Henna Lawsonia inermis Scientific classification Kingdom: Plantae Division: Magnoliophyta Class: Magnoliopsida Order: Myrtales Family: Lythraceae Genus: Lawsonia Species: L. inermis Binomial name Lawsonia inermis
Henna (Lawsonia inermis, also called mignonette tree) is a flowering plant used since antiquity to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather and wool. The name is also used for dye preparations derived from the plant, and for the art of temporary tattooing based on those dyes. Additionally, the name is misused for other skin and hair dyes, such as black henna or neutral henna, which do not derive from the plant.
The English name "henna" comes from the Arabic حِنَّاء (ALA-LC: ḥinnāʾ / pronounced [ħɪnˈnæːʔ]) or colloquially حنا, loosely pronounced /ħinna/.
Henna is a tall shrub or small tree, 2.6 m high. It is glabrous, multibranched with spine tipped branchlets. Leaves are opposite, entire, glabrous, sub-sessile, elliptical, and broadly lanceolate (1.5–5.0 cm x 0.5–2 cm), acuminate, having depressed veins on the dorsal surface. Henna flowers have four sepals and a 2 mm calyx tube with 3 mm spread lobes. Petals are obvate, white or red stamens inserted in pairs on the rim of the calyx tube. Ovary is four celled, style up to 5 mm long and erect. Fruits are small, brownish capsules, 4–8 mm in diameter, with 32–49 seeds per fruit, and open irregularly into four splits.
The henna plant is native to tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, southern Asia, and northern Australasia in semi-arid zones. Henna's indigenous zone is the tropical savannah and tropical arid zone, in latitudes between 15° and 25° N and S from Africa to the western Pacific rim, and produces highest dye content in temperatures between 35 °C and 45 °C. During the onset of precipitation intervals, the plant grows rapidly; putting out new shoots, then growth slows. The leaves gradually yellow and fall during prolonged dry or cool intervals. It does not thrive where minimum temperatures are below 11 °C. Temperatures below 5 °C will kill the henna plant. Henna is commercially cultivated in UAE, Morocco,Algeria,Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, western India, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Turkey, Somalia and Sudan. Presently the Pali district of Rajasthan is the most heavily cultivated henna production area in India, with over 100 henna processors operating in Sojat City.
Henna has been used since the Bronze Age to dye skin (including body art), hair, fingernails, leather, silk and wool. In several parts of the world it is traditionally used in various festivals and celebrations. There is mention of henna as a hair dye in Indian court records around 400 CE, in Rome during the Roman Empire, and in Spain during Convivencia. It was listed in the medical texts of the Ebers Papyrus (16th c BCE Egypt) and by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (14th c CE (Syria and Egypt) as a medicinal herb. In Morocco, wool is dyed and ornamented with henna, as are drumheads and other leather goods.
Use of henna for body art has enjoyed a recent renaissance due to improvements in cultivation, processing, and the emigration of people from traditional henna-using regions.
For skin dyeing, a paste of ground henna (either prepared from a dried powder or from fresh ground leaves) is placed in contact with the skin from a few hours to overnight. Henna stains can last a few days to a month depending on the quality of the paste, individual skin type, and how long the paste is allowed to stay on the skin.
Henna also acts as an anti-fungal and a preservative for leather and cloth.
Henna flowers have been used to create perfume since ancient times, and henna perfume is experiencing a resurgence. Henna repels some insect pests and mildew.
Henna's coloring properties are due to lawsone, a burgundy organic compound that has an affinity for bonding with protein. Lawsone is primarily concentrated in the leaves, especially in the petioles of the leaf. Lawsone content in leaves is negatively correlated with the number of seeds in the fruits.
Preparation and application
Whole, unbroken henna leaves will not stain the skin. Henna will not stain skin until the lawsone molecules are made available (released) from the henna leaf. Fresh henna leaves will stain the skin if they are smashed with a mildly acidic liquid. The lawsone will gradually migrate from the henna paste into the outer layer of the skin and bind to the proteins in it, creating a fast stain.
