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Henna: Heavenly for Hands, Hair and Health

By Um Yaqoob



I moaned and complained as my sister-in-law squeezed the cone to apply the cold green paste. No way would this ever produce the intricate russet designs I had seen on other women, I thought to myself. I sat in total boredom as I waited hours for it to dry. When I finally scraped it off, however, my hands were covered with rusty filigree that darkened into a deep chestnut as the hours passed.

How the gooey green paste could turn into such a lacy masterpiece is hardly a mystery. The brushlike, flowering henna plant grows both wild and cultivated throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Its small, green, innocent-looking leaves are dried, then ground into a fine powder that ranges in color from bright green to khaki to brown. When this powder is mixed with liquid (usually strong tea and oils like lemon, eucalyptus and clove), its true character emerges.

Henna penetrates and stains the outer layer of skin, the epidermis. It will be darkest where the epidermis is thicker, like the palms of the hands. Since the thickness of this layer varies from person to person, so does the final color of the henna stain. On hair, henna coats each hair shaft with transparent color and hennatannic acid, a semi-permanent protein. It coats and seals the hair shaft and tightens the hair cuticle. This results in stronger, shinier hair.

Henna decoration has been used in the East for thousands of years. It has only become popular in the West recently, made famous by pop stars and actresses. Few celebrations from Morocco to Afghanistan occur without the presence of henna. The most important of these is a wedding. At the "henna party," for example, a bride-to-be sits among her friends and family the night before her wedding while henna artists apply a thick paste of henna to feet, hands and hair. In some cultures the palms of the hands and soles of the feet are dyed solid. More common is mehndi design, where a complicated pattern is drawn on hands, arms, feet, legs and occasionally upper chest and temples using henna in a cone or a thin stick or needle.

A mehndi artist is like no other. She must have a steady hand and sense of space and design. Whether creating the geometric forms common to African designs or the delicate paisleys and vines of Indian origin, she must know how to place the paste perfectly. Self-application of henna is possible, but there is nothing that can compare to having an expert apply it for you as you watch the design emerge. Without use of her hands, a woman having henna done often has someone feed her as she waits. Sometimes, especially if the henna is being applied in a salon, a woman will have her hair done at the same time.

After the henna is applied (which can take hours), it is allowed to dry. When the henna dries (in half an hour or so), sugar and lemon juice are applied to keep the henna on the hands and deepen the color for the next several hours. The dried paste is scraped off (washing will reduce the color), revealing an auburn, non-permanent tattoo wherever the henna touched the skin. The color will deepen over the next 48 hours and last for several days.

Henna applied to the hair imparts color and deep conditioning, strengthening and smoothing the hair strands. A paste of henna powder and brewed tea is applied to freshly washed and oiled hair. In hot countries, this mixture is chilled to make a refreshing scalp cooler. The paste goes on, either all over or in strips to streak hair with color. The hair is left to absorb the dye for several hours; it is usually wrapped up in shower cap or plastic bag and tied up in a scarf. When the hair is washed, the affect is stunning. Black hair shows a burgundy tinge, brown hair is chestnut, chocolate and cinnamon brown, blond or white hair becomes deep orange.

Henna is used by older women (and even men) in some cultures to cover gray hair. It is not uncommon in the Middle East to find an elderly woman with flame red hair (even into her final years Lucille Ball swore by Egyptian henna). The writer Geraldine Brooks reports that she even caught a glimpse of Ayatollah Khomeini’s widow’s hair when her scarf slipped; she was surprised to see even her hair beautified with henna dye. In some societies, a woman who does not cover her gray with henna is seen as having "let herself go."

Henna has an earthy, leafy smell that stays on the hair and hands for some time. It has a distinct, rooty taste that many people enjoy; when they lick food off their dyed fingers, they can taste it. Some people claim they can tell if food has been cooked by someone with dyed hands, so strong is the taste.

A major benefit of using henna over other dying methods is that it is non-toxic, even if taken internally. In fact, it is used as a medicine to treat burns, warts, nosebleeds, internal ulcers, even herpes legions. Its antiviral properties are even being studied for their effect on the influenza and AIDS viruses. Routine application of henna paste to the feet has been found to be beneficial for protecting the skin of diabetics, healing small lesions and cracks and keeping the area supple. For all its healing characteristics henna has earned the name "the magic plant."

Outside of its use for the human body, henna designs can be applied to wood, leather, cloth and other porous items with dramatic results. Drums, picture frames and small wood boxes are some items that henna artists dye with an oilier version of the paste to leave lovely motifs.

As beneficial as it is beautiful, henna patterns and stains indeed leave a mark as much on the aesthetic sense as on the body.


Photo credits

Wedding henna: Rema Nasaredden

Henna plant, henna powder and designed wood box: Um Yaqoob

Red hair and hand with henna: free stock photography