Stunning and intricate henna tattoos have starred in countless celebrations for thousands of years. Over time, henna tattoos have become a form of self-expression in dozens of cultures.
However, with new developments like dangerous chemical-laced henna, you need a trustworthy henna tattoo guide. In this guide, we cover everything: What henna is, the history of henna, how it’s applied, and much more. Hopefully, this complete henna tattoo guide can help you determine if henna is right for your next special event, trial tattoo, or aesthetic enhancement.
What is a Henna tattoo?
A henna tattoo is temporary body art made with dye from the henna plant. The henna powder, along with a few other ingredients, can stain the skin. The stain is usually brown or orange-brown, and will hold its color for days or weeks. Whereas permanent tattoos pierce the skin and deposit ink, henna is just a dye that sits on the skin’s surface.
Henna is used to dye the skin, hair, fingernails, fabrics, and more. It is an ancient practice that has been used both artistically and practically for over 5,000 years.
What is Henna ink?
Henna comes from Lawsonia inermis, a tree that grows in the tropical climates of Africa, South Asia, and Australia. Henna “ink” is made by grinding dried henna leaves and mixing the powder with a liquid to form a paste.
Henna paste contains lawsone (AKA hennotannic acid), which is an organic compound that binds with protein. For example, lawsone reacts with the keratin in skin or hair to produce a long-lasting color.
What is the History of Hennahenna’s history?
The earliest use of the henna plant dates back to over 9,000 years ago. Legend tells us that henna symbolized beauty and power when worn by Egyptian Pharaohs and queens… including Cleopatra herself. Since then, it has been practiced in Pakistan, Indian, Africa, and other Middle Eastern countries.
Henna represents different values in different cultures. Some of the values that henna represent include:
- Spiritual awakening
- Good luck
- Protection from evil
- Good health
- Bountiful harvests
- Increased fertility
- More rainfall
- Easier childbirth
- Protection from illness
- Healthy relationships
Different cultures also draw henna differently. Here are just a few traditions:
- Indian henna usually features fine lines and flowers.
- Arabic henna tattoos are larger, bolder, and more geometric.
- In some cultures, the darker the henna stain for a wedding, the deeper the love between two individuals.
Some of the main designs you’ll see in henna include dots, swirls, flowers, and tribal symbols. Accessible henna has been used as an adornment for both the rich and the poor throughout the centuries.
Henna has many traditional uses beyond just body art. It can be used as a hair dye for those seeking an alternative to ammonia and other chemicals in commercial dyes. Henna can produce a dark brown or copper-brown color, and it’s perfect for covering gray hairs or transforming men’s beards. It is also very nourishing and can be used not only as a dye but also as a hair mask. Additionally, henna has been used to dye silk, wool, and leather.
Not only does henna serve aesthetic purposes, but also medicinal ones. It has natural cooling properties and has been employed by desert-dwellers throughout the centuries to control body temperature. It has been used topically as a sunblock, insect repellant, and anti-fungal. Henna has been used to treat various conditions including:
- Stomach pains
- Open wounds
- Athlete’s foot
- Hair loss
While henna has been used primarily in the east, we started seeing the henna trend in the west in the 1990s. Celebrities like Madonna and Liv Tyler began to sport henna, and the fad grew into a common form of western self-expression. Today, it is used for all kinds of reasons in different areas of the world, including:
- Celebrations or special events
- Reminders or inspiration
- Aesthetic enhancement
- Cover-up for scars or tattoos
- Temporary trial for a permanent tattoo
What Events and Celebrations are Henna used in?
Throughout history, henna represented a special occasion. While henna is used casually today, it is still often used to mark significant events like:
- Mehndi party: This pre-wedding Hindu and Sikh celebration involves applying a red-orange “stain” to the bride-to-be’s palms, back of hands, and feet. Guests may receive small henna designs as well.
- Pregnancy: Bellies are often painted during pregnancy to symbolize growth, fertility, and wellness.
- Chemotherapy: The battle against cancer can be marked with a bald head patterned with henna to camouflage scars and convey strength and beauty.
- Weddings: Some cultures maintain traditional wedding henna. Not only does it make the bride look unique and beautiful, but it is also linked to other traditions (like the one where the bride doesn’t have to do any housework until the henna fades).
- Eids: These Islamic holidays mark the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan.
Other occasions that people mark with henna include:
- Baby blessings
- Military service
Is Henna Tattoo Ink Permanent?
Real henna powder can never become permanent because the human skin sheds its outer layer every 2-4 weeks.
Henna tattoos are traditionally temporary tattoos. While bold and beautiful, they usually only last 1-2 weeks. A temporary henna tattoo will be orange to dark brown in color, and it is one of the longest-lasting temporary skin dyes. Why?
- The Michael Reaction: The lawsone in the henna will interact with the natural proteins in your skin (AKA the Michael reaction), making the dye darker and more difficult to wash off – instead, the color will linger until the top layer of skin sheds away.
- The Apple Effect: When you slice an apple, it becomes oxidized and turns brown. When henna is exposed to the air, it will also become darker over the subsequent hours.
There is just one instance in which a “henna” tattoo can become a permanent scar: black henna.
Unfortunately, with the increased popularity of henna tattoos, some places have switched out safe, real henna dye for cheaper chemicals. There are multiple reports of people getting subpar or black henna, which contains p-paraphenylenediamine (PPD) that can cause severe reactions in a person’s skin and lead to permanent scarring.
That being said, getting a REAL henna tattoo is a great way to enjoy beautiful body art without committing yourself to a single design for the rest of your life.
How are Henna Tattoos Applied?
