I fought the Henna…and we BOTH won!

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This post was written in April 2012.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…I stated on the Cave Girl Eats Facebook Page that I was literally seconds away from dying my hair with Henna.

And then, a concerned group of citizens informed me that I was quite literally about to ruin my life forever. And possibly the lives of everyone I know. And puppies were going to be kicked and kittens would cry and Kardashians would rule the world and I would become yet another fool taken in by Henna Lore.

So, of course, I put the Henna away. I shuddered to think of the pain I’d almost caused myself. I replayed the scene from Anne of Green Gables where Anne’s hair turns green because she attempted to flaunt nature as I almost did (except, in my scenario, I was simply trying to cover a crop of pesky premature YES THEY ARE PREMATURE I’M NOT OLD YET greys).

“This is the most tragical thing that has ever happened to me.”

My henna-curiosity sprung from my commitment to natural skincare. I write a column about the topic for Paleo Magazine. (If you own the Skintervention Guide, you may already know this!)

I believe that, while nourishing the inside is crucial, it’s also important to be aware of what we’re putting on our outsides. (Did YOU know many hair and makeup products contain harsh surfactants? Random industrial substances? GLUTEN? I say on principle: Blech.)

I’ve accumulated some amazing resources and body/home care favorites since starting this journey. While all you ever REALLY need – for ANYTHING – is baking soda, vinegar, and a nourishing skincare oil (See: No ‘Poo Results), I still like to luxuriate in a few more exciting self-care routines: I love the Oil Cleansing Method, along with the products from Primal Life Organics for my face; Great Marsh has a phenomenal foot soak and a lovely facial serum; and 100 Percent Pure carries some gorgeous eyeshadows.

You can assume, then, that I generally like to appear marginally presentable, all while enjoying the self-care process. And also, I like to try weird, sometimes smelly skincare stuff. Which includes henna.

As I’d developed a compulsion for yanking out those thick, wiry grey hairs I discovered once I quit the monthly salon dye I’d been doing for a decade, I needed a solution that was both natural AND capable of hiding all the greys and quelling the compulsion. Because mom was right: when you pluck out a grey hair, they grow back and stand STRAIGHT UP like one of those inflatable crazy-flailers at a car dealership. Which is fine, unless you have a weird crazy-flailer phobia. Which I do.

(But wait, you say – I heard that henna can’t cover grey anyway!
…Just wait, my friend. I’ll get there.)

I like to play with hair color, anyway – it’s like risky semi-permanent art, all done on a human.

After doing a bit of research, I decided to turn full-speed onto the henna highway. It’s only hair, after all…

Here’s what I found as I researched henna: it seems that you simply have to be extremely selective about the henna you use – many brands masquerade as “henna” when they’re actually full of hair-perverting gunk. Some of them contain an eensy-beensy bit of henna, sandwiched inside a laundry-list of unnecessary industrial chemicals. Not cool.

Additionally, you have to be aware that henna alone is coppery-colored. That’s its natural tone. Read LOTS more here. You CAN achieve a range of colors using henna and other herbs. You can do this yourself (read about other peoples’ recipes here) or you can buy a pre-made blend from a company you trust.

I chose to go with a pre-made blend. I used a blend of henna and herbs from Mountain Rose Herbs. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever purchased from them, so I trusted that their product would be my best bet to start out.

It looks so innocent in the bowl, no?

This particular henna blend starts as a powder. You add hot water (or, in my case, strained boiled coffee and apple cider vinegar – a grey coverage trick), then you put on gloves, wrap plastic bags around your ears, muck up your head, destroy your bathroom sink, and hope for the best. (Clean any spatters right away. You’ve been warned.)

A very unlucky plant died a very violent death here.

If you’ve got short hair, you’ll no doubt have an easier time than I did attempting to cover the entire length of your hair with this mud-like stuff. As I’m far too lazy to get a haircut, I’ve got quite a lot of hair to cover. Long-haired gals: be prepared for a bathroom crime scene. And also lots of Dr. Seuss-esque fun (below). And possibly a drug raid on your house – because this stuff smells like – ahem – herb.

Update: I no longer “do” my whole head every time. Just the roots. Over time, the color fades as hair grows, so I end up with a kind of ombre-like look, which suits me just fine.

