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In the heat of summer, the days when it's 90 degrees and high humidity, you can 'fudge' a little on the after care.
But in cooler weather after care is crucial for a rich stain that lasts a long time.
To get the stain THIS dark on the back of my hand, I left the paste on for 6 hours, scraped off the paste, moisturized, and avoided water for 24 hours.
Basically, I got a dark stain by following my own after care directions.
It is worth noting that another key to a great stain is freshly made a properly stored paste. Even if it weren't dangerous to use grocery store cones...you wouldn't want to. Henna is perishable. Once mixed, there is a window for use to insure a great stain.
So the (real)first step to beautiful henna is quality paste... and then the success is up to you with the after care.