnight with it.  Keeping it warm improves the color process.  Put a towel on your pillow to avoid staining.
    • Remove and discard processing cap and Saran wrap.
    • Rinse henna off in the shower.
    • Do not shampoo.
  • At this point you will have a reddish color.  Your scalp may be reddish orange. If you feel uncomfortable about this and have to go outside before the indigo treatment, wear a headband between this step and the next.
  • Now repeat with the indigo, as follows:
    • Mix 100 g indigo powder with 1 T salt, 2 T cornstarch and enough water so it is pudding consistency
    • There is no need to wait for dye release, and you should use the paste within 10 minutes.
    • Apply as described  above in “apply the paste”
    • Process in the same way as the henna.  It is best to process overnight.  Indigo takes longer to process than henna.
  • Rinse and moisturize, but do not shampoo.
  • If all went well, you should now have black hair.
  • The color may deepen over the next day or two, so reserve judgment until then.
  • If your hair is still too red, you may need to repeat the indigo process.

Now, you probably have lots of questions:

  1. Do I really have to do this in two steps?  Can’t I combine the two?  According to conventional wisdom, no, you can’t.  You can combine henna and indigo for brown color, but not for black.  The two-step process is definitely the best result.  However, I have been trying the use of indigo only.  It works OK, but it doesn’t last as long as the two-step method, and doesn’t color the hair at the crown and temples, which is the hardest hair to color due to its thick cuticle.  These days, I usually do the two-step process only every couple of months.
  2. What kind of henna/indigo should I buy?  100% pure only — don’t buy anything with any additives — you don’t need additives.  Both should look like a green powder and smell earthy when mixed.  The finer the powder, the better.   You can buy both henna and indigo in Indian grocery stores or online.
  3. Does it smell?  Yes, a little, but it’s not a bad smell.  The powder smells kind of earthy, with a vegetal note.  It goes away when you rinse it off.  It smells better than chemical dye — that’s for sure!  I have also tried using some nice smelling essential oils around my hairline during processing, to tone down the odor of the henna and indigo.
  4. What is dye release?  The henna plant’s chemical composition has to break down to release the dyeing agent.  There is no way to rush this, however, see below for time saving tips.  You can tell the dye release has occurred when the mixture oxidizes to brown on the top layer.  If you have mixed it in a bowl, the top layer will be brown, and when you stir it you will see brown on top and green on the bottom. I recommend a clear glass bowl for mixing — it makes dye release a little easier to spot.  But don’t stress about it.  It takes about a day, so just leave it for a day, or two if the weather is cold.  The timing is not sensitive, but if you wait more than an extra day the dyeing won’t work.  Hotter weather will make dye release happen more quickly.  Indigo does not require this process, only henna.
  5. How much do I need?  Is 100g enough?  I have fine shoulder length hair and it is plenty.  If you have long or thick hair, try 200g.  It’s better to use extra than not enough.
  6. Any time saving tips?  Once you get dye release from the henna, you can freeze it and use it later, so you can skip the first few steps above next time and do the whole process in one day.  Once you are comfortable with the henna paste preparation process, make up a big batch and freeze it in plastic bags with a “single serving” in each bag.  Flattening them out makes for easy storage in the freezer.  When you are ready to use it later, thaw it out first (no microwave!).  I also mix the indigo, salt and cornstarch in advance, then just add water when I am ready to use it.
  7. I found a product that says it is black henna.  It might be indigo.  But check carefully what you are buying.  It is probably not what you want.  Don’t use anything but pure henna and pure indigo.
  8. Can’t I find a hairdresser to do this?  Maybe — if you are lucky.  Indian hairdressers will apply henna to hair very expertly, but you need to be clear with them on how you will do the two-step process.  Some will apply the henna and send you home for processing — that makes sense.  Bring a lovely hair scarf to put over your processing cap when you go home.  I’m not sure why more hairdressers won’t use henna.  My guess is that the processing takes too long to fit it into a normal salon experience, and the hairdressing schools don’t teach it.  But there are very few conventional hairdressers that will do henna.
  9. Why did you add cornstarch to the indigo?  Indigo alone is difficult to work into your hair.  Adding the cornstarch makes the paste smoother and easier to work with.  But it is still harder to work with than henna, because it is grittier.
  10. Is it messy?  Yes, a little, but no more than any hair dye.  If you get henna on the sink or floor it will not stain, if you wipe it up quickly.  Use towels that you can stain, as well as the cape, to minimize the impact.  Try to avoid getting henna/indigo on your skin or wash it off right away, or it will stain your skin.
  11. How do I sleep on it without staining my pillow?  Buy plastic pillow covers for your hair treatment nights.
  12. Is henna/indigo dangerous?  It is possible to be allergic to them, but they are just plants, and I expect less likely to harm you than chemical hair dyes.  If you are concerned, try a little bit on your skin as a test.
  13. I got a headache.  What’s wrong?  I have heard about this, and it sometimes happens to me.  Some people say it means you are slightly allergic, but I am not sure if that is right.  I recommend processing overnight; when I do that, I don’t get a headache.  Wrapping your hair up tight with plastic wrap will help reduce the smell.
  14. Why did you decide to use this method instead of using a regular hair color?  I had been getting my hair dyed at a salon for years, and it became brittle and dry, plus I hated spending hours at the hairdresser and paying a fortune to get my hair colored.   So far, I am extremely happy with the results of henna/indigo.  The supplies are cheap, and I can do the job at home on my own schedule.  I am very clumsy with hair care, but I can do a henna color.  It’s a fairly forgiving process.
  15. The front of my forehead/temples are still gray — what’s wrong?  These are the hardest parts to dye.  It’s a trade-off between dyeing too much scalp and covering those front hairs.  They also are hard to dye because they may have more cuticle than other hairs.  I just consider the little grays to be a mark of wisdom that brightens the face, and I’ve stopped trying to get them all.  If it bothers you, buy some Wow to touch it up between washings.

Here are some recommendations for supplies, but these are just for your information — I am not endorsing them.

Here are some of the sites I used to research this process.  I found most of them have a lot of text, and are hard to wade through, or a bit preachy, which is why I wrote this page.  They have lots of information and opinions.  They probably know more than me, so check them out.

Update:  I have tried mixing indigo with oils (coconut, and separately argan) to improve the consistency, but while that makes the mixture easier to work into the hair, it does not work well for dyeing.