Henna, the distinctive orange-brown dye that can be used to beautifully stain hands and feet, has been applied by artists for centuries. So why are we worried about it now?
Well, you only have to open a newspaper or perform a quick online search to discover a horror story of burns caused by the product. But that product isn’t just any henna – it’s chemical or black henna, created to imitate the look of real tattoos and produced with dangerous ingredients. This link from the NHS has detailed information on reactions from black henna, including that of being sensitised and having serious implications years later.
Here's all you need to know how you can make sure the henna treatment you’re signing up for is as safe as it is stunning.
How can I tell if henna is real or fake?
Henna’s staining properties are active for around two weeks. Once mixed into a paste, the dye stains the skin orange and develops into a deep brown after two days. After two weeks of the henna being mixed, its ability to stain the skin quickly diminishes, so its only use is for doodling on paper, or another medium other than skin.
The question: how do mass-produced henna cones, sold in Asian stores or online, have instant staining properties when the dye within was obviously mixed more than a fortnight ago?
The answer is that these cones contain added chemicals, which manipulate the henna and keep producing a stain for months to come. Many of these have been tested and shown to include high levels of paraphenylenediamine (PPD), a chemical found in hair dyes at a strictly controlled level. There’s good reason you’re required to perform a patch test before dying your hair: the strength of the chemical can be damaging to skin.
Real henna is never black, it’s always an orange-brown colour. Its level of reaction is so low, you won’t usually need a patch test to make sure it’s suitable for you.
How can I buy my own henna safely?
Did you know that natural henna comes from a shrub? Its Latin name is Lawsonia Inermis. The leaves of this shrub are ground into a powder, which is then mixed with water – and usually an essential oil – to create a paste. Some recipes also contain lemon juice or sugar, but shouldn’t contain ingredients you’re unfamiliar with.
You can buy fresh henna from artists who make their own paste. Make sure they can tell you exactly what’s in their henna; if there’s an ingredient you don’t recognise, don’t buy it.
What happens during the henna-application process?
Henna’s dye molecules are small enough to enter the skin’s surface. Through oxidisation, these molecules turn from a bright orange to a deep brown colour over 48 hours, and stay there until they’re exfoliated away. This process takes about a week or two, which is why henna stays on the skin for roughly this amount of time.
The key to maintaining your henna stain is moisturising and avoiding water within the first 24 hours after paste removal, as much as possible. This allows the stain to develop into a lovely deep colour. Moisturising will help to reduce exfoliation to a degree, so you can enjoy your art for longer.
How can I make sure my henna stain is as deep as possible, and lasts as long as possible?
Once you’ve had your henna applied, general aftercare advice is to keep the paste on your skin for as long as you can to give your skin the best chance to soak up the dye molecules. The henna is active whilst damp and when your skin is warm.
As henna is a cooling agent, it’s common to feel cold where it has been applied, which is another reason important to keep yourself warm after your treatment. Some Asian brides stand by the cooking fire after henna application, both to keep themselves at a comfortable temperature and to encourage the stain to develop.
Once your henna is dry, you can apply a sealant. This is usually made of sugar and lemon, but can also include floral waters such as rose water. The sealant acts like a glue to keep the paste damp and on your skin. I love to sleep with henna on, and when I seal it, it is mostly still there in morning!
When the paste is removed, the colour will be of an orange shade, which will peak to a deep brown colour over the next two days – so think ahead if you’d like henna done for a particular event.
Henna stains differently on different areas of the body, as well as on different people. It’s common for it to stain strongest on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet; this is because the henna dye has more skin layers to penetrate. The arms and legs also often see a good stain. Other body areas, such as the back and neck, can achieve great effect, but this will depend on your aftercare practices and body temperature.
I love how my henna looks – but are there any added benefits of the treatment?
For the same reason you no doubt love getting your nails painted at the salon and your hair washed at the hairdresser, the process of henna application feels extremely relaxing. After all, it forces you to sit still and simply be pampered!
Clients particularly love to watch the artist work their magic and marvel at the tranquility, and patience required for this art.
The cooling agent in henna is also fantastic for brides and mothers to be, calming them and allowing them to be restful and revel in the exciting next steps of their lives.