The world has fallen in love with body decoration and the art of the tattoo. There’s only one drawback, which is that traditional tattoos are permanent. If the tattooist makes a mistake, or five years on you just don’t like it any more, you’re pretty much stuck with it. The only real way out is to opt for laser removal surgery, and that’s expensive.
Henna tattoos, or mehndi, as they are known in India and Pakistan, are an eye-catching and practical alternative. Part of their charm is that they are temporary, fading after a few days or weeks at most – -and they’re also completely painless! With their wonderfully intricate and exotic designs, they are also extraordinarily beautiful. For a special event a henna tattoo could be your perfect choice.
What is Henna?
The word ‘henna’ comes from Arabic. Mehndi is the word used for henna tattoos in India and surrounding countries, and refers to the designs used in that region, as well as to the henna dye itself. True henna comes from the henna plant, Lawsonia inermis, which is sometimes also known as the mignonette plant or Egyptian privet.
Native to Asia, North Africa and Australia, it’s a flowering shrub that can grow to the size of a small tree. The leaves are used for tattoos and other dyes. Henna leaves contain a compound known as hennotannic acid that creates an orange-brown stain when it reacts with keratin, which is a fibrous protein found in the outer layer of the skin.
You may have heard of henna hair dye. The henna used for dying hair may sometimes be true henna, but often it is black henna, which comes from a different plant entirely and may also contain hazardous chemicals.
White henna is actually a white glue that can be used as a temporary skin decoration. It’s not actually henna at all, and doesn’t work by penetrating and staining the skin. The same applies to gold and silver henna tattoos, which are typically transfers of designs in the traditional henna tattoo or mehndi style.
True henna is approved in the US as a hair dye but not for direct application to the skin (see ‘Precautions and health considerations’ below for important medical information).
The Ancient Origins and Cultural Significance of Henna Tattoos
Henna has probably been used as a hair and skin dye for many thousands of years. Its use in the Indian subcontinent is mentioned in early Vedic texts, which date back to nearly 2000 BC.
An ancient legend from northern Syria describes women decorating themselves with henna before marriage, as well as its use to celebrate victories in war. Late Bronze female statues from the Mediterranean coast of North Africa show marks on the hands that are thought to represent henna tattoos.
It seems that henna has been used ever since antiquity in the regions where the henna plant grows. In recent years henna tattoos have become well known in the west partly through Bollywood movies, which have helped to boost the popularity of henna designs as purely decorative body art, far beyond the ceremonial contexts in which they are typically used in North Africa, Asia and the Near East.
Henna tattoos are usually applied to the hands and feet but may also be used to decorate other parts of the body. Traditionally they are often associated with wedding ceremonies, as well as engagements.
In some cultures they are made to mark other life-changing events as well. The tradition goes beyond merely creating striking and decorative patterns to adorn a bride on her wedding day. Bridal henna nights, during which the tattoos are created, are an event in their own right. Because the color takes a while to develop, the tattooing ceremony may occur several days before the actual wedding.
In some regions, it may be a pre-wedding event attended by the bride’s female relatives only. The Indian mehndi ceremony may be a two-part affair, involving both the bride and groom’s families. And it’s not just the brides who decorate themselves. In some places the bridegrooms also have tattoos made for the special occasion.
The symbolism of henna tattoos is all to do with the things that everyone, and especially a newly-wed couple, wants: joy and marital happiness, spirituality, good fortune and fertility. Pregnant women may tattoo their stomachs before a baby shower. Henna tattoos are also used by cancer patients who have lost their hair. Tattooing the scalp with henna functions as a way to cope with that loss.
Henna tattoos are also used in other religious and ritual contexts. Muslims use henna tattoos in various religious festivals, such as Eid (Eid-al-Fitr), which is the celebration marking the end of the fasting that takes place during Ramadan. In some places, such as Morocco, henna is thought to help ward off the evil eye.
How are Henna Tattoos Made?
The leaves of the henna plant don’t stain by themselves. Preparation is required so that the active molecules (known as ‘lawsones’) are released. The preparation method involves drying the leaves and crushing them into a fine powder. This is then mixed with some kind of liquid to form a paste. The liquid used varies from place to place, but may be water, tea, lemon juice or other substances.
Other ingredients may be added to adjust the consistency before application to the skin, and oils are sometimes added with a view to making it adhere to the skin more effectively. The paste is then left to rest and mature, for perhaps 48 hours. Freshly mixed paste is always required, because a batch of henna mixture will start to lose its power to stain effectively after perhaps a week.
To make sure that the henna paste adheres to the skin, a good clean and light exfoliation of the place where it is to be applied is necessary. For obvious reasons, flaky skin is not conducive to the longevity of the tattoo.
The paste can then be applied, using a brush or stick, or it may be piped on, using a piping bag, as you would do if you were decorating a cake. A syringe can also be used to do this. The paste is then left to dry, although a mixture of lemon and sugar may be applied on top in order to seal it.
