What is Henna? Is it the same as Mehndi, Mehandi, Heena, etc?

Henna is a plant; the leaves of this plant have a dye called lawsone. The art of applying the plant leaves to the skin is typically given the same as the plant itself. If you have a henna tree growing in your yard, you can simply pick the leaves off the tree and rub them on your skin. To get the sort of fine lines that are typically seen in modern henna design, the leaves must be dried, powdered, sifted so they are very fine, and then mixed into a paste.

The Latin name for the plant is lawsonia inermis.
The Arabic name is henna ( also heena, الحناء)
The Indian name for the same plant is mehndi, mehendi, or mehandi.
The Hebrew name for the same plant is kopher (כֹּפֶר).
In Turkish it is kına.

How can I learn to do henna myself?

Here is a recommended plan of action for anyone who wants to learn to do henna:
1) Get a mehndi / henna kit from a trusted source.
2) Find some henna designs that you would like to try to copy.
3) Try using the henna on paper (or better, paper tucked within a plastic sheet cover!), rather than skin, first, so that you can get a feel for how it works.
4) Always look for new sources of henna design inspiration and continue to research and practice.
5) Watch lots of YouTube videos and join a friendly henna forum.
6) Attend the Henna Gathering, the largest international henna conference hosted in the USA, to meet and learn from the experts.
7) Keep practicing, researching, and learning!

How can I get the darkest henna stain possible?
I really love that deep red / black cherry look I see in some of my favorite henna photos!

Here is the best advice for getting a deep, dark henna stain:

1) Do henna on an area of the skin that takes henna dye best – namely, the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet. Do it at night right before you go to bed so that the next steps are not inconvenient.
2) Once the paste has dried, apply a mixture of lemon juice and sugar to the henna design in a fine mist.
3) Once the lemon juice and sugar mix is no longer wet, just tacky, carefully wrap the hennaed area in toilet paper. Be sure to wrap fairly tightly to minimalize the chances of paste moving around.
4) Then, wrap plastic wrap (what you use to cover food) over the toilet paper and tape it together so the plastic wrap doesn’t move.
5) Keep the henna wrapped overnight, about 8 hours.
6) Take the paste off with the back edge of a butter knife. Don’t use water. Wet the henna with olive oil if it is stubborn and won’t come off easily.
7) Wait as long as possible before getting the design wet with water. Don’t use moisturizers for the first two days, as the henna stain needs to be in contact with the air to oxidize and darken.

Realistically, we know that very, very few people ever actually take this advice in full, even though it is the common standard advice and all henna artists know that leaving the paste on overnight is the only way to achieve the darkest possible stain, and wrapping the design is the only way to ensure that the paste will stay on overnight. Most henna artists don’t even do all of this for themselves more than a few times a year (for very special occasions). Typically the only people we actually expect may follow this advice on how to get gorgeous henna color, if they’re willing, is brides, who have invested many hours in having the henna applied in intricate patterns all over their hands, arms, feet, and legs.

So, here is the realistic, short version of what most people can do to get the best henna color possible with minimal effort:
1) Get henna on the palm of your hand, where it is likely to stain very well. (It will be fine on other areas, but if you’re really going for the darkest color possible, the only place to get it is the palm.)
2) Leave the henna paste on until it falls off on its own. Don’t pick it off prematurely. Typically this will be an hour or two. (If you use a lemon sugar spray, which is indeed sticky, messy, and attracts bees, and is thus not actually common practice at festivals and big egents, it may stay on 3-4 hours even through regular daily movements.)
2) Don’t wash the henna paste off with water. Just scrape it off with the edge of a butter knife, perhaps rewetting it with olive oil, when you do decide to take the remaining paste off (before you go to bed).

That’s all!…. With just the bare bones minimal aftercare, you can expect your henna to last 1-3 weeks, typically 10 days, as long as very high quality henna powder and essential oils are used.

The henna I am using won’t stick to my skin. What might the problem be?

There are a few things that may be wrong here. Natural henna, when mixed properly, is a texture that is kind of like toothpaste, pudding, thin grits, or thick Greek style yogurt. Henna paste anywhere in that consistency range is workable and should stay in place once you apply it to the skin, even if you move – as long as you don’t bump into anything.

If you mixed the henna yourself, and it won’t stick to your skin, the best possibility is that your henna is mixed so the paste is too thin, too wet, to properly stay in one place on the skin. This can easily be fixed by adding more henna powder. (Always buy more henna powder than you think you need so that you have some on hand to adjust for things like this!)

There are other, less good possibilities. Mostly they involve what you are using not being henna, or not being pure henna. Many available pre-mixed cones have mystery ingredients in them that not only may be unsafe, but also make the paste more difficult than it should be to draw with; here is one example of a pre-mixed cone that had a strange texture and poor stain, as tested by our friend Liz .

Pure henna that you mix properly on your own will stick to your skin well. If you are having problems, be sure to get professional henna quality supplies and detailed instructions to ensure that you mix it properly.

Is black henna toxic?

