Henna is an ancient art that comes from the Middle East. Over the centuries it has been used as hair dye and temporary tattoos for a variety of events. When I was younger my friend Stacy introduced me to this medium. At first I was worried about what people would think of me for having body art, even the temporary kind. Once I saw it a few times I finally tried it. I learned more about henna and the art of mehndi. Through this paper my hope is you will appreciate the interesting facts on henna, who uses it, and warnings about avoiding potentially harmful additives.Order now
What Is Henna
Henna is the common name for the plant which is more of a large shrub. The henna plant is called “Lawsonia inermis”. The henna plant can grow to be as large as 8-10 feet tall. It originated in Egypt but now can be found growing in many places in the Middle East, India, and northern Australia. However it can be grown in almost any tropical region of the world, as well as in greenhouses in cooler places.
Henna is a plant mainly known for its natural dyes and cooling properties. Originally henna was used to cool the internal body temperature in the summer when heat was almost unbearable outside. The internal cooling of the body was found to last
as long as the stain remained visible. (Fabius pg. 24-25).
One interesting thing about henna is its healing properties; when applied in paste form to minor cuts it can help speed up the healing time. The same is also true for minor scrapes, burns, and bruises. People sometimes got sick, because of diarrhea causing bacteria in the water they drank. So they would swallow some of the finely ground henna powder and this would cause the bacteria to leave the system with in a day or so. One amazing thing they found is its ability to counteract headaches. They would apply the paste to the base of the head and/or temples to help relieve the worst of the pain the headaches would cause.
What are some common misgivings about henna? One of the most common is the color of the stain. Pure henna stains in colors from a pale orange to a deep rust, or sienna, but never a true black. When people see pictures where the henna looks black? It is usually just a picture taken of the paste once it has dried. Once in a while a person can have a dark brown stain that is almost black. This is from multiple applications of henna over a period of time and in the correct heat/humidity settings. Another misconception deals with what color the powder should be when you buy it. It should be an earthy green color. It may come in different shades but never diferent colors. A concern that is less common is whether or not the application process hurts, but I am glad to say it does not. In fact the henna application is painless. Unlike a normal tattoo where a needle is used, with henna a cone or a bottle is used with a tip.
What is Mehndi
In India the words henna and mehndi are almost interchangeable. In Hindu the
word for henna is mehndi, although there is a little more to it than that. To be more precise it is the painting of the hands and feet with henna. Mehndi is a ritual used mainly by Hindu women. It is first used when they are young, to welcome them into this world, and then when they reach the age of puberty they again use henna as a sign they have come to the age appropriate in that culture for marriage.
Mehndi is also a good luck symbol. When a man and woman get married, the man’s family pays for a henna application that covers her hands, arms, and feet. The legend is that the longer the stain lasts the better the marriage will be. During that time the new bride is not expected to lift a finger to help, in order for the stain stay as fresh as possible during those first few weeks.
Different symbols in mehndi mean different things. They can mean good luck, show what interests a person, and what that person believes. One of the most common floral designs in mehndi has the Lotus flower in the center of the design. The lotus is the symbol for nature, grace, femenity, oportunity, and sesuality, along with other things. (Roome 20-22) In mehndi the floral designs symbolize joy and devotion. The sun, moon, and stars in mehndi are symbols of love between a husband and wife.
The geometric shapes in mehndi mean similar things yet they are slightly different in their meanings. Triangles mean different things depending on which way they point. Pointing up they mean there is a active male role in a persons life, and pointing down means there is a active female role in a persons life. A star made of two triangles -one pointing up while the other is pointing down- is a symbol of two working together for the benefit of both parties. A hexagon inside of a star means many forming one.
While natural henna is completely safe, other products known as “black henna” may not be. Some of those products are harmless, but others are harmful. In this section my hope is to give people an understanding about the difference, how to identify black henna, and what to do if someone is using it. Black henna can be several things but I will focus on the two most common.
The version of black henna that is safe is a natural indigo paste. The indigo is ground finely then applied in a similar fashion as true henna. When it is mixed with henna it turns the henna paste into a color that is called black. Indigo was marketed in the 1800’s as a natural hair dye labeled as black henna. This is most likely where the term black henna originated.
However, it is very important to look out for the very unsafe version of black henna that contains Para-phehylendramin, or PPD for short. PPD is a chemical used in black hair dye that is very dangerous. On boxes of black hair dye containing PPD there is a warning that says to be extra careful not to get the dye on the skin. I have seen what it can do to skin; it is not pretty. Just imagine a puffy scar in the shape of a henna design. PPD is a strong sensitizer, that is a person can become hypersensitive, or allergic to it. PPD is associated with bladder cancer, asthma, and many other health problems.
In order to identify black henna, and determine what it contains there is a simple test anyone can do. When a powder form is available a person can add about a teaspoon to some warm water then wait about 20 minutes. If the water appears a
orange, red, or brown color then it is pure safe henna. If the water appears to be a blue it is indigo, safe, but still considered black henna, it should be use with caution. If the water looks is black it is PPD based black henna and is harmful, it should not be used. A person should find the seller of the black henna and inform them of the dangers associated with it. If that person continues to sell that product the consumer should report it to the proper authorities, this is an important step to take.
What if there was henna being sold at a carnival, or a large gathering of people, and someone was doing henna? In order to be sure about whether they are using regular henna or black henna it is important, to start ask simple questions. One such question is, how long the stain should last? The answer should be between 1 week and a month. But the one of the most important questions is, what is in the paste? If they really have pure henna the answer should be forthcoming and a straight answer; henna powder, lemon juice, and essential oils, any other answer and it is best to just walk away. Another question could be, how long should I leave the paste on? The proper response should be at least until it drys, but as long as it is practical to throughout your day.
Unfortunately getting black henna with PPD usually produces some scarring. But there is treatment for exposure to PPD black henna. If black henna does get applied the paste should be taken off immediately, this is the best chance for a person not to get a scar. Then going see a doctor and telling them about having been sensitized to Para-phehylendramin (PPD). If the doctor doesn’t understand what is meant by that find a dermatologist and tell them about the experience. Either a doctor or a dermatologist can help in getting the medicine needed to help with the scarring (The Henna Page,
Section on “Black Henna”).
Finally, people need to remember that true pure henna is completely safe. While the tradition of henna painting on skin, mehndi, is thousands of years old it still remains a cultural experience that can help a person find time to think and process the world around them. When in the Middle East or in India consider seeing if there is a henna studio near by to have a real professional apply some henna. My hope is that this has shown some of the interesting facts about henna, where it originated, and the culture the art of mehndi has come from. But it is important to remember to always be sure of what the product is before using it.