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What is Henna?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 21, 2024
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Henna dyes the hair, skin, and fabric organically, similar to a black tea dye. This substance is extracted from a tree by drying and grinding leaves and stems. The greenish powder, when mixed with an acidic liquid, makes a temporary red, brown, or orange design on a porous surface. People use henna in ritual skin painting, called Mehndi, for birth and marriage celebrations, and Western cultures have adopted it to make temporary tattoos and organic hair dye.

The henna tree, Lawsonia inermis, grows in hot, arid regions like North Africa and India. For centuries, people ground the foliage of the plant into a powder to dye cloth and skin. The strong pigment, lawsone, actually temporarily stains the skin. It is a tannin, like those found in wine and tea. They infuse porous surfaces with a darker pigment, but do not chemically alter the surface permanently.

This dye works because lawsone is absorbed into material like hair and skin. People mix the powdered henna into a mud, using hot water, lemon juice, vinegar, or other acidic additives, which strengthens the dyeing properties. Users then apply the mud to a surface, like the palm of the hand, bottom of the feet, or anywhere on the body. They should leave the mud on for as long as possible, up to 48 hours. When it dries and crumbles off, the skin will have darkened to auburn, orange, red, or brown.

Depending on the fineness of the paste, some people apply henna with a tube, like icing a cake. With a lot of coordination and care, people can achieve intricate designs full of scrolls, swirls, paisley outlines, and dots. These tattoos can be used to create temporary bracelets, motifs, emblems, or words. In traditional Mehndi, Muslims and Hindus decorate the skin of those participating in special ceremonies, such as a wedding or circumcision, in places like Indonesia and India.

Dying with henna is entirely temporary. Hair dye may last up to six weeks, but skin dye will probably not stay visible for more than a week. This is because it has only sunken into the uppermost layer of dead and dying skin. When the skin flakes off through natural exfoliation, it will be gradually replaced by fresh, uncolored skin. Hair dye will also slowly fade away to the hair's original color, but will not leave any lines or stripes like synthetic dye.

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Discussion Comments

By indigomoth — On Feb 21, 2013

There are lots of uses for henna. The main use is to condition and color the hair. It sits on top of the hair follicle, so it tends to smooth it and adds a semi-permanent color.

My favorite use of henna is for bridal henna tattoos. If you look up brides who used henna, you'll see all kinds of beautiful lacy designs.

A lot of people use them for "tattoos" as well and they are really only temporary. In fact I was almost disappointed by how quickly mine faded.

By pleonasm — On Feb 21, 2013

@anon6055 - I think the problem is making sure you've got real, pure henna. A lot of henna is sourced from countries that don't have strict controls on their beauty products (not that any country is exempt from occasional problems) and I'm sure there have been cases where heavy metals or other forms of pollution have got into henna and people have been exposed to them because of it.

The important thing is to get your henna paste from somewhere safe (a company you trust), if you do, you've got nothing to fear.

And lead doesn't give you cancer, although it does make you very sick if you are exposed to it.

By anon264556 — On Apr 28, 2012

I can definitely confirm that pure henna is indeed permanent and safe. After the third or fourth henna, it doesn't wash out or fade. Girls, if you're looking for coppers (henna with cassia), reds, burgundies (henna or henna with Indigo), browns (henna with katam) and blacks (henna and indigo) that do not fade or budge, try henna. Remember, you don't flirt with henna, you marry it.

Many girls have hennaed their hair and can confirm that henna is permanent and safe. I've tried to remove my henna and I can tell you, it does not fade!

I can also assure you that henna is safe. I use herbs and oils only for washing and moisturising due to sensitivities to commercial products and henna and herbs do not irritate me. I am happy that I found a safe and natural way to take care of my hair and skin without spending a fortune.

Pure henna does not contain lead or nasty chemicals. 100 percent henna is ground up leaves of the henna shrub.

Pure 100 percent body art quality henna can be found in numerous places on the internet.

By mysweetdream — On Sep 26, 2011

I am doing an art project at school on Henna. I used this website for info and its really helped. But I am still uncertain why we actually use Henna? Any particular reason?

By anon131851 — On Dec 04, 2010

Henna, on average, starts to fade after a week and is gone after two weeks, so it is temporary. It also nourishes skin/hair.

By anon119522 — On Oct 18, 2010

henna is natural. It comes from the henna plant. it is not permanent, and does not have lead in it. perfectly safe. black henna (a type of henna) can be harmful to some people, but not all.

By anon44736 — On Sep 10, 2009

lead doesn't give you cancer and henna is ground up plant leaves with lemon juice in them, not lead.

By anon29228 — On Mar 29, 2009

I would like to get a henna tattoo but my mom thinks they last forever like a regular tattoo, is that true?

By chase49 — On Feb 17, 2009

Can henna be used as an overall body coloring? chase49

By anon23565 — On Dec 28, 2008

Henna is permanent when used to color the hair and must grow out.

By anon20515 — On Nov 01, 2008

Anon6055: No! It is all natural. Now, the black henna is unsafe because of the chemicals in the black coloring.

By anon6055 — On Dec 14, 2007

Is it true that henna hair dye has lead and, therefore, can give you cancer?

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