In short, yes. Most things marketed as “black henna” are actually a harsh chemical dye called PPD, which the FDA (in the USA) has banned for use on skin. Using PPD on the skin can cause chemical burns that leave awful scars. There used to be “black henna” suppliers who sold this in the US to unsuspecting customers who did not know the risks, but the FDA has cracked down on them and they no longer sell PPD masquerading as”black henna”. However, there are suppliers based in other countries who will still sell the stuff to unsuspecting customers; buyer beware!

Where did henna come from?

This is a much debated question. You’ll have to do research with primary sources with a critical eye if you really have an interest in answering this question well. Simply “Googling” the answer will not yield a good answer, as the question is a complex one, and most of the frequently cited popular sources for information about this question have serious fundamental research problems, as far as I can tell having looked at some of the original sources and scholarly articles cited.

This said, the earliest physical evidence we have of henna usage is from ancient Egypt; mummies were found with henna-dyed hair and nails. This is the *only* indisputable fact about henna usage in ancient times that is easy to sum up quickly in a sentence you will remember, in my opinion.
There are ancient Syrian (Ugaritic) texts that mention henna, but their interpretation is disputed. Some people say there are Mycenean (Linear B) text that mention henna, but this is almost certainly false (as shown by more careful linguisitic analysis).
Be very careful if you try to answer this question, as most people who traditionally do henna want to believe that henna “belongs” to their culture. Like when answering any research question, it’s important to not that every answer you will find will be biased. Check into where the bias is coming from and be sure to keep that in mind when considering the information you find.

I appreciate the ongoing historical research of Noam Sienna when it comes to this question, as he has actually looked into all of the primary sources most people typically cite as evidence of early henna usage (and may more beyond that).

The first person to do extensive and readily available research on henna traditions worldwide was Catherine Cartwright-Jones of HennaPage.com. The Henna Page contains a wealth of information and is an excellent starting point for your own henna research.

Are there any religious reasons not to do henna? Is it against any religion?

Henna is not against any religion. There are indications in the Old Testament (aka Torah, and therefore also in the Christian Bible and Muslim Koran) that one should not permanently write on the skin. It is only about *permanent* body marking and the word used particularly means “to inscribe”, to write (as in words)… not simply to draw (as in pretty henna patterns).

Drawing on the skin temporarily is not therefore prohibited by the Bible/Torah/Koran. There are some religious authorities who may want you to believe otherwise, but you can find the particular passage that bans tattoos (done by piercing the skin), have them read it in the original Aramaic (if they can!), and they will see it is a very particular ban, not a general ban on body art like temporary and nonharmful henna.

But even in most standard translation, the biblical ban is clearly a ban on cutting into flesh and making permanent tattoo marks. Henna involves neither! You can get all the henna you want!
Click here for many parallel translations of Leviticus 19:28 into English.

Will I offend anyone by getting henna?

It’s possible, even though in most cases it’s not sensible. Some people feel that henna “belongs” to their culture, and if *you* don’t belong to their culture, you should not be doing it. My friend Noam says, when people ask him how he can do henna when he is not Indian, “Do you have to be Italian to eat pizza?” I think this is a very apt response. As long as you use henna with appreciation of its beauty, and with an open mind, no one can tell you that you doing it is offensive. Well, they can tell you that, but you don’t have to take their opinion to heart or let it upset you.

If you encounter people who insist you are stealing “their” culture by doing henna/mehndi, please feel very free to remind them that henna has been used throughout India, North Africa, and the Middle East for a very long time, and no one is sure about exactly where within that very large region the use of henna actually started. And it is a moot point, almost, anyway, as henna has a rich history in all of these areas, and people throughout the region have a reasonable claim to traditional henna use.

And please also point out all the religions that have adherents who have been using henna for many centuries:
Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Ancient Egyptian… and those are just the ones we know about for sure and could easily cite sources for.

This said… stay away from hennaing things you don’t understand onto yourself. For example, if you are not Hindu, don’t randomly decide to get Hindu symbols or gods painted onto you in henna because you think they look cool. If you do this below the navel (like on your ankle), it is considered very unclean, improper, and offensive. And how would you know that unless you really understood Hindu religion? You wouldn’t… unless you read an FAQ like this to tell you such tidbits (which, in this case, is information brought to you third-hand, from a Hindu woman who told me about it). So it’s best to not use symbols you don’t fully understand. If you feel like you fully understand them, use them however you would like… But know that people can take offense (sometimes very rightfully) to the reinterpretation of their symbols.

What are the different traditional uses of henna? What cultural signifigance do people attach to henna?

Henna is most commonly used for brides. Henna is traditionally done the night before the wedding (although we now know that doing henna 2 nights before the wedding yields the best color on the wedding day). The henna is primarily done to beautify the bride and mark her status as a newly married woman. Even today, when you see a woman with very extensive henna on both of her hands, on both sides of the hands, it is quite reasonable to guess that she is probably newly married. (Alternatively she might be a henna artist, or a woman with a lot of free time and money…)

Henna is also used for many other social celebrations. If there is a joyous festival, you can guess that henna is probably a part of it!
For Hindus, henna is part of the Diwali festival, particularly Karwa Chauth, a holiday for married couples. Wives fast and pray for their husbands, and also get henna and presents; it’s a romantic holiday, not entirely unlike Valentine’s Day (but, yes, still very different). For Muslims, henna is part of Eid celebrations, where women and children look forward to getting beautiful henna. Often during Eid there are carnivals and festivals with rides, special festival food, and much merriment….and henna!