Since it is difficult to form intricate patterns from coarse crushed leaves, henna is commonly traded as a powder made by drying, milling and sifting the leaves. The dry powder is mixed with lemon juice, strong tea, or other mildly acidic liquids to make a preparation with toothpaste-like consistency, which can be used to make finely detailed body art. The henna mix must rest for 6 to 24 hours before use, to release the lawsone from the leaf matter. Essential oils with high levels of monoterpene alcohols such as tea tree, eucalyptus, cajeput, or lavender will improve skin stain characteristics.
The paste can be applied with many traditional and innovative tools, including resist, a cone, syringe, Jac bottle or fingers. A light stain may be achieved within minutes, the longer the paste is left on the skin, the stronger the stain will be, and should be left for several hours. To prevent it from drying or falling off the skin, the paste is often sealed down by dabbing a sugar/lemon mix over the dried paste, or simply adding some form of sugar to the paste. It is debatable whether this adds to the color of the end result some believe it increasing the intensity of the shade. After time the dry paste is simply brushed or scraped away.
Henna stains are orange soon after application, but darken over the following three days to a reddish brown. Soles and palms have the thickest layer of skin and so take up the most lawsone, and take it to the greatest depth, so that hands and feet will have the darkest and most long-lasting stains. Steaming or warming the henna pattern will darken the stain, either during the time the paste is still on the skin, or after the paste has been removed. Chlorinated water and soaps may spoil the darkening process: alkaline products may hasten the darkening process. After the stain reaches its peak color it will appear to fade, as the stained dead cells exfoliate.
Henna has been used as a cosmetic hair dye for 6,000 years. In Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra and Nefertiti were known to have used it. It was commonly used for many centuries in areas of India, the Middle East, and Africa.
In Europe, henna was popular among women connected to the aesthetic movement and the Pre-Raphaelite artists of England in the 1800s. The fashion for Orientalism led young women with a bohemian inclination to begin tinting their hair with henna. Dante Gabriel Rosetti's wife and muse, Elizabeth Siddal, had naturally bright red hair. Contrary to the cultural tradition in Britain that considered red hair unattractive, the Pre-Raphaelites fetishized red hair. Siddal was portayed by Rosetti in many paintings that emphasized her flowing red hair.The other Pre-Raphaelites, including Frederic Leighton, Evelyn de Morgan, Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, and French painters such as Gaston Bussière (painter) and the Impressionists further popularized the association of henna-dyed hair and young bohemian women.
Opera singer Adelina Patti is sometimes credited with popularizing the use of henna in Europe in the late 1800s. Parisian courtesan Cora Pearl was often referred to as La Lune Rousse (the red moon) for dying her hair red. In her memoirs, she relates an incident when she dyed her pet dog's fur to match her own hair. By the 1950s, Lucille Ball popularized "henna rinse" as her character, Lucy Ricardo, called it on the television show I Love Lucy. It gained popularity among young people in the 1960s through growing interest in Eastern cultures.
Muslims also use henna as a dye for their hair and for the beards of males--following the tradition of their prophet Muhammad, who used to dye his beard with henna. It's considered a "sunnah" and akin to something fortunate/good. In one narration by him, he encouraged Muslim women to dye their nails with henna so their hands can be distinguished as feminine & from the hands of a male. Hence you will see this tradition greatly in the Middle East and Africa where women apply henna to their finger and toe nails, as well as their hands.
Commercially packaged henna, intended for use as a cosmetic hair dye, is available in many countries, and is now popular in India, as well as the Middle East, Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. The colour that results from dying with henna can fall into a broad spectrum, from auburn, to orange, to deep burgundy, chestnut brown or deep blue-black. To achieve a colour that is more brown or black, the user must use indigo hair dye as well as henna. The henna is applied first, to coat the hair. Once dry, the indigo is used. The following factors determine the hair colour that results from using henna:
- user's original hair colour
- freshness of the henna
- region of origin of the henna
- amount of time the henna is left on the hair to process
- whether it remains wet on the hair, or is allowed to dry
- the amount of heat retained on the head during the dying process
In this form, it is generally mixed with herbs and perfumes during manufacturing to give it a pleasant fragrance. It is prepared for use much the same way that it is prepared for body art: it is usually sold in block form, and is used in the quantity required for the desired shade of red, brown or black. This will vary according to the user's natural hair colour. The henna is grated into a non-metal container (metal may chemically interact with the henna and ruin the dye) such as a glass bowl. Then hot water is added to it, and the mixture is stirred with a non-metal tool such as a spatula. Once dissolved, the henna is spread onto clean, dry hair. The hair should then be covered with disposable plastic wrap to hold in the heat and moisture, which help the dye to activate. Since any henna that drips will dye skin or clothing, many users will then put a dark towel or a shower cap over the plastic. The henna typically requires at least four hours of processing time before it is washed out. Once hair is dyed with henna, the colour will gradually fade, but it will do so slowly.
