Introduction to henna: the Lawsonia plant, its history, traditions & uses

The use of henna to dye skin and hair has a long-standing tradition; some records indicate that we’ve been using it for over 9,000 years!

It’s commonly known in the Middle East, Africa, and Southern and Western Asia.

Historical records show that henna has been used for cosmetic purposes in, among others, the Roman Empire, the Convivencia-period in medieval Spain and Ancient Egypt.

People who live in hot, arid climates have long been aware of the cooling properties of henna paste and have used it to help control their body temperature.

I first started using henna to cool down when I lived in Pakistan.

The scorching hot summer temperatures in Lahore, a city of ten million people, would regularly climb into the high 40°C, low 50°C range.

I quickly learned that my Scandinavian body, honed over generations upon generations to manage well in cold temperatures, was fine-tuned to retain heat, not release it.

By contrast, all the locals seemed to have a trigger-happy sweating mechanism that would start up at the slightest increase in temperature.

They all had built-in ACs!

I was totally jealous. Until someone suggested I try henna.

You take the crushed and dried leaves of the henna plant and mix the powder with cold water. Once you’ve got your cooling paste, you soak the soles of your feet and palms in it.

The paste works incredibly effectively at drawing out the heat from your body.

Kind of like how animals use mud to cool down.

Soon, I was soaking in my henna almost every day, and it was easy to see how people made the leap from simply soaking in it to decorating the skin with it.

Painting designs on your skin with henna is called mehndi.

To create mehndi, the leaves of the henna plant are dried, crushed and sifted into a fine powder before being mixed with liquids to create a paste.

The henna paste is applied to the skin, where it stains the top layer of the skin in an orange-brown colour.

The final colour of the stain depends on a number of factors; region and season the henna was grown in, agents used when making the dye and time left on the skin.

Despite being a dark green when applied to the skin, the paste will dry and flake away to reveal an orange stain.

The stain will darken during the days immediately after application.

The palms and soles of the feet stain the darkest because the skin is the thickest and contains the most keratin.

The further away from the hands and feet, the fainter the stain. Henna stains the face the lightest.

Originally, it was done by applying the henna paste to the skin with sticks. Kind of like painting it on with a brush.

Today, you can purchase henna in already mixed form and packaged into applicator cones, or mix up your own henna and either fashion an applicator cone out of a plastic bag (think piping bag, but smaller) or use plastic bottle applicators with thin tips.

The designs used when doing mehndi are traditional and highly symbolic.

Applying mehndi is a time-consuming process and is typically reserved for festive occasions; holidays, parties and weddings are venues where you’ll typically find a lot of mehndi.

By far the most popular is the mehndi ceremony, also known as mehndi night.

A mehndi party is a pre-wedding event for the bride and her closest female family members and friends, the equivalent of a hen party.

The main focus of the party is the application of the bridal mehndi on the bride’s hands, feet, arms and legs.

How much of the body is covered in mehndi designs typically varies by region.

The night is filled with music, food and dance performances by the bride’s nearest and dearest that have been rehearsed for months prior to the event.

It’s also normal to hire a professional henna artist to come and decorate the bride as the application can take hours (and then you have to sit immobile while it dries or risk ruining it!).

The guests typically receive smaller designs or the “bridesmaids” may decorate each other, though none will be as elaborate as the bride.

Mehndi artists all have their own (sometimes secret) recipes for creating as dark a stain as possible.

After the tiresome process of having the mehndi applied to the skin, you want it to stay for as long as possible.

You can adjust the tone of the henna by mixing it with more or less acidic liquids.

Today many brides prefer to have the mehndi done prior to the mehndi party so that they can join in the fun, rather than sit still and wait for the henna to dry.

In some countries and cultures, tradition holds that as long as the henna stain is visible on the skin of the bride, she doesn’t have to do any housework!

This may also have something to do with the fact that the more you soak and wear down the skin, the faster the designs fade.

Things like doing dishes and washing your hands frequently quickly wear down the beautiful designs.

Safeguarding the mehndi stain is also done since the newlyweds typically end up entertaining a lot of well-wishers in the weeks after the wedding.

It’s also said that the darker the henna stain is, the better the marriage and mother-in-law will be, so you can imagine why the bride would want the stain to come out as dark as possible.

How long does mehndi stay on the skin?

Typically, the mehndi designs will last anywhere from 1-4 weeks on the surface of the skin, depending on how well the designs are cared for.

The mehndi on the palms is usually the first to go, due to hand washing.

The forearms and shins/ankles are usually the last ones to fade.

The areas where there are fewer keratinised cells will take on a lighter stain and release it quickly.

These areas include the back, tummy, chest, face, upper arms, and the like.

Different skin also takes on henna differently, so results can vary greatly.

What is the henna plant like?

The plant commonly known as henna is a tall flowering shrub that grows from 1.8 to 7.6 metres (6 to 25 ft) tall by the name of Lawsonia inermis (this is important to know for later).

The word henna comes from the Arabic name for the plant itself; al-ḥinnā, and also refers to the paste made out of the leaves of the plant.

Mehndi means the designs painted onto the skin with henna paste, the word coming from the Sanskrit mendhikā.

The leaves of the henna plant contain a red-orange molecule, lawsone, which has the ability to temporarily stain the skin, hair and nails.

It can also be used to dye fabrics (most often silk and wool) as well as leather.

The henna plant grows best in hot, arid climates with seasonal rains.

