Cleopatra used it. Lucille Ball used it. Should you use it? Henna (Lawsonia inermis) is the red-colored plant that yields a dye used for centuries in the Middle East and India to color hair, skin, and nails. Henna has also been a staple in many products sold in the United States since the 1970s.
Most chemical dyes strip some of the outside layer of the hair (cuticle) and then permeate the hair shaft, lodging color into the inner matrix of the shaft (cortex). Plant dyes such as henna coat the exterior of the hair, staining the outside layer of the hair shaft.
“Natural henna will actually thicken your hair. Each layer will add some diameter to the hair shaft,” says Michael Wright, president of Logona, a natural products manufacturer in Chico, California. Wright feels that big manufacturers have penetrated the beauty industry with propaganda about henna and that this false information has given the plant- derived product a bad rap.
“Henna actually improves the quality of the hair by coating its cuticle with a natural protecting layer. The result is radiant, shiny hair,” says Wright.
Choosing a henna product
Henna comes in one color—bright red—but the color can be adjusted to match the individual’s preference. Henna colors include chestnut, brown, blonde, plum, a variety of red shades, and auburn. Henna can darken your hair and change its tonality, but it can’t lighten the color.
“Chemical colorants open the hair shaft and oxidize the natural pigment away. Then a synthetic dye is deposited into the hair shaft. This is pretty heavy artillery to use on your body. Henna is a security envelope that coats the hair but doesn’t change its natural pigment,” says Wright.
Wright goes on to mention that henna has been used quite successfully for thousands of years. There has never been a case of it negatively affecting anyone, he says. “The only concern over henna is how it’s grown. In many third-world countries, henna is a cash crop. The use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides obviously taints the end product,” he says.
When purchasing a henna product, be aware that all henna is not created equal. If you’re concerned about the origins of the henna used in a particular product, call the manufacturer. They should have test results that will prove where their henna was grown and whether the henna has been exposed to pesticides and other substances.
Mendhi with henna
Mendhi is an ancient Indian art form that’s created on the body, typically the feet and hands, with henna. Women in India are traditionally decorated on their hands and feet, on the insides of their arms and up their shins for a special occasion such as their wedding. The chest, neck, and throat are oftentimes also temporarily tattooed.
The application of henna is a ritual that can take up to six hours. According to Matt Wall of Life Art Products in Long Beach, California, the art lasts about two weeks and takes roughly seven hours to dry after application.
“It’s not as difficult as most people would imagine to apply,” says Wall. “You can purchase patterns to trace and there are also pattern guidebooks. The most popular color of henna for this sort of application is a dark brick red tone. Natural henna on the skin is cooling and can produce a peaceful state of mind,” explains Wall. “We don’t really know why, but many of our customers who have tried mendhi report a calming effect on their overall state.”
Historically, mendhi has been used to pay homage to the body. Cosmetics, perfumes, and body painting were a way to enhance one’s beauty to intrigue a lover. Cosmetics also served as a statement of caste or class. The placement of adornments separated the upper castes from the lower. Even today, many Indian women use cosmetics in the ancient way by painting their eyelids with an antimony-based dye. They also stain their face and arms with saffron and dye the soles of their feet reddish with henna.
How does mendhi work?
In mendhi painting, the skin absorbs the henna and resembles a permanent tattoo. Hands and feet take to staining the best because they have so many layers of skin, according to Dan Turbeville at Ojai Body Arts in Ojai, California. The trick is that henna is only absorbed by a few layers.
“As the skin exfoliates, the tattoo begins to fade and finally vanishes,” says Wall.
Although mendhi is currently popular, Robert Richards, a henna artist and supplier based in Minneapolis, doesn’t think it’s just a trend. “Mendhi is a beautiful form of self-expression. It’s a sign of acceptance of other cultures,” Richards says. He also points out the fact that henna’s temporary quality is very appealing.
“High school kids can play with henna designs with very little worry on the part of the parent. For adults, it’s a wonderful way to try out tattoo ideas without actually getting the permanent work done.”
Richards thinks that all sorts of body arts are on the horizon. “As we become more open and free-thinking as a culture, our society is going to explore other forms of expression through body art. We’ve only just begun to see the possibilities.”