Traditions of henna as body art
The different words for henna in ancient languages imply that it had more than one point of discovery and origin, as well as different pathways of daily and ceremonial use.
Henna has been used to adorn young women's bodies as part of social and holiday celebrations since the late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. The earliest text mentioning henna in the context of marriage and fertility celebrations comes from the Ugaritic legend of Baal and Anath, which has references to women marking themselves with henna in preparation to meet their husbands, and Anath adorning herself with henna to celebrate a victory over the enemies of Baal.
Wall paintings excavated at Akrotiri (dating prior to the eruption of Thera in 1680 BCE) show women with markings consistent with henna on their nails, palms and soles, in a tableau consistent with the henna bridal description from Ugarit. Many statuettes of young women dating between 1500 and 500 BCE along the Mediterranean coastline have raised hands with markings consistent with henna. This early connection between young, fertile women and henna seems to be the origin of the Night of the Henna, which is now celebrated worldwide.
The Night of the Henna was celebrated by most groups in the areas where henna grew naturally: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Zoroastrians, among others, all celebrated marriages by adorning the bride, and often the groom, with henna.
Across the henna-growing region, Purim, Eid, Diwali, Karva Chauth, Passover, Nowruz, Mawlid, and most saints' days were celebrated with some henna. Favorite horses, donkeys, and salukis had their hooves, paws, and tails hennaed. Battle victories, births, circumcision, birthdays, Zār, as well as weddings, usually included some henna as part of the celebration. When there was joy, there was henna, as long as henna was available.
Henna was regarded as having "Barakah," blessings, and was applied for luck as well as joy and beauty. Brides typically had the most henna, and the most complex patterns, to support their greatest joy, and wishes for luck. Some bridal traditions were very complex, such as those in Yemen, where the Jewish bridal henna process took four or five days to complete, with multiple applications and resist work.
The fashion of "Bridal Mehndi" in Pakistan, Northern Libya and in North Indian diasporas is currently growing in complexity and elaboration, with new innovations in glitter, gilding, and fine-line work. Recent technological innovations in grinding, sifting, temperature control, and packaging henna, as well as government encouragement for henna cultivation, have improved dye content and artistic potential for henna.
Though traditional henna artists were Nai caste in India, and barbering castes in other countries (lower social classes), talented contemporary henna artists can command high fees for their work. Women in countries where women are discouraged from working outside the home can find socially acceptable, lucrative work doing henna. Morocco, Mauritania, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, as well as India and many other countries have thriving women's henna businesses. These businesses are often open all night for Eids, Diwali and Karva Chauth, and many women may work as a team for a large wedding where hundreds of guests will be hennaed as well as the bride and groom.
Henna is known to be dangerous to people with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD deficiency), which is more common in males than females. Infants and children of particular ethnic groups are especially vulnerable. Though user accounts cite few other negative effects of natural henna paste, save for occasional allergic reactions, pre-mixed henna body art pastes may have ingredients added to darken stain, or to alter stain color. The health risks involved in pre-mixed paste can be significant. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does consider these risks to be adulterants and therefore illegal for use on skin. Some pastes have been noted to include: silver nitrate, carmine, pyrogallol, disperse orange dye, and chromium. These have been found to cause allergic reactions, chronic inflammatory reactions, or late-onset allergic reactions to hairdressing products and textile dyes.
The FDA has not approved henna for direct application to the skin. It is unconditionally approved as a hair dye, and can only be imported for that purpose. Henna imported into the U.S. which appears to be for use as body art is subject to seizure, though prosecution is rare.