Henna Hat.

My first go-round with Mountain Rose Herbs’ Henna was highly successful. I used Medium Brown, and it was fairly neutral on my hair – with the exception of my greys, which turned a lovely coppery color. (I only have a few greys, but they blend in well this way.)

To be sure it wasn’t a fluke, I wanted to use the same henna a second time before I wrote about it; so, six weeks later, I dyed my hair again – this time with a blend of Medium and Dark brown. (Side note: The MRH team was EXTREMELY helpful and responsive to my badgering about henna how-tos, and every shipment contains extensive directions. For this I’m thankful!)

Another note: The ease of prep makes this Henna FAR easier to deal with than the Lush brand, in my opinion. Although Lush will apply it for you at their stores, if you don’t have a Lush near you, you’ve got to do it solo, which I find to be too much.

I think the result was lovely. (My ability to take photos of myself in the mirror, however, is questionable.)

All-in-all, my hair feels great – natural highlights seem to have been preserved, and – judging from my first go-round with MRH henna, the color simply fades over time. Unlike with conventional dyes, I never had a clear line delineating new hair growth – which is fantastic. While the process is challenging and a bit awkward, it takes a mere few hours and, in my opinion, it’s well worth the trouble (plus, it’s highly affordable).

I still use the “No ‘Poo” strategy, and dry and style as usual.

Anyone out there use Henna? Experiences? Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. Elena says

    Will you provide a bit more detail about the gray coverage trick involving coffee and vinegar? Ratios/Quantities? Thank you!

    • says

      Rather than mixing the henna with boiling water, I mixed it with boiled/strained coffee (brewed THICK)! The amount of liquid depends on the amount of henna – you use enough to make a thick, creamy consistency. Add 2 Tbs of ACV per container of henna!

  2. Kat says

    Love it, you look beautiful and I am really excited to hear about the trick for covering gray. I have long thick hair as well, in fact just a tad past my butt lol.. So I will be having a fun time for sure like you said lol. But, I also as you said, I have done all kinds of color since HS and now I am just battling keeping the gray hidden arrgh lol… Thanks I will give this a try.

    • says

      The most difficult part is getting the full length of the hair covered and moved out of the way before it dries up and makes tangly clumps! It’s a long hair problem, not a henna problem. If you have a friend brave enough to help and “paint” your hair for you, I imagine it’d be much easier! Pick a nice day and do it outside, even :) Let me know how it goes!

  3. Kate says

    Your hair looks great! The color is rich and natural.

    I’m not sure why your readers responded with such strong anti-henna sentiments. Last summer I purchased henna at a spice market in Istanbul. At home I mixed it up with lemon juice and put gobs of it in my hair. The resulting color was bright red (I’m naturally strawberry blond), but I was very pleased with the result in both color and texture. A few months later, I bought some senna from Henna Sooq -http://www.hennasooq.com/ (They have fabulous henna products and high quality body-happy shampoo bars and other things. The sweet mimosa butter smells so good I want to eat it out of the container). I mixed the senna up, added a few dollops of left over henna (which I had frozen) and did my hair again. The resulting color was much more toned-down than the original henna and had beautiful natural high lights and low lights. As the color started to grow out I got a lot of comments along the lines of, “You’re not a natural redhead? I thought for sure you were!”

    I’ve a close friend who used a mix of henna and indigo (again from Henna Sooq) to produce an amazing deep, dark brown that you’d never guess isn’t her natural color. You’d also never guess that henna was the base since the result wasn’t at all red.

    Right now I’m reading up on a good mix of henna and indigo to produce auburn and can’t wait to experiment some more!

  4. says

    Long ago (probably before you were born) I used to use henna to color my hair. I was going for the natural red head look, and since I had no gray at the time that’s what I got. I totally agree on the mess thing. And, since I was going for the natural red head look I used henna on all my body hair. I’m sure you can imagine what a total mess that was.

    About 6 months ago I started following your no poo routine. I had been coloring my hair for at least 20 years. It seemed really counter productive to try to avoid the chemicals and bad stuff in shampoo and conditioner and then to put hair dye on every 6 weeks.

