The mestiza muse

A Guide to Tea Rinses

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Verna Meachum

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Disclaimer: Be aware that scalps can be sensitive to any and all DIY treatments. Using too much caffeine can cause scalp irritation.

A cup of tea can relax and soothe the body, mind, and soul, but did you know it can do wonders for your scalp and hair?

In a 2018 study done on men with androgenetic alopecia (in vivo), a 0.2% caffeine solution was used twice per day, increasing the number of hairs in the growing phase (anagen) by almost 11% – similar to the results from Minoxidil in the same study.

Where Does the Color in Tea Come from?

The color in tea comes from tannin, which often gets used as a catchall term for plant polyphenols, and because tannic acid can be an irritant that is dangerous when swallowed or inhaled, it often makes people hesitant about the term “tannin.” But the tannin in tea is chemically different from other tannin, and tea does not contain tannic acid (Journal of Pharmaceutical Science and Research).

Here is where things get a little tricky. In order to dye your hair for more than one wash, at least one of two things must happen. Either the polyphenols in the tea enter the hair shaft, undergo a process of oxidation, and color your hair or you must use a mordant or “fixer.” Otherwise, the dye sits on top of the cuticle layer and will be washed out the next time you shower.

Traditionally in dyeing textiles, catechin has been used with tannic acid, though it can also be used alone (Agricultural Ledger, Journal of the Society of the Chemical Industry). In this case, tannic acid serves as the fixer, also known as the mordant, which increases uptake and “stick-ability” of the dye. Because henna contains both catechins and tannic acid, it has both the dye component and the fixer to make hair dye last (Protein Textile Dyes).

The tannins in tea aren’t the same as those in henna and don’t contain this tannic acid, and the color won’t stick or be as saturated without it. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that tea won’t color your hair at all.

One report explained that while catechin and tannic acid created the deepest hues, similar color could be achieved by dyeing something several times with catechin. In that case, part of the coloring might be the result of oxidation (though as the article suggests, this likely won’t color your hair as much as it would if you used a fixer). Oxidation doesn’t necessarily happen with oxygen alone. In the case of traditional permanent dyes the oxidation is caused by the addition of hydrogen peroxide (Chemical Reviews).

How to Make a Tea Rinse

One of the best parts about tea rinses is that they’re cost-effective and easy to make at home. The caffeine in tea is a quickly-absorbed vasodilator to increase blood flow in the scalp and needs to sit for about 2 minutes to absorb into your skin before rinsing.

1. Brew 1-3 teabags in 5 cups of hot water and allow to cool. For high caffeine teas or a weaker solution, reduce the number of tea bags.

Try a cold brew tea rinse by leaving your tea bags to soak overnight. This is said to maintain the potency of the tea without boiling away the benefits.

Tip: After you finish, reuse your tea bags to de-puff your eyes and reduce dark circles (thanks, caffeine!) or cut them open to use the damp tea as a skin exfoliant.

2. When you’re ready to use your tea rinse, begin by washing your hair with your favorite cleanser. Once you’re done, leave your hair damp and be sure to check that your tea has cooled before use. Then prepare your rinse by funneling your tea into a spray bottle. I personally find it easier to pour the mixture on my scalp using a jug or wide mouth container.

3. Next, add the solution to your scalp and massage throughout your hair. Comb through to ensure all of your hair strands are covered.

4. Lastly, cover your hair with a plastic cap for up to thirty minutes and finish by rinsing your hair with cold water. There’s no need to shampoo after your tea rinse, just rinse with lukewarm water and condition or deep condition as needed.

Types of Teas and Their Benefits

Different teas provide different levels of colors because of how oxidation of tea work.

Black tea – Has the highest caffeine content so it may not be ideal. Only use black tea if you are going to dilute it. Black tea works best for people who are looking to combat shedding. Black teas’ natural properties help to block the hormone DHT that is responsible for hair shedding. Black tea will also nourish and strengthen your hair strands. People with dark hair are advised to use black or dark-colored teas, which can deepen their color and darken grays.

In black tea, the conversion of catechins to quinones (the natural pigments found in plants that can be used for dyes) occurs naturally (Heiss). That means these come along with tea when you buy it, making this kind of tea more equipped for dyeing.

Green tea – It has a lower caffeine content and helps combat shedding and soothes the scalp. It is packed with nutrients and antioxidants, green tea. Being the multitasker that it is, green tea’s antioxidant properties may repair sun damage.

One study found that it was possible for green tea to oxidize when the brew sat for an hour at a pH of 7.5 or when set under severe conditions of 90°C (194°F) for 15 minutes (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry).

So what happens when these polyphenols oxidize? A 2008 study found that catechins in green tea oxidized by polyphenol oxidase/O2 or peroxidase/H2O2 and creates o-quinones and semiquinones (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry). One of the quinones, lawsone, is the one found in henna.

Chamomile tea – Accentuates your hair’s natural highlights.

While tea rinses can be used on all hair types, they can deliver some especially amazing benefits to people with natural or dyed light-colored hair, such as blondes and redheads. Chamomile tea can brighten blonde hair and is especially beneficial when combined with half a lemon and honey. (see @goldicurls post)

Hibiscus and Rooibos teas– Can add dimension to red hair.

Sage tea – Reduces oil build up on your scalp.

Nettle tea – Prevents dandruff & increases circulation to the scalp which could also benefit hair growth.

Rosemary tea – As with rosemary oil- it promotes hair growth and soothes the scalp.

Longevity of Tea Dyes

How long tea dye works in your hair is dependent on whether it would be categorized as a semi-permanent or temporary dye. The difference between the two is whether the molecules that create the color are small enough to penetrate the cuticle layer or whether they sit on top of the cuticle layer.

I wasn’t able to find a molecular size that best penetrates hair, but the rule of thumb for skin is the 500 Dalton Rule, which states that anything under 500 dalton can penetrate the skin. Most oxidative dyes are around 300 dalton (Hair in Toxicology). Even if we safely assumed that molecules penetrating hair must be smaller than 500 dalton, at 458 dalton for EGCG and 290.27 for catechin, it seems possible that the catechin could penetrate through the cuticle and dye the hair semi-permanently.

Darker teas will likely have more of an effect on hair than lighter teas. And much like the report of catechin dyes for textiles above, it may take several dyes (allowing the tea to soak in your hair) to get a good color.

In conclusion, there’s a chance you can change your hair color slightly with tea. You’ll probably have better success with darker teas because they’ve already undergone some of the necessary oxidation process to impart dark color on your hair. Tea dyeing also won’t last as long if you just let your hair soak it up as it would if you used a mordant or fixer. Overall, if you’re looking for a dye that won’t have ill effects on your hair and won’t necessarily last a long time, tea can be a great way to color hair. In fact, researchers are already figuring out ways to optimize the oxidation process of catechin in order to use it in hair dyes in the future (JCDSA).

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