Human Lab Rat is a new semi-regular feature where I
experiment with more extreme (i.e. not easily reversible) or unusual beauty
treatments and technology.

My pilates instructor, Nancy, has a head-turning mane of hair.
It is long, thick and luminous. The color is a striking and vibrant shade of
red, streaked with coppery highlights. It is the kind of color that is either
enviously natural, or the mark of a sensational colorist (the one that uses the
smallest brush to apply highlights with startling precision and unbelievable


I was having a bad-hair year.  My at-home hair coloring for the past two years left my
color less than dazzling—ranging from too brassy to too muddy.  I have been short of time and cash to
get my listless hair in the hands of a pro. I also wonder what all the chemical
processing has done to my hair, not to mention my entire body.

When I found out Nancy colored her hair—herself—with henna,
it was like hair manna from heaven. I could get gorgeous color from a product
that was not loaded with questionable chemicals. I ran to Whole Foods and
picked up a package of red henna that said it would turn my shade of blond into
a copper.  My dull hair was about
to get a seriously healthy makeover!

I raced home and ripped open the package, ready to get my
henna on. Then I read the instructions…. 
Since I bought the henna powder, I needed to mix it myself with water.
Distilled water, boiled in a non-metal container. And I needed a shower cap to
wrap my hair once the henna was applied. I needed a kitchen scale, to weigh the
powder out in ounces.  A tiny voice
of doubt starting ringing in my ears, as I hoofed it over to the drugstore in
search of distilled water.  I
called my husband.

“So, this henna stuff,” I choked out. “I have to get
distilled water. It needs to boil in a non-metal pot. I think I may be over my
head. This is a lot different than pouring the developer into the color and
shaking well.”

“You’ll be fine. How hard can it be?” he offered helpfully.
“We have an electronic kitchen scale under the sink.”

Of course, the next time he wants to buy something
ridiculous (like a kitchen scale we have not used in the three years since we bought it) and I say to him “when are we ever going to use XYZ,” he will
remind me of this very moment.

“I am kind of scared of the henna,” I shared with him.

“And you AREN’T scared of all the chemical crap you use!” He
was clearly done being my henna coach. 
But point taken—I got the goods and went home to mix up my concoction.

I measured and boiled and mixed and cooled. I pretended I was
a cosmetic chemist coming up with a marvelous new hair color “Devilish Red.” I
was getting excited again.

Even the gruelingly bizarre application process did not
deter my newfound excitement. Henna is not a smooth application process.  It’s goopy and sandy and impossible to
get out of a squirt container. You basically have to slop it on your hair with
your hands until everything is saturated. It sounds easier than it is.

Once applied, I put on the shower cap, wrapped that in a
towel, and settled down in front of the TV for a two-hour wait.  But I guess creating the new hottest
hair color is pretty exhausting and I fell asleep. For the entire night.

I woke up the next morning at 6 AM.  I wasn’t terribly concerned since I had
read that henna could be left on over night—the longer it sits, I read, the
deeper the color.

It took several washes to get the grit out of my hair.  When I finally blew it dry, my color
was…  Well… I was hoping for a
deep rich red with copper highlights. 
This was more like a lightly rusted penny—the red was more on the green

While the color was bad, the texture was worse.  I can fix a rusty penny, but not while
my hair was bone dry and brittle. 
It was so fragile that it broke off by simply brushing my fingers
through it.

Bottom line, henna appears to be much friendlier to thick, coarse hair.  If, like me, your hair is baby-fine, proceed with caution.  From what I have been told since my
misguided mission, putting henna over a prior chemical processes could have
contributed to all the damage. A patch test with henna is a must—you need to
know how your hair will react before slathering the grit all over your

Part two will explore how I finally escaped my henna hell
and brought my hair back to health.