The End Product
Once the design has been applied, it’s a waiting game. The color becomes stronger over time. Although four to six hours may be enough to create a lighter color effect, it’s common for the paste to be left on for longer periods, and even overnight.
Then it’s time for the reveal. The dry paste is removed, usually with an oil of some kind rather than water, which is thought to interrupt the color development of the stain. Some people prefer to just leave the paste on until most of it has fallen off naturally.
A new henna tattoo stain is orange-brown in color, but as the stain oxidizes it darkens to a deeper brown hue. (It will not go black without the addition of other ingredients that can cause skin problems.) This process can go on for two to three days, until the tattoo is mature and ready to be enjoyed in all its splendor.
The great thing about henna tattoos is that they are temporary, and you don’t have to carry it with you forever. So – how long do they really last? Various factors are involved. First of all, it’s down to the quality of the paste. Natural henna paste is ideal, because of health considerations.
As described further below, some manufacturers may include other staining compounds, some of which may help the tattoo last longer but are not necessarily healthy. It’s always best to go for a henna paste that is unadulterated with chemical additives, even if the tattoo doesn’t last as long. Health is more important than beauty, after all.
You can expect your tattoo to last for about a week, but it will be in absolute peak condition for perhaps three days before it starts to fade. After a week it will probably be well past its prime, but still visible.
In fact, henna tattoos can last for three weeks or longer, fading slowly. How long it lasts will depend in part on its location.
Areas where the skin is thicker stain more easily. Hands and feet tend to stain the darkest but, unless you’re a lady or gentleman of leisure, hand and feet tattoos will be subject to a certain amount of wear and tear. Manual work and washing, combined with the natural exfoliation and replacement of the epidermis, and rubbing from shoes and socks, will all contribute to the tattoo fading slowly before it eventually disappears altogether.
If you’re a regular swimmer or a sportsperson who bathes and showers a lot, that will further accelerate the process. Cream applied on top may protect your tattoo for a little while against water and the removal of skin cells, but it’s probably not going to make a huge difference and some skin products may even speed up the fading process.
If you actually want your henna tattoo to fade faster, there are things you can do. Soap and water is the gentlest, but you could also try micellar water or a mild exfoliant.
Henna Tattoo Designs
Though the fact that henna and mehndi tattoos are temporary is a big bonus, tattoos are always about the visual impact they create, so choosing among the many striking designs that are available will always be an important consideration.
Many people who opt for henna tattoos will also go for one of the traditional designs that have made them so popular beyond their places of origin, but you can always adapt your tattoo design to your taste.
Similarly, although the hands and feet are the usual location for this type of tattoo, you can place them where you like – on the neck, back, legs, shoulder, or whatever takes your fancy.
Classic henna tattoos are one color only, though by adjusting the time the paste is left on makes it possible to create them in different shades of brown and orange. Most designs rely on eye-catching forms and intricate details for their effect. Designs draw from local stylistic traditions and iconography.
So, for example, mehndi tattoos have a recognizably oriental feel and may include motifs such as chakras and mandalas. Flowers and other nature motifs, like leaves, may also be incorporated into the pattern. North African henna tattoos may be bolder in scale and more geometric in design. The hallmark of the henna tattoo, regardless of its regional cultural influence, is the delicacy and complexity of the patterning.
Precautions and Health Considerations
If you are thinking of having a henna tattoo, make sure you know the health risks. Good henna tattoo artists make their paste from natural ingredients, without harmful additives. The dangers of henna tattoos containing potentially dangerous ingredients have been highlighted in recent years.
Henna kiosks have popped up in all sorts of holiday destinations, but there’s no quality control if you use them. If possible, it’s a good idea to do a patch test before applying henna in larger quantities.
The problem lies mainly in tattoo pastes that have additives included in order to make the color blacker (and sometimes to make the stain last longer). Beware of anything labeled ‘black henna’, but be aware that chemicals may be added even to henna products claiming to be natural.
One especially nasty additive is a coal-tar hair dye ingredient called p-phenylenediamine (PPD). This can cause contact dermatitis, but it can also cause a severe allergic reaction.
Studies suggest that two thirds of people exposed to black henna will experience a negative reaction if the exposure lasts for long enough. Especially susceptible individuals may end up with permanent scarring.
If your first henna tattoo causes contact dermatitis (itching, inflammation and redness), don’t have another one, because the risk of a more severe reaction, with blistering and broken skin, increases after initial sensitization. Even after it has faded, the area may develop excess sensitivity to sunlight.
It’s possible to buy henna powder and DIY henna tattoo kits online so that you make your own tattoos at home. These are not recommended, even if they claim to be pure or organic. You can’t just trust the labeling. Go to a reputable tattoo artist instead.
Natural henna tattoos are perfectly safe for most people. The delicate designs can be truly spectacular as well as strikingly exotic. For anyone seeking a temporary tattoo, henna is certainly an option worth considering.