"Neutral henna" and "black henna"
Natural henna stains only a rich red brown. Products sold as "black henna" or "neutral henna" do not contain henna, but are instead made from other plants, or from other substances altogether.
So-called "neutral henna" does not change the color of hair. This is not henna powder; it is usually the powder of the plant Senna italica also known as Cassia obovata or a closely related Cassia species.
So-called "black henna" powder may be derived from indigo (from the plant Indigofera tinctoria). It may also contain unlisted dyes and chemicals. "Black henna" may contain p-phenylenediamine (PPD), which can stain skin black quickly, but can cause severe allergic reactions and permanent scarring. The FDA specifically forbids PPD to be used for that purpose, and may prosecute those who produce "black henna'. Artists who injure clients with "Black Henna" in the U.S. may be sued for damages.
"Black Henna" is a misnomer arising from imports of plant-based hair dyes into the West in the late 19th century. Partly fermented, dried indigo was called "black henna" because it could be used in combination with henna to dye hair black. This gave rise to the belief that there was such a thing as "black henna" which could dye skin black. Indigo will not dye skin black. Pictures of indigenous people with black body art (either alkalized henna or from some other source) also fed the belief that there was such a thing as "black henna."
In the 1990s, henna artists in Africa, India, Bali, the Arabian Peninsula and the West began to experiment with para-phenylenediamine (PPD) based black hair dye, applying it as a thick paste as they would apply henna, in an effort to find something that would quickly make jet black temporary body art. PPD can cause severe allergic reactions, with blistering, intense itching, permanent scarring, and permanent chemical sensitivities. Estimates of allergic reactions range between 3% and 15%. Henna does not cause these injuries. "Black henna" made with PPD can cause lifelong sensitization to coal tar derivatives. "Black henna" made with gasoline, kerosene, lighter fluid, paint thinner, and benzene has been linked to adult leukemia.
The most frequent serious health consequence of having a "black henna temporary tattoo" is sensitization to hair dye and related chemicals. If a person has had a "black henna tattoo", and later dyes their hair with chemical hair dye, the allergic reaction may be life threatening and require hospitalization. Because of the epidemic of para-phenylenediamine allergic reactions, chemical hair dye products now post warnings on the labels: "Temporary 'black henna' tattoos may increase your risk of allergy. Do not colour your hair if: ... - you have experienced a reaction to a temporary 'black henna' tattoo in the past."
Para-phenylenediamine is illegal for use on skin in western countries, though enforcement is difficult. Physicians have urged governments to legislate against "black henna" because of the frequency and severity of injuries, especially to children. To assist prosecution of vendors, government agencies encourage citizens to report injuries and illegal use of "PPD black henna". When used in hair dye, the PPD amount must be below 6%, and application instructions warn that the dye not touch the scalp and the dye must be quickly rinsed away. "Black henna" pastes have PPD percentages from 10% to 80%, and are left on the skin for half an hour.
Para-phenylenediamine "black henna" use is widespread, particularly in tourist areas. Because the blistering reaction appears 3 to 12 days after the application, most tourists have left and do not return to show how much damage the artist has done. This permits the artists to continue injuring others, unaware they are causing severe injuries. The high profit margins of "black henna" and the demand for body art that emulates "tribal tattoos" further encourage artists to deny the dangers.
It is not difficult to recognize and avoid para-phenylenediamine "black henna":
- if a paste stains torso skin black in less than ½ hour, it has PPD in it.
- if the paste is mixed with peroxide, or if peroxide is wiped over the design to bring out the color, it has PPD in it.
Anyone who has an itching and blistering reaction to a black body stain should go to a doctor, and report that they have had an application of para-phenylenediamine to their skin.
PPD sensitivity is lifelong. A person who has become sensitized through "black henna tattoos" may have future allergic reactions to perfumes, printer ink, chemical hair dyes, textile dye, photographic developer, sunscreen and some medications. A person who has had a "black henna tattoo" should consult their physician about health consequences of para-phenylenediamine sensitization.
- Achiote (urucum, annatto), another plant that stains skin orange-red
- Genipapo, a plant that stains the skin blue-black
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