    I decided to quit cold turkey and see what my hair looked like. I kept the dye around for months just in case I woke up one morning and couldn’t live with what I saw. The dye is completely out of my hair now, and I actually really like it. My grandmother had beautiful white hair. My brother has beautiful white hair. I have beautiful white hair in places. It looks like I paid a fortune to have my hair highlighted.

    I love your body care articles and posts. I look forward to seeing more.

    • says

      I absolutely love the classic white hair (and white streaks) that I’m imagining you’re talking about! Should I ever have a more concentrated collection of whites (rather than the sporadic, crazy, wiry greys) I will definitely let it ride.

      I can’t IMAGINE the mess of henna on the body hair! Eek!

  5. says

    I used to use Henna and besides the mess and terrible smell, it was a relatively uneventful experience. I have medium brown hair that I like to be either a few shades darker or red/auburn. I’ve only done it when I was extremely broke and couldn’t afford to get haircuts or dye jobs.

    For the past 2 years or so, my best friend has been doing my hair for really cheap so I get my hair dyed regularly. I was low on cash one month and considered going to get some Henna to do it myself. I mentioned it to her and she FLIPPED! Apparently chemical treatments do not react with Henna very well so if you start using it, you can’t go back (easily). So just be sure that you are committed to it. Because salon dye is so much stronger, it can really mess with your color, but the box dye just won’t stick to anything but your roots.

    I don’t disagree with you on the awesomeness of henna (your hair looks gorgeous) but people should just be aware of this. I am planning on moving soon, so I won’t be getting my hair done by my friend anymore, and I will probably go back to it as well. Though I don’t look forward to the process. Henna hair salon, anyone?

  6. Brenda A. says

    I colored my hair with henna for about four years. I loved it! Red is what I was going for and it made the gray hairs a shimmery very light red, so it was like I just had awesome highlights. Unfortunately, one day my hair just stopped taking the henna very well. Several applications in a row the color took very unevenly, leaving my hair splotchy looking. I hadn’t changed a single thing about my mix or my application process. Could not figure out why it wasn’t taking right. So I finally threw in the towel and gave it up. :(

  7. Erin says

    Remember you can not color correct henna. It can not be bleached out. If you want to cover grays make sure there is more of a brown base to it and if you can get it a level darker than the color you want. I saw someone said use coffee, it does help. Lush carries hennas and they should be knowledgable enough to help with any questions or problems you may encounter. Be careful using henna on previously color hair (especially bleached or highlighted), it may alter the results. If you don’t like brassy or orangish red hair, henna may not be for you. If you get black henna it has a blue base; and if you bleach it out your hair will be blue. That is my experience with henna from my 8 years of being a hair colorist. Also I think henna can have an expiration date so it may not work if you bought it like over a year ago and decide you want to use it.
    If you want to color you hair yourself with box color, I prefer you use a demi permanent; they have no ammonia. Unless you are going lighter you need permanent (only on virgin hair).

  8. Karen says

    I’ve been using henna to cover my greys on my dark brown hair now for many years and it has become a very quick, efficient and fairly non-messy procedure.
    Catherine Cartwright-Jones is an expert on henna and runs a great, resource laden web site called hennaforhair.com. You’ll find everything you will ever need to know about using henna there. There are many complicated recipes but I have found the best is what Catherine uses, just high quality henna and lemon juice. No fussing with teas and extra ingredients, just henna and lemon period.
    I always use the 2 step process which involves first dying your hair (red) with henna, then immediately dying it again with indigo to create a brown color on your greys. My grey hairs now stand out as subtle auburn highlights in my otherwise dark brown hair. I love it.
    I guess my advice to anyone considering henna is do your research and keep it simple! And of course only use the highest quality, body art type henna. There are several sites that sell it.

    LIz, your hair looks gorgeous BTW! And doesn’t the henna make it feel better?

  9. Lindsay says

    I love that you referenced Anne of Green Gables! Henna can be (always is) messy, but I’ve always been happy with the results.

  10. Ashley says

    Hi Liz!

    Your hair looks amazing!

    A little off topic, you mentioned you like 100 Percent Pure’s eyeshadows. I’m looking to trade my makeup for some more natural products. What other makeup do you use/recommend? Or if you already have a post somewhere, let me know.

    Thanks!

  11. Becca says

    Seconding the recommendation for hennaforhair.com as it explains everything you need to know in great detail.

