What is Henna?

Henna, or mehndi, is known by many as an art form that is used to temporarily stain the skin with ornate and intricate designs. Henna comes from the finely ground leaves of the plant Lawsonia inermis. The ground leaves are combined with several other ingredients in order to form a silky paste that can be applied in many different ways to the skin. Henna artists may use a cone, a needleless syringe, a squirt bottle, or they may just dip their fingers directly into the paste. Once applied, the henna paste will need to be left on the skin, hair, or nails for several hours for a quality stain. Initially, the stain will appear a bright orange or reddish color. This is normal. The stain will take 1-2 days to mature into its signature brown color. Sometimes the stain can be so dark, it can look almost black. This is not to be confused with black “henna” which I will discuss later. Because this is a natural paste, henna will stain different areas of the body to different degrees. It is known that henna will stain thick skin the best because this is where the skin has the most amount of keratin. Since henna binds directly to the keratin in the skin, the stain will be darkest in these areas. These areas include the hands, fingers, palms, toes, etc. This is why in photos of natural stains, there seems to be an ombre effect going on with the color of the stain.

History of Henna

Henna naturally grows in the tropical and saharan climates of Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Henna has been used by many different cultures as a form of adornment on special occasions for hundreds of years. These special occasions include religious holidays, weddings, engagements, baby showers, etc. Nowadays, henna is also used to celebrate cancer patients who have lost their hair, graduation parties, birthday parties and so on. In certain cultures, the designs themselves act as symbols that have meanings. For example, the elephant in Indian culture, is representative of the Hindu god…

Types of Henna

There are many different kinds of commercial hennas that are sold on the market around the world. In America, hennas with chemical additives have become extremely popular due to their significantly longer shelf life than natural henna. Natural henna needs to be kept frozen when not in use, otherwise it will expire in about 3 to 5 days and will not stain properly anymore. Even with being kept frozen, natural henna usually does not last longer than six months. Chemically altered hennas can last up to a year and do not require any freezing or refrigeration making them very enticing for interested consumers. Another popular type of henna that I keep seeing is black “henna”. I put henna in quotes here because black henna is not really henna. The only kind of blackish henna that is natural comes from a different plant known as jagua which produces a fruit that when juiced releases a black liquid that has the same staining qualities as henna. However, jagua paste is in a class of its own and is never referred to as henna. Jagua ink is more like a gel than a paste, but has similar application techniques to henna. Jagua and henna can also be mixed together for a unique stain color, but once again, this is not the same as black “henna”. In my experience, black henna should be avoided if possible since the actual ingredients are never clearly presented to the consumer. Hennas that are said to come in any other color such as white, gold, blue, etc., are also not really henna. Some artists use regular body paint, which can come in any color, to draw henna designs and incorrectly label their art as henna simply because of the designs and the application style. Rest assured, natural henna can only come in natural colors so pay attention to these inconsistencies in labeling.

Homemade Henna

Henna is fairly easy to make at home for a reasonable price. You will need a bowl, a spatula, a small scale, and saran wrap. A typical ingredient list looks like this;

  • 100 grams of henna powder
  • About 50 grams of sugar
  • About 1 cup of water
  • About 6 tablespoons of essential oils

You will also need scissors, tape, cellophane, and a cake decorating bag to make the cones that the henna will be piped into.
If you don’t want to spend the time to grow your own henna plants, don’t worry, you can buy fresh finely ground henna powders from reliable online sources. The grinding and sifting process of the henna leaves is important because the finer the henna powder, the smoother and more elastic the paste will be. When using a fine tip to apply henna, it is important to avoid lumps in the paste that will make the henna application messy. Most powders are pre-sifted, but many artists will re-sift just to make sure the powder is loose and clump free. The reason why all of the other ingredients are listed in approximations is due to the fact that henna is that the type of henna that best suits a specific artist will depend on that artist’s personal preference, but also the environment of where the artist lives. For example, sugar makes henna stickier. If I live in a very cold or dry environment, I will add more sugar to my paste so that the henna does not dry and crack off too quickly. The stickiness will ensure it stays bonded to the skin for much longer. If I live in a very hot and humid environment, I will probably use less sugar so my paste doesn’t smudge and the designs don’t bleed. If you find that your paste is not mixing well, you can add more water. The more you mix, the silkier the paste will be. Commonly used essential oils include lavender oil, tea tree oil, and eucalyptus oil.
First, mix the dry ingredients together and the wet ingredients together. Then mix the dry and wet parts mixing well with your spatula. The henna paste needs to then be covered with saran wrap to avoid air coming into contact with the paste. The paste needs to sit for about 5 to 6 hours. Afterwards, the henna needs to be mixed well again until the silky texture is achieved. This would be the time to add more water or oil depending on the climate.

Esma Arslan