Lighten Too-Dark Henna without Damage
When I first started using henna, now nearly 20 years ago, the fact that it would layer up, with each application making the color darker and cooler, wasn’t well-known and I ended up wanting to lighten my too-dark henna. My hair at the time was immensely damaged and I did multiple whole-head henna applications hoping to strengthen it enough so it would at least stop crumbling. It did, but the color was a far cry from the natural ginger-red I wanted–it was a cool burgundy tone that, while objectively lovely, clashed horribly with my skin and made me look jaundiced.
What I wanted was this:
What I had attached to my head, was this:
While trying a long list of fruitless ways to lighten my too-dark henna (oil treatments, ColorOops, yogurt treatments, honeyOur honey is from our own bees, organically and ethically kept with the goal of putting more pollinators into the world rather than maximizing honey production. Chock full of humectants that nourish and moisture the hair, skin and the body, honey is also an anti-microbial and anti-fungal. More), I started developing Fire Genasi. THAT worked like a charm on my new growth, giving me natural-colored ginger hair. I also swapped from whole-head applications to only doing my roots (using the Foolproof Braided Method that made wrangling multiple feet of hair surprisingly easy).
Which got me to here:
The top several inches were the bright new-penny copper I wanted, but the blasted length, with its multiple applications of full-strength henna, was still dark red, even in direct sunlight. With more than three feet of hair, I was looking at 6 years or so to grow it all out. I’d already grown out immensely damaged hair once, and I knew I could do it again if everything went sideways, so I started researching how to best lighten my hair and ultimately settled on Sun-In.
*gasps of shock and surprise*
I know, I know, just hear me out.
Lightening Hair Naturally (and not so Naturally)
I dedicate an entire chapter to this in Coloring Hair Naturally with Henna & Other Herbs, but here’s the tl:dr:
There is only one thing that lightens hair: breaking down the melanin in it. There are two types of melanin, pheomelanin (responsible for red hues) and eumelanin (responsible for brown and black hues). Pheomelanin is more stable, and harder to break down, which is why “bad” bleach jobs give brassy golden-red hair–in these cases the eumelanin (brown and black) is broken down, leaving the tougher, harder to lift pheomelanin (red tones) behind.
You need to bust out some serious lightening power to break down pheomelanin, and this is where’s where the damage comes in: melanin, in all its forms, is a protein. So is keratin, which your hair’s structure is comprised of. In bold, because it’s that important: You cannot selectively damage melanin and not damage the keratin, so lightening and damage happen in unison.
But, but, what about natural methods, like honeyOur honey is from our own bees, organically and ethically kept with the goal of putting more pollinators into the world rather than maximizing honey production. Chock full of humectants that nourish and moisture the hair, skin and the body, honey is also an anti-microbial and anti-fungal. More and cinnamon? Or lemon juice and sunlight? I actually detail exactly how these two methods work and how to do them in in Coloring Hair Naturally with Henna & Other Herbs, but understand that natural methods work by the exact same methods as the “unnatural” chemical ones, they are just weaker and therefore easier to do in incremental steps and stop before severe damage occurs.
Sunlight & Hydrogen Peroxide
The ultraviolet light in sunlight oxidizes melanin into a colorless compound. This is why your hair gets lighter with sun exposure over time. Sunlight also affects a protein group in the hair called thiols. When thiols are unoxidized, hairs slide easily against one another. Once oxidized by sunlight, these thiols change into sulfonic acid, raising the cuticle and causing hair to tangle. Sunlight and sunlight-enhancing lightening treatments, then, are best followed by treatments that close the cuticle and seal in moisture. Because UV light is also highly damaging to skin, always protect your skin with sunscreen or physical barriers if using sunlight to lighten hair.
Since hair is protein-based, hydrogen peroxide attacks melanin and the structure of hair in equal measures. Hydrogen peroxide also can damage lipids on the surface of the hair, resulting in dryness. A 6% peroxide solution is often required, but lower amounts of 3% will produce lightening effects over time. Even lower percentages of naturally occurring peroxide, such as those found in cinnamon, honeyOur honey is from our own bees, organically and ethically kept with the goal of putting more pollinators into the world rather than maximizing honey production. Chock full of humectants that nourish and moisture the hair, skin and the body, honey is also an anti-microbial and anti-fungal. More, or olive oil, can lighten hair in very small increments given enough applications. These small amounts, however, may not impact very dark or very resistant hair at all.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that hennaed hair falls into the “very resistant” category when it comes to lightening too dark henna.
If you want to give the natural methods in Coloring Hair Naturally with Henna & Other Herbs a go first and see if those produce the lightening you want, go ahead. I tried them all, and while they lightened the natural ash blonde strand tests I had nicely, they didn’t put a dent in my hennaed hair, not even after multiple applications. Armed with the research saying that Sun-In was really just a stronger version of the honeyOur honey is from our own bees, organically and ethically kept with the goal of putting more pollinators into the world rather than maximizing honey production. Chock full of humectants that nourish and moisture the hair, skin and the body, honey is also an anti-microbial and anti-fungal. More and cinnamon treatment, I set to work strand testing, and it WORKED.
I went from the first picture (multiple applications of full strength henna), to roots-only Fire Genasi for a few inches. This gave me a color to match my lightening efforts to. And the last picture is the after Sun-In. No damage, perfect match to my Fire Genasi roots. I was over the moon. (I also did this now 11 years ago. I can conclusively say there was zero damage from doing this because in the 6 years it’d have taken to grow it all out, it never once manifested, even long after the fact.) Those were 6 years I got to spend my hair instead of hating it for being too dark for my skin.
