High on henna


POSTED: Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lisa Nematjanova had been working as a stylist for seven years when she started suffering allergic reactions to the chemicals last year. At first, she tried to ignore the symptoms of redness and blotchiness, but by May it had built up to the point where simply mixing hair color or the smell of hairspray set off the reaction.

“;Now, I can't even step into a regular salon,”; she said.

A patch test at her doctor's office revealed she was allergic to propylene glycol, commonly used in everyday cosmetics, as well as formaldehyde and paraphenylenediamine used in hair and textile dyes.

Allergies are unpredictable. They can occur the first time a person comes into contact with a particular allergen, or not be revealed for several years. This time, it threatened to cost Nematjanova her livelihood. She ended up quitting her job immediately.

“;I couldn't go back. I had no choice, really,”; she said. “;I had to remove myself from that environment.”;

She spent a soul-searching month at home, trying to figure out what to do. “;I love doing hair and I thought I'm probably not the only person who has this problem.”;

She didn't want to leave her clients in a lurch, so she continued to cut hair while she sought out solutions. Her research eventually led her to an ancient, natural method of coloring hair with plant-based henna, which is now the signature service at Megumi Organic Salon, which she opened in July. “;It felt right, as if it was meant for me to do this,”; she said.

As Honolulu's first fully organic hair salon, Megumi (Nematjanova's middle name) is geared toward those seeking professional hair color and styling without abrasive chemicals or use of petroleum- or non-carbon-based products.

Nematjanova offers haircuts, shampoo, conditioning and color using organic henna, indigo and other plants, charging about $70 to $120 for coloring. She does not offer perms or hair relaxing.

She did a lot of research and testing before finding henna suitable for her use, because not all henna is harmless. She found that some contain metallic salts that react with other products “;that will melt your hair,”; she said.

Mixed with indigo, henna creates a warm brown color, and to achieve black locks, a two-hour henna service is followed with an hour-long indigo treatment. Due to the time involved, Nematjanova said her clients are not afraid to run their errands while the dyes work their magic.

ALTHOUGH HENNA'S use is widespread around the world, it enjoyed its greatest popularity in the 1970s, when some of the same social and economic conditions that exist today were in place.

During a decade-long oil crisis that triggered slow economic growth, inflation and high unemployment, ecologic awareness took root, coinciding with hippie culture and a strong D.I.Y. movement. Society went back to environmentally sound and money-saving basics, and that included making their own clothes and using henna for at-home hair coloring and semi-permanent hand tattoos.

All that went out the door in the '80s, the era of extreme hair led by platinum-blond Madonna, and New Wave and punk artists who favored multicolored, sculpted hair requiring a plethora of product.

Henna, which bathes the hair in a reddish glow, could not compete with all those tricks. It won't lift color out of hair, and Nematjanova said it's safe enough that women overseas sleep with it on.

Today's economic slowdown has forced a re-examination of consumerist behavior and new awareness of the environment.

Although Nematjanova said she has always been conscious of being green, it wasn't until she developed her allergy that it has become a way of life. “;Being aware and learning about it is the difference. I took the knowledge and took action.”;

Her salon is painted with VOC-free (volatile organic compounds that can be released into the air as gas) paint, and furnished with barber chairs, tables and mirrors she found through Craigslist, and because she's also allergic to chemicals associated with new clothing, she now buys all her clothing from thrift and secondhand stores.

“;As much as I can, I want to recycle,”; she said.

Instead of throwing away clippings from customers' hair, she's saving them to send to Matter of Trust, an organization that creates hair mats used to clean up oil spills in the ocean.

While many have already adopted the practice of recycling, green living takes another leap in mindset, a process that occurs in stages, rather than overnight.

“;Most people are not yet applying these green principles to their beauty regimes,”; Nematjanova said, adding, “;Without thinking about it, they are exposing their bodies to harmful chemicals during their daily routines.”;

Although her obvious customers would be those at high risk for allergic reactions, pregnant women concerned about their fetuses and those suffering from illness or cancer, she said, “;It should be for everyone, because who wants to be exposed to dangerous chemicals?

“;Using henna is a way of being beautiful naturally. It's also safe for the water supply. If you had a choice, what would you do?”;

Megumi Organic Salon is at 1137 11th Ave., second floor (behind Big City Diner) at top of stairs near Himalayan Kitchen. Open by appointment only. Call 626-5572.