    Other useful things:

    1. Oil your hair with coconut oil before putting the henna on, then you can make the henna more liquid to get it to the roots without dripping (don’t ask how this works).

    2. Make bigger batches of henna and freeze the leftovers after dye release for ease of use.

    3. Once the henna has bonded it fades very slowly (if at all), and for colour maintenance I’d recommend dying nearer the roots only. Henna can build up and make hair “crunchy” (this only seems to happen to some people, and it didn’t happen to me so YMMV).

    4. If you’re using body art quality henna (i.e. pure henna) it will not react with conventional products. I have bleached my henna’d hair and it was fine. It will never bleach to blonde, but I like the mango colour that it went so I don’t care.

    That’s about it in terms of advice I could possibly give. I loved using henna on my hair, and I only stopped recently because I’m trying to grow it out so I can dye my hair crazy colours. What was great for me is that it added strength and volume to my very fine hair, and the shine you get from henna is unlike anything else.

  12. Val B. says

    Awesome! Thanks for sharing your experience with using Henna and the company (& the fact that they were very helpful!). I’ve been considering taking the plunge with Henna for a few months now, especially since its all currently virgin hair so I won’t have to worry about the Henna reacting to any products. Will have to look more into this :o) Didn’t know anyone who uses Henna so I didn’t know what brand/company was reputable, now I know who I’ll be ordering from!!! :o)

  13. Kim says

    Hi!! I just discovered your site. Love it, thanks for doing this! As it happens, I just did a henna on my hair last night! Coincidence?! Weird. Anyway, I used Lush brand as I live in Canada and wasn’t willing to wait for MRH to ship me some of theirs. I used henna all through junior high and high school so I know the basic drill… hot water, mix it up, throw in an egg to help it stick, and done.

    I found my roots didn’t take as well as the rest of my hair (which had been previously coloured.) Any tips on that?? It’s not dramatically different, just not as bright as the rest of the red.

    Also, other than Lush making theirs in a block, what’s the difference between what MRH has and the Lush Caca Rouge?

    • says

      Hi Kim! Thanks for reading. No clue about the roots – I’m fairly new to this :) I imagine that Lush has a few extra ingredients, like the cocoa butter (if I remember correctly) and MRH is a powder of henna and, I think, other herbs to help “steer” the color. I really couldn’t tell you much more than that! I bought the Caca Brun from Lush but never did use it – I got lazy and didn’t feel like performing the labor-intensive process of breaking it up. Since MRH sells the powder, all you do is add water for a super-fast concoction.

  14. says

    A few of my friends and I all use Henna Hut on our hair (www.hennahut.com) This stuff is awesome. Covers the grays, easy to mix, etc. I love it. I’ve been using their Brown all summer with great results, even though I’m in the pool all the time. I’m tempted to try out one of the red shades, but not sure I want to mess with such a good thing! I love henna. My hair feels so much better than it ever did before.

    • says

      Sara, my next article for Paleo Mag is a primer on my Henna experience! I didn’t reference Henna Hut, though – missed opportunity! I’ll be sure to check it out and of course give it and your blog some love when I do :)

  15. says

    [Marked as spam by Antispam Bee | Spam reason: Server IP]
    Hi Liz! I know this is a super old post, but I’m so happy to find a fellow Paleo henna-head! (That is, assuming you still use henna.) I’ve been hennaing for at least a year now, and although my white sink hates me for it and I smell strange for a few days, I’m a big fan of the results! I initially started henna for the conditioning/strengthening effects since I have curly hair, but the auburn color is a nice side effect (:

    I use ‘body art quality’ henna from Henna for Hair, and the color never fades, so I just have to touch up the roots about every 4-6 weeks. I think henna is supposed to be permanent, so maybe it’s something about the brand you use that makes it fade? I don’t have any grays to cover up, so I just mix the henna with some steeped green tea and some coconut oil. A lot of people say the coconut oil hinders dye uptake, but I’ve actually found it enhances it! Plus, it’s much easier to rinse out.

    I’ve been Paleo/Primal for almost 4 years and I kept hearing your blog name tossed around, so I figured I should finally check it out. I’m quite glad I did, because I love how you emphasize what I see as the best of both (Paleo and WAP) worlds! Also, I’m a big fan of natural body care and no-poo (: Needless to say, I will be visiting your blog often from now on!

