How To Use Henna To Upgrade Your Nails

They'll be strong, healthy, and red 24/7.
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Danielle
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They'll be strong, healthy, and red 24/7.

There really isn’t a whole lot of information out there on how to use henna on your nails. However, with much research and trial, I have come up with a basic method for using henna to have translucent, strong, red nails that are long-lasting and unique.  

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Henna is a plant that has been used for thousands of years in tropical regions of the world. Evidence of henna used as hair dye goes back about 6,000 years in Africa, Western and Southern Asia, and Australia. Today, Henna grows all around the world, mainly around the equator, as it needs very warm temperatures to develop it’s Lawsonia molecules, which is where the color comes from.  

These molecules bind to the keratin in our skin, hair and nails to create a reddish-orange stain. Henna is used cosmetically to dye nails and skin in either large, bright swaths, or is artfully applied to create innumerable gorgeous designs.  

The color itself can last a few days or weeks on skin, depending on how and where it's applied. On hair, it creates a permanent effect, and sometimes cannot be dyed over with conventional hair dyes. On nails, henna creates a reddish stain for about a week without any protection from water and soap but can last until the nail grows out with proper maintenance.   

Hennotannic acid is responsible for this color. It bonds permanently with cells, and lasts until those cells are shed; this means that body-art henna will fade gradually until completely disappearing, which is pretty darn cool.  

Choosing a henna to use is all about preference. You can buy pre-mixed creams and pastes, but you really should be wary. Many additives that are OK for some can cause contact dermatitis in others, especially in hair-based formulas. The simplest way to make sure your product is pure is to mix it yourself with a powdered formula.  

Jamila brand is considered BAQ (body art quality), which is generally a safer product. Stay completely away from  "black" hennas--these can contain para-phenylenediamine, or PPD’s which, ahem, are also present in some commercial box hair colors. This chemical causes burning, sensitivity and other health problems.  

Henna is always a family of reddish, orange, and brownish colors; anything else has other pigments added. Some--such as cassia, annatto, indigo, and walnut--are perfectly safe, but others are just not safe for topical use.  

A simple henna recipe can be made in a small batch in a ziplock bag to skip making a mess. You need no more than a chickpea-sized ball of product for each nail application, so one small box of henna will outlast its use-by date if you only use it on your nails.  

The basic gist is to activate the molecules with an acidic component so they can penetrate the skin. Most use lemon juice. The mixture must sit for 6 to 12 hours while the molecules are hydrolyzed by the acid. This sets the chemical reaction in motion, so as the moist henna sits on a keratin surface, the lawsone travels into it, and the cell holds onto the color until that cell dies and is shed.

My Simple Henna Formula

In a small ziplock bag mix the following:

• 1tbs Body art quality henna powder

• add lemon juice by the ⅛ tsp until a thick paste is formed

• seal bag, mix well, and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours

While your paste is chillin’, let's talk about the pros and cons of using henna for a nail color. 

I personally turned to henna for a few reasons. It is a widely used cure for nail ailments in other parts of the world. Henna’s anti-microbial, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial action is why. Construction workers and other outdoorsman in hot countries put henna leaves in their boots to ward off athletes foot and nail fungus. A bonus is the embedded color molecules, when applied as a paste, also harden (strengthen) the hair and nails.

I was having some SERIOUS nail issues a few years back. I went to a cheapie nail salon to get a mani/pedi, and decided to get a gel manicure. This came with a 20-minute foot massage--20 minutes! I was basically passing out, and while that was happening, the nail technician applied not gel to my nails, but acrylic powder! 

This was devastating to me, as I was a previously recovered acrylic addict, which is not an easy habit to break. I was also an ass-busting bartender and simultaneously a bombshell cocktail waitress, meaning my nails needed to look perfect enough to place a glass of Dom P on a well-lit napkin but durable enough to power pour eight vodka sodas sometimes in the same week. This meant I would be keeping the sordid nail coating for awhile. (Needless to say, the final insult came when that great foot massage and pedi also came with some toenail fungus a few weeks later. GREAT.) 

I’m a damned beauty school grad--I knew better. But I cheaped out and paid a bigger price. I tried fighting off the toenail fungus, it was the kind that made the nails soft and peely. Then, constant exposure to water at work left my fingernails separating from the nail bed in some places. 

I scoured my natural cure boards and Ayurvedic reading and settled upon a solution for my sad fingers and toes. Henna to the rescue! And rescue it did.  

I patiently applied henna paste to all 20 nail beds, and wrapped henna around both ring fingers, where the nais were almost separated halfway down the nail bed. (GROSS!) After about a month, my nails were freaking perfect.  

And here, two-ish years later, they are beyond perfect. They are strong, healthy, fungus-free, fully attached to the nail bed, and red 24/7, which is exactly what I wanted.  

Before you jump on it and get your hands dirty (and you might) you really need to know the truth: This is a potentially VERY messy procedure. Once the dye is active, it will stain the hell out of ANYTHING and EVERYTHING. This will stain your skin even if you catch it and wipe it off right away. I work with only a pea-sized amount at a time, and apply it with an angled eyeliner brush.   

Another con is color consistency. Some nails get darker than others, sometimes it fades and looks really yucky, kind of like blood, which not everyone is down with. 

The good news is that Marci’s glue mani saver keeps things on-point, and that if you use the henna drying on your nails as an excuse to sit the eff still for more than five minutes, major messes can be avoided. 

For color issues, you can add a number of essential oils to darken the formula. Tea tree, eucalyptus, lavender, and clove can all be used. I use a product called Shelly Oil, which is a mixture of cajeput, eucalyptus, and citronella. It smells like bug spray, but makes the red take deeply.

The Process

• Make sure nails are free of all old polish and debris, and are filed neatly with cuticles pushed back.

• Wipe nails clean with vinegar to remove any traces of dirt, grime, or oil.

Apply Elmers glue to cuticles.

Apply Elmer's glue to cuticles.

Dab a bit of essential oil (or shelly oil) onto nails to help the henna sink in.

Dab a bit of essential oil (or shelly oil) onto nails to help the henna sink in.

Place a pea-sized dab of dye-released henna onto a cotton ball and use it to paint nails with a thin layer of henna, painting the dominant hand first.  Paint a few layers on until you have an opaque coating on the whole nail.

Place a pea-sized dab of dye-released henna onto a cotton ball and use it to paint nails with a thin layer of henna, painting the dominant hand first. Paint a few layers on until you have an opaque coating on the whole nail.

Allow to remain on nails for as long as possible, at least 1 hour.

Allow to remain on nails for as long as possible--at least one hour.

Carefully wipe off with cotton ball soaked in ACV.

Carefully wipe off with cotton ball soaked in ACV.

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After removing all traces of the paste, apply two coats of your favorite top coat.

Some Helpful Tips

• Try not to fall asleep with the henna on unless you want to end up like CeCe from New Girl. I used to try to leave the dried paste on my nails overnight, but I usually woke up to more than one stain, and the last straw was when I got one on my face.

• Work with the smallest amount of paste you can, if you drip it on something, you won’t be happy.  

• The color builds up with further applications, so if you want to go extra-bright, skip the topcoat until you have completed 2 or 3 separate coats with the paste.

Post pictures of your results if you try it!