Morocco is a bit of a special case, as henna is believed to have a lot of baraka, or life/spiritual energy. Applying henna to the skin thus is thought to bring good fortune and ward off evil. Henna is applied to the hands and feet, places that are frequently in touch with the outside world, to protect the body from anything negative entering it. Pregnant woman, especially, have henna applied (to the hands and feet, not the belly as is becoming popular in the USA), to bring the good and keep out the bad during childbirth, a very dangerous time. Boys also have henna done at the time of their circumcision, again to bring in the good and keep out the bad during this painful and dangerous ritual. (Is it thus any surprise that grown Moroccan men really do not seem to have any fond associations with henna…?)

I see henna for sale in my local Indian / Middle Eastern grocery store or my favorite source for natural cosmetics – should I use it on my skin?

You’ve got a few options here:
1) It’s hair henna in powder form; it’s not sifted finely enough for body art and/or has other chemical additives. Not good (and maybe not safe) for body art.
2) It is a cone of natural henna sold at room temperature. It *was* good at some point, but after 3 days at room temperature (a time it almost *certainly* spent in transit from India or elsewhere), the paste has demised – it will not yield good color. Henna is very perishable once mixed.
3) It is a cone of henna that maybe claims it is natural, but is kept at room temperature and somehow is still staining. The packaging is lying to you; this is not natural henna.
4) It’s natural, fresh henna powder that is finely sifted enough to use for body art! You win! (this almost never happens…. perhaps 5-10% of the time…)

It’s much better, easier, and more reliable to buy from a reputable supplier.

Here’s post with a longer version of this same general idea over on the Artistic Adornment site.

How will henna look on dark skin?

Beautiful! As henna is reddish-brown, the red tones come through even more when it is applied to brown skin. Keep in mind that henna is traditionally done in North Africa, the Middle East, and India, and you can see that hennaing dark skin is the norm, not the exception.
This said, the henna absolutely must be of the highest quality. If poor quality henna is used, the design will never get to be the deep reddish brown or cherry black that high quality henna can yield, but will only be light and orangey – a color that does *not* show up well on dark skin.

Is getting henna at the beach a good idea?

No, getting henna at the beach is a horrible idea if you intend to swim at all! You may get henna done after you are done swimming for the day only. As we said above, you need to keep the henna on your skin for as long as possible and avoid contact with water for as long as possible; swimming is obviously contraindicated.

Sunbathing with henna paste on your skin, on the other hand, is a fabulous idea. The warmth from the sun will help the henna paste dye your skin better. Do be aware that the henna on your skin acts as a natural sunblock, and you will have basically a tan line in the shape of your henna tattoo, even after the henna fades. Most people think that this is cool. But if you don’t think it is cool, be careful not to get a sun tan while you have a henna design on your skin.

It seems like henna is primarily for women. Can men get henna, too?

Henna is definitely fine for men, too! It is indeed traditional for brides to get more intricate pattern work done, but men often have a parallel henna ceremony when the bride is having her henna done, at least dipping the groom’s fingers in henna or putting a small circle of henna in the center of the palm.

There is no reason men cannot enjoy henna as a safe and natural form of temporary body art. We do many henna designs for men that replicate the kind of permanent tattoo designs that are popular for men (especially tribal designs). We also find Fessi traditional Moroccan henna designs to be popular with men once they know what they are, as the designs are intricate, but geometric, not floral.

Can I grow a henna plant in my garden?

Not unless you live in India, the Middle East, or North Africa. A very particular climate is required to grow henna, and we have no such climates in the US.

Can I henna my baby?

I am not a doctor, and can’t give medical advice, but I can say that generally this is not a good idea. There is genetic condition called G6PD deficiency, and you will not know until later in life if your baby has this. If the baby does have this, applying large amounts of henna could be dangerous.
People who have this condition are allergic to aspirin, fava beans, and moth balls. But you won’t really know this until your baby is older…
We do not henna any children under the age of 5 for this reason.

Also, even if you don’t believe us about G6PD (and you should), consider how likely the baby would be to move and ruin the henna design. Infants can’t know to stay still so they don’t smudge their henna. When they smudge it, they will be sad… and you will have wasted your money on henna for them.

This henna I did on myself doesn’t look too good… or I got some gorgeous henna done but now I have a job interview where it would be inappropriate… what do I do to remove henna faster?

Exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate! Use an exfoliating scrub and/or a pumice stone. Try a loofah. Don’t exfoliate so much in one session that your skin becomes red and irritated. You can get the henna to fade more quickly in this way, but you cannot instantly remove it.

Is it okay to get henna when you are pregnant?

Again I am not a doctor and cannot give medical advice, but henna is often used on pregnant women. Women expecting babies in Morocco have been doing henna for a very long time. Hennaing the pregnant belly has become very popular in the USA. It is recommended that you ask your doctor first (with extensive information about henna in hand) if you are unsure and want medical advice.