    • says

      Hi Alyssa! I am absolutely still a henna-head! I guess what I meant by “not fading” is that there’s not this stark contrast between the dyed portion and the new growth, as with conventional dyes…maybe once you get greys, you’ll see what I mean ;) It seems to blend so well. Maybe that’s just the “color” (ie henna-herb blend) I chose, and the fact that henna is so much more natural than synthetic dyes. I haven’t a clue. I have SO much of my initial order left (from Mountain Rose Herbs), but I plan on trying the HFH next! I’ve heard such great things and have learned a ton from that site. And I will try the coconut oil suggestion.

      Your blog is really great. I’ve bookmarked it! Do you by chance know my good friend Laura Schoenfeld (of the blog AncestralizeMe?)

      • says

        I totally know what you mean by the henna not creating a harsh line of new growth! I agree, I think it has to do with the fact that it just slightly modifies your natural hair color. And thank you for checking out my blog! As a matter of fact, I DO know Laura! We’ve met up on campus a couple of times to chat, and it’s been great having a fellow ancestralite at UNC.

  16. Larissa says

    So this experience is fresh. But I have to go back about 1.5 years ago when I dyed my hair with Coco Rouge Henna from Lush. It was good times. I made this concoction of henna, rasberry tea, cayenne, paprika. My witches brew ended up turning my hair into a beautiful red. I only used henna once because I only lived my hippie dreams for about a month. After the henna experience I forgot all about it. Literally like I have no memory of this experience. Own the things I have to keep track of this didn’t even make the top 20.

    November: I get this awful and expensive Ombre. I asked for a dark red that just went a little lighter. I got purple then red, then blonde. It was hideous. I wore my hair up for 3 months.

    February: I moved home to Winnipeg. My hairdresser who is the best stylist did my hair this nice dark brown. March/April it faded to this Purpley brown…like usual.

    2 Days ago…April 19th: I wanted my hair to be a solid color, to not fade to this ugly purple everytime I dyed my hair brown. I wanted a nice medium brown. It looks best with my skin tone. Even though I can pull off everything. Which is good for this next thing.
    She decided we would lift my hair. It was fading, that ugly ombre came out but as she was rinsing it out and she said “Larissa for some odd reason we are trapped at this intense copper color. Why?” And I had to think about that for a second but than was like “AW….(four letter word that starts with S)..I henna’d my hair over a year ago!” and I got in trouble for all of the stylists in the salon…whoops!

    As the story goes on she dyed my hair this lovely light brown and there were some blonde highlights from the crappy ombre. But this morning I woke up with ORANGE HAIR!!!

    Karma, I swear it’s Karma!

    I look like Anne of Green Gables pre henna!

    I want to die.

    NEVER NEVER HENNA YOUR HAIR. It will forever ruin your life!

    • says

      Aww, what a crappy deal! So sorry about that. I’ve been henna-ing for a full year now, every 4-6 weeks, sometimes full head of hair and sometimes root touch-up and it’s been wonderful. My hair is exactly the same, even a little healthier, than what you see in the photos from this post. I don’t intend to go back…and if I do change my hair-dyeing ways, it’s with full knowledge that I’ll have to wait quite awhile for the Henna parts to grow out before laying down conventional dyes!

      I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with henna. It has a history of thousands of years, and is still used in many cultures today. But those thousands of years were long before the advent of the types of hair dyes that open your hair’s cuticle and dye via a process very different from the “stain” henna lays down. (And henna can ONLY stain a copper color. You can add coffee and other herbs to change that tint slightly, but true henna is only copper! I brew my mix with coffee and apple cider vinegar.)

      I don’t think Henna ruins your hair at all, if you follow all the crunchy “requirements” that come with it. (It’s not interchangeable with modern dyes, as you learned!)

      I think it’s COMBINING conventional methods of dye with the “Crunchy” method of henna that doesn’t work. You didn’t do anything wrong, and I’m not accusing you of that so please don’t take it that way! I’m just saying I think the lesson from your experience is NOT necessarily that henna ruins your life. I think it’s this: Henna is NOT conventional with modern dyes! If you’re going to do henna, you have to ONLY do henna! You can’t go on to lift, bleach, lighten, darken, or dye via conventional chemical dyes. It just doesn’t work! (As you learned, and I’m so sorry this has happened to you!)