The colorant is made up of a ground henna powder mixed with water, tea, or lemon juice. Then, henna application is just a three-step process:
- The paste is placed in a small piping bag or cone and then piped onto the skin. Alternatively, a toothpick dipped in color is used to draw on the skin.
- The paste should then sit on the skin for at least 2-4 hours. It can be topped with a mixture of lemon juice and sugar to seal the dye and intensify the color.
- Finally, dried paste flakes are removed, and the henna will continue to darken over the course of a few days.
Is it painful?
NO! Natural henna tattoos are not painful at all. Real henna never hurts, because you’re not penetrating the skin. Henna is applied to the surface of the skin with a plastic cone, toothpick or piping bag.
Unfortunately, fake, chemical-laden henna can cause painful side-effects, such as burning, redness, itching, and inflammation. Avoid black henna (or any henna that you’re not sure is pure henna).
How long does it take?
If your henna design is simple, it will only take about 5-10 minutes to get tattooed. Larger or more intricate designs can take 30 minutes or even a couple of hours to apply.
After application, it takes 10-20 minutes for the henna to dry. However, after that, you’ll allow the dry henna to sit on the skin for at least 2-3 hours. You may want to cover the area with plastic wrap to protect the new tattoo. Many artists recommend leaving the dry henna on the skin overnight.
Who does Henna Tattoos?
If you’re interested in getting a henna tattoo, ask friends and family for recommendations or conduct a thorough Google search. Some individuals, businesses, or events that might provide henna tattoos include:
- Tattoo parlors
- Individual henna artists
- Brow salons
- Henna salons
- Beauty salons and spas
- Permanent makeup salons
- Makeup artists
- Fairs and festivals
- Craft shows
- Performing art studios
You can also do henna DIY. Here’s a helpful video on how to apply henna at home, and here is a how-to guide on creating your own henna paste.
How much can you expect one to cost?
Henna tattoos are affordable compared to permanent tattoos – a simple, small design can cost as little as $5 at a fair or craft show! However, if you’re going to hire a henna artist, you may expect to pay between $75 and $180 per hour. If they charge by design, you might pay $15 for a simple palm design, but you’ll pay more for something larger or more complex.
How long will a Henna Tattoo Last?
The amount of time your henna lasts will depend on your unique oil secretion and cell regeneration speed, along with the clarity of quality of the henna used. You can expect your henna dye to last up to two weeks before it begins to fade.
To make henna last longer…
- Choose thick skin: Areas of the body with thick and/or dry skin will hold the color for longer. Go for the soles of the feet, palms of the hand, or stomach for a longer-lasting tattoo.
- Leave it longer: Exercise patience and leave the dried henna paste on the skin for as long as possible, up to 12 hours.
- Keep it moisturized: Traditional Indian mehndi tattooing involves using lemon juice and sugar to keep the henna paste moist and set it better. Heat a cup of lemon juice on the stove until hot, not boiling. Add three tablespoons of sugar and dissolve. Once cooled, add to a spray bottle and gently mist the henna paste with the spray occasionally.
- Keep it warm: The lawsone in the henna binds more to the keratin if the henna is kept warm (but NOT hot). Try warming the tattoo with a space heater or getting it in the sun for a few minutes at a time.
- Don’t prep: Do not exfoliate or wax the area immediately prior to getting a henna tattoo, and don’t wear any moisturizers, oils, or fake tanning agents to your henna appointment.
- Avoid water: Don’t scrub the tattooed area, and keep it out of the water as much as possible. Use gentle soaps when you need to shower or bathe (and of course, don’t exfoliate).
If you really love your henna, simply apply fresh henna paste each week!
Are Henna Tattoos Safe?
Natural henna is very safe, causing very few allergic reactions or side effects.
Most all reactions to henna are related to added chemical ingredients like PPD. Those side effects may include blisters, scarring, burning, redness, and swelling. Your skin is permeable, which means some chemicals can pass through the skin and enter the bloodstream.
ONLY use pure henna, preferably organic, which is perfectly safe for your skin. The henna should contain ONLY 1. The henna powder itself, 2. A liquid to make it a paste (like water or tea), and 3. An acidic component to release the dye (such as apple cider vinegar or lemon juice).
Remember: Black henna is NOT HENNA, and very dangerous. Avoid factory-made or shelf-stable henna.
When in doubt:
- Get a small-patch allergy test before committing
- Ask for details about the ingredients
- Sniff for the fresh henna smell (it should smell earthy with a hint of essential oils. If it smells like chemicals or a factory, do not use it!)
- Examine the color (it should be a rich brown or green when you apply)
- Get familiar with the feel of henna (it should feel earthy like wet tree bark)
Can kids get Henna Tattoos?
Pure, organic henna is safe for children, pregnant women, and sensitive skin. Traditionally, henna has been used on children as young as three years old!
That being said, most young children are not capable of letting the paste sit for 2-4 hours, or following aftercare instructions properly.
- Consider your child’s ability to be patient, sit still, and follow instructions based on their age and personality.
- Complete an allergy patch test before performing the tattoo.
- Go to a henna artist you trust 100%.
Unfortunately, there are some frightening stories about children having lasting side effects from chemically-laced henna received from unknown vendors on the beach or the street. Some henna artists will not apply henna to children at all, and some wait until they are 8 or older. On the other hand, some artists are happy to apply henna to children as young as three years old!
Pure Henna is Healthy and Beautiful
Henna is an age-old tradition of beauty, celebration, and good fortune. Best of all, pure henna is perfectly harmless. Henna is safe, temporary, and affordable for all ages and all occasions! As long as you recognize good henna, it’s an unbeatable way to elevate your look.