Indian and Pakistani henna is widely accepted as the best staining henna in the world. Both countries also export a lot of henna so both Pakistani and Indian henna is easily available.

The henna plant won’t tolerate cold at all and it produces the most dye molecules when grown in temperatures between 35 and 45 °C (95 and 113 °F).

When it has dry soil for several months and then gets short periods of intense rain, such as the monsoon, it grows quickly, producing two harvests a year.

Only the leaves of the henna plant contain the dye molecules, so high-quality henna consists of almost exclusively dried and powdered leaves (not stems or roots).

The lawsone molecule, which produces a reddish-orange dye, binds to the keratin in skin and nails.

The dye is safe to use for most people (excluding those with allergies to the plant itself) and is a temporary dye on the skin but permanent in hair.

Cultural uses of henna include:

  • celebrations, such as weddings, parties, holidays and blessings
  • beauty and adornment
  • blessings, such as for a new bride or a new child
  • as an alternative (or precursor) to a tattoo
  • continuing cultural traditions

Henna has also been used as a medicinal remedy and is considered to have many beneficial properties.

When used as a medicinal plant it is not ingested, only used topically.

Medicinal uses of henna include:

  • As an insect repellent – traditionally applied to goat sking bags and other leather goods after salt-curing, to insect- and mothproof the leather.
  • As an anti-fungal – henna is well-known for its anti-fungal properties, and is commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine to cure fungal diseases and reduce athete’s foot.
  • As sunblock – henna has long been used on animals to prevent sunburn.
  • As a cold-compress – traditionally henna has been applied to inflamed skin, for instance a sunburn, to cool and soothe the skin. In some cases, it has also been used to reduce the burn of a fever.
  • For general pain relief – applied to the surface of the skin henna has been used to alleviate headaches, stomach pains, burns, protect open wounds and arthritic pain.

Henna is a wonderful natural hair dye.

Henna is often used as a remedy to treat an oily or itchy scalp but is rarely used as an intentional dye among younger people.

In countries like India and Pakistan, dyeing your hair with henna is typically something reserved for senior citizens.

Partly, this is because henna can help an elderly person get through a heatwave – and those are lethal in hot countries – and partly because the colour of the henna isn’t visible in very dark hair.

This means that once you start going grey in the hair, the stain will finally be visible!

I started dyeing my hair with henna despite the reservations of my in-laws, who thought I was being an old doddy.

But in the Lahore summer heat, I didn’t care. I’d been dyeing my hair since I was a teenager and it was already severely dehydrated and damaged from how I was treating it.

Fifteen years later, and with some drastic adjustments to my hair care routines, I’m still using henna regularly and will never go back to chemical dyes.

Naturally, I use some of the best henna in the market: that is to say Pakistani henna.

It gives a beautiful stain, layers nicely every time adding depth to my existing colour and washes out like a dream.

I also don’t have to sit around with it in my hair for six hours, like some commercially available dye mixes I’ve tried.

The tone changes depending on ambient lighting; in the images above you can easily see that in action (the first on the left is brighter daylight emphasising the red tones, the one on the right is soft, indoor lighting that brings out the brown tones).

And when sunlight hits it, my head practically looks like it’s on fire!

In the hair, unlike on the skin, the henna dye is permanent. It may fade slightly but it is hard to remove; the best way to get rid of it is to grow it out.

The colour it gives to your hair depends on all the same factors as I mentioned for henna paste above in the mehndi section, plus your own underlying hair colour.

The henna gives a translucent kind of colour to your hair that always works in tandem with whatever is underneath – whether that’s another dye or your natural colour.

The lighter your hair is, the more visible the henna stain will be, as I already said.

The darker your underlying colour is, the less visible the henna will be.

Henna also layers over time, so it gets better the longer you use it.

Every time you add another layer of the translucent dye, the colour deepens and becomes more complex.

The first time I dyed my hair with henna, it was a bright, almost comical, carrot red for the first two days.

As the colour oxidised it developed into a darker red and eventually became the deep, complex reddish-brown I have today.

And the best part? At no point does it look like your hair is dyed.

Because henna blends in with your natural hair colour, the end result is natural like nothing I’ve ever achieved with chemical permanent dyes.

It looks like your natural hair colour. Only cooler.

Henna also strengthens your hair.

Because of the way henna adds to your hair, rather than strip things away like chemical dyes, it makes hair stronger, shinier, healthier and rejuvenates dry, dull and damaged hair.

It certainly revived mine.

And the more I used it, the healthier my hair got.

Granted, I also stopped using soaps and shampoos because they strip away the natural oils.

I only condition my hair now with nourishing hair masks and, of course, regular treatments of henna.

As someone who is downright allergic to synthetic dyes (my nose and eyes start burning from the smell alone of chemical dyes), henna is a pleasant, spa-like experience by comparison.

It goes on like a smooth mud mask, it doesn’t burn and I don’t have to worry about exact times; I can just apply it and wash it out whenever I get around to it.

I have no adverse effects from using henna hair dye.

And because I use triple sifted (read: ultra-fine) henna it washes out as easily as the shampoos I no longer use!

I know that’s not the case with some of the henna-based natural hair dyes in the market that clump and stick to your hair.

Benefits of using natural henna include:

  • Supporting small, family farmers and growers
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Can be used by people who are sensitive or allergic to synthetic dyes
  • Easy to use when using high-quality henna
  • Pure henna power uses less packaging material than commercial hair dye
  • Pure henna can be used on skin (mehndi) and hair both
  • Henna balances the scalp and strengthens the hair shaft