      Take note, folks…if you’re gonna do henna (and I LOVE henna!) you HAVE to be fully committed, because you can’t go back (at least, not until your hair grows out completely!)

  17. Kathy says

    I used to have strawberry-blonde hair until I got older and it got darker. For years I would get it dyed professionally, then by scalp started breaking out and it burned badly.

    So for many years, I didn’t color at all but I wasn’t happy with my hair color. My eyebrows are very blonde and my hair was getting darker brown (rather a mousy, yucky color) in my opinion.

    I have used Henna products in the last couple of years, although I don’t color it regularly. One brand that I bought washed out quickly. The last time I colored it using Henna it has lasted longer.

    The best thing is, it doesn’t make my scalp burn and break out! I do have shorter hair, so it’s not so messy for me either.

  18. says

    I have been henna’ing my daughter’s hair for 6 years now, since she was 12. No problems, no complaints! We follow the hennaforhair.com recommendations, and I get my henna from their sister site mehandi.com. A couple of experiences we’ve had that differ from the above.

    1. There is NO SUCH THING as “black henna.” All henna is red. If you have black henna it’s one of those chemical concoctions.

    2. You CAN bleach henna. It just takes a few applications. My daughter decided to go bleach blonde for a little while and I took her to a professional. She had about 2-3 inches of brown roots showing, and long henna’d ends. He bleached it and her brown hair went blonde and the henna went a bright coppery color. He was going to bleach the ends a second time to get them blonde, but she decided she loved the sunset-ombre look of blonde to copper and we left it that way. She’s back to red henna now.

    3. We’ve never done root touch-up, just full-on dying. Her hair is healthy, soft, and shiny at all times! The bleach did of course make it dry and crunchy but that part has grown out and been cut.

    Oh and here’s what you do rather than plastic bags over your ears! Vaseline or some other thick oily substance all along the edges of your hair and ears. Just wipe it away after applying the henna. And it has to stay on for a considerable amount of time to stain skin, so any slight coloration will wear off in 24 hours.

    And if you’re doing your own long hair without help (which I did once): put your henna in your biggest pot or bowl and set it in your bathtub. Kneel over it and drop the ends in, then just “shampoo” the henna into your hair. Fuggeddabout combs and sectioning and all that whatnot. Just massage it in and keep the mess all in the tub.

  19. Marlene says

    I’m a natural dark strawberry blonde turned gray/mousy. I have used henna for 4 years and my hair is very healthy and shiny. I have to henna about every 5 weeks to keep the roots covered, but when I do just the roots, I make a henna gloss by adding approximately 1/4 cup of cheap hair conditioner. I mix my henna with lemon juice and a little warm water. I also wash my hair with a mixture of coconut milk, castile soap, coconut oil, and vitamin E. Henna is awesome!

  20. says

    I have a little solo grey hair at the age of 25, but have always vowed not to dye my hair. However, i am afraid of getting more! This seems like a great option to me and I love how it naturally fades. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  21. Terrie says

    I’ve been using Henna for over 10 years. From long hair to short, acquiring massive amounts of ‘silver highlights’ along the way, it’s been fabulous. The best product I’ve found is the pure Henna, used for Mendhi, that you buy at Indian shops. No additives, no chemicals; all plant. To mix, I guestimate what I need then squirt some lemon juice in with some hot water. I don’t know that the lemon juice is what makes the colour adhere to greys, my understanding is the acid roughens the hair cuticle, allowing the ‘dye’ to enter the shaft, grey or otherwise. ACV probably works the same way; acid.
    With my hair, specifically, half gray & half light brunette, it creates orange / red highlights (greys) and lowlights (lighter regular hair) and looks very natural. And being very (irish/Scots) pale with freckles & green eyes; it SO works for me LOL Also, from what I’ve read; the reactions between hair dye and henna is with the commercial products, not the stand alone plant base.

  22. says

    I have used henna for years, and prefer it to any haircolor out there. I can control the color better, the line of demarkation is not as obvious, and I like not using harsh chemicals on my hair. I get mine from Tap Dancing Lizard. :) Also get the items I add to it from Mountain Rose Herbs.

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