The Most Important Question to Ask Your Henna Artist
As a professional henna artist, I get asked a lot of questions about my art. Many of the questions have to do with how to make the stain last the longest or what the designs "really mean" or how long it took me to learn to wield a cone. But there is one question that I don't hear hardly enough, and it's time we talked about it.
The most important question that you need to ask your henna artist is:
"What is in your henna paste, and when did you make it?"
Alright, alright, so that's really two questions. #fightme But what many people fail to understand is that asking for these details can save you from a world of hurt later. I wish I were saying that solely as an expression, but I'm not. What I really mean is that by asking for this information, you can reduce your risk of experiencing anything from mild skin irritation to permanent scarring, cardiac arrest, and even death.
You see, not all henna is created equal. In fact, most "henna" pastes found on the market for public consumption here in the United States may or may not actually contain henna at all.
Henna is a shrub whose leaves are dried, powdered, and mixed with a number of mild, plant-based ingredients in order to create a paste. This paste is then transferred into cones (most commonly) and used to create designs on the skin.
I like to compare henna to food in that it is a plant-based and highly perishable product. Just as anything else whipped up in the kitchen, it's best when it's freshly prepared, it's alright if kept refrigerated for a couple of days, and generally is fine when stored well packaged in the freezer. However, you wouldn't think to eat that plate of food that's sat out on the counter for three days, right? How about for ten days? For six months? #NoThanksIllPass
Such is henna. When henna is made fresh, it yields the best stains. It can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days with no problems, but for any longer than this it needs to be frozen and then thawed when it's time for use. If not used fresh or kept cool (or on ice), the naturally-occurring dye molecule that affords henna its staining properties eventually will demise.
So what about those henna cones that you can purchase from the local health or South Asian grocery store? They always stain, right?
Perhaps so, but this cannot be attributed to henna. Let's take a second to look at the lifespan of these "henna" products, shall we?
1. The paste is mass manufactured abroad - most likely in India or Pakistan, though there are manufacturers in other nations. These countries do not maintain the same health and safety regulations as we see here in the United States, and there are not bound to the same guidelines as we are. As result, these manufacturers are able to label those pretty, colorful cones with all sorts of words like "natural" and "organic" and "henna" while none of these things may be true at all.
2. The cones are stored in a warehouse until they are imported to the retailers here. For how long, who knows? But while they're sitting there at room temperature for days, weeks, months, or perhaps more, at a time, any remnants of natural henna have most certainly already died off. (Remember that plate of food we were talking about? Same concept.) In order to guarantee that the paste will still stain, manufacturers add in an array of toxic chemicals, commercial dyes, and harsh compounds to cause a stain to occur in place of the henna. Those ingredients are most commonly things like turpentine, kerosene, gasoline, textile dyes, and hair dye.
3. The cones arrive at your local store and sit on a shelf until some unknowing customer tosses them into their cart. By this time, it's hard to say how long the paste has been left out, but it's easy to say that there must be some additive present it yields any stain at all. That, my friends, is the scary part. These cones are often used on friends and family members, on children, and on pregnant women, and the results of their use could be fatal.
By asking your henna artist what is in their paste, you can get a clear idea of whether or not the paste is natural, and if it is safe. By asking when it was made, you can also get a good idea of whether or not you can expect a satisfactory stain (and if the artist was being truthful about that first question). Henna pastes generally have very simple ingredients like water, coffee or tea, lemon juice, and sugar, agave, or molasses. It is common for these pastes to also have essential oils in them - most commonly lavender, tea tree, or cajeput. (Be cautious of pastes with eucalyptus essential oil as this ingredient tends not to be consistent in quality and may include harsh compounds depending on its country of origin.)
Next time you stop by a henna booth or reserve a henna session, be sure to ask these important questions. It's for your health!
P.S. Have a question about henna safety? Feel free to send it my way! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I respond to each email personally.