Why Sun-In Works to Lighten Too Dark Henna
If one of the natural methods works for you, great! But odds are if you have multiple layers of henna you may find you need something stronger. The reason Sun-In worked so well, and I was able to do it without damage is that I:
- Did pre-lightening protective treatments with Freya’s Hair Salve
- Lightened over the course of several sessions so I could gauge both color and any damage as I went
- Only needed to lighten enough to break down the eumelanin. It’s okay that Sun-In doesn’t have the lifting power to get through the pheomelanin (the red pigments) because our goal IS red, just a lighter one. We are not trying to get to blonde with Sun-In, and I’d never recommend you try.
Pre-Lightening Protection with NightBlooming Hair Salves
All of my hair salves contain coconut oil, which is unique in the oil world in that it penetrates the hair shaft and helps prevent protein and moisture loss. While I could have used coconut oil on its own, I wanted the other ingredients in the hair salves to help further mitigate collateral damage to the proteins that give hair its structure. Doing this will likely reduce the effectiveness of some of the weaker natural lightening methods, but Sun-In is strong enough that I’m glad I took the extra precautions.
No matter if you’re using salve or coconut oil, the method for pre-lightening protection is the same.
Step 1– Melt the hair salve or coconut oil in your hands, then run your fingers through your hair, coating the strands. You’ll want to do this multiple times, aiming for a thin, even treatment. Stop before your hair starts looking greasy or clumping together.
Step 2– Put your hair up into a shower cap / wrap with plastic wrap and then put on a warm hat. Your body heat will help open the hair cuticle so the salve or coconut oil can penetrate deeper into the hair shaft. Allow to sit 1 hour before proceeding with Sun-In.
How to Lighten Too-Dark Hennaed Hair with Sun-In
Bear in mind that this is not a henna removal method. It is specifically meant for henna users whose hair has darkened with multiple applications of henna, or who have dark hair with henna on it and would like to make it brighter. The goal of this method is to make hennaed hair brighter and more coppery-orange. Trying to brighten henna more than a shade or three will likely result in damage and should instead be lightened and toned in multiple phases by a professional colorist.
Please note that Sun-In specifies that it is not for use on chemically colored hair. If you have chemical color under your henna, or think you may have used a henna compound in the past with unidentified additives, either strand test to be certain of how your hair will react or forgo this method entirely.
Do NOT expect this method to make you a pale copper redhead if your natural hair is dark brown or black, you likely cannot lighten that much without damage. If you decide to try, strand test excessively.
Actually follow the instructions. I strand tested and then slowly lightened my hair over the course of two months. I don’t want to hear, “But Melissa, I nuked my hair trying this, but I didn’t strand test and I used a whole bottle of Sun-In on dry hair, hit it with a hair dryer, and then went tanning on the beach and swimming in the ocean for 10 hours. Why did my hair evaporate?” Like everything else pertaining to henna, you are not rewarded for being impulsive. Be smart, strand test, go slow.
You will need:
- Sun-In (any of the several types will work, but if it matters I’ve used both the yellow and the pink bottles)
- A hair dryer
- NightBlooming Hair Salve or Coconut oil (optional)
- Plastic wrap or shower cap
Step 1– As an optional first step, you can use NightBlooming hair salves or coconut oil as a protective pre-treatment as detailed above.
Step 2– Mist hair with Sun-In, focusing on the areas you want to lighten. Comb through those areas with a plastic comb to ensure it is evenly coated.
Step 3– Apply heat with a hair dryer to the areas with Sun-In. Keep your free hand behind your hair to help keep it contained, but also to act as a heat gauge. If the air from the hair dryer is too hot on your hand, it is too hot for your hair.
Step 4– Once the areas containing Sun-In are dry, rinse the hair under cool water and towel-dry. You can repeat steps 2 and 3 up to four times per lightening session. Finish with your favorite conditioner and more hair salve as a leave-in.
Step 5– Wash and condition hair. Henna may continue to lighten over the next 2-3 days. Wait at least one week in between lightening sessions so hair can fully develop in between each one.
And the results of lightening too dark henna!
All told it took me three lightening sessions spread across two months to attain these results. I used about a third of the bottle each time (keeping in mind my hair is long, but not all that thick.)
Previous two-toned bun:
And after, with a lighter, natural ginger color that played much nicer with my complexion:
And the length:
Think this is in depth?
It’s only three pages from an entire book I wrote about herbal hair coloring.
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.
3 thoughts on “How to Lighten Too-Dark Henna to Natural Ginger Copper”
Do you think this might work with amla? I added a fair amount of amla to my first henna application. That way it wouldn’t be such a change from my younger hair color. I then tried a lighter color mix. My top 6 inches are a light strawberry blonde. I’d love to remove the brown tones from the length.
Is the amla melanin eumelanin? If so, maybe the Sun In will work for me.
Amla doesn’t contain melanin 🙂 It does contain gallic acid, ellagic acid, and ascorbic acid. Gallic acid is the one that lends the ashy color, which cools down the color of other dyes. The thing to keep in mind with the Sun-In is that it isn’t removing the color, it’s lightening the hair UNDER the color. I think you might want to try something like a Vitamin C treatment or ColorOops / ColorB4 on amla instead 🙂 There’s instructions in Coloring Hair Naturally with Henna & Other Herbs, but if you’d like just specific instructions on that, hit me up on Etsy and I can send you a few pages 🙂
Thanks Melissa. I have your book and will take a look at it.