A common trend right now is to apply “black henna”, which has the attractive quality of appearing similar to a real tattoo. Although the product is referred to as “black henna”, this is deceiving because there is actually no such thing as black-colored henna. In other words, if you are purchasing “black henna”, you are getting something other than true henna. The sought-after jet black color is often achieved from a chemical ingredient, usually a coal-tar dye called p-paraphenylenediamine or PPD. PPD is a toxic chemical mainly used as a hair dye that should never come into contact with your skin.
Every single application of “black henna” affects you. PDD accumulates in your body after each and every exposure to it, causing accumulative damage. Even if you don’t see a visible reaction on the first or second application, you may experience a reaction in the future. PPD penetrates deep into the skin and passes into your blood stream. Common reactions to PDD include itching, blisters, kidney damage, asthma, hair loss, open sores, scaring and development of lifelong chemical sensitivities and allergies after even one use. This is all in stark contrast to henna, which only penetrates as far as the dead skin cells and never enters the blood stream. Authentic, natural henna is a safe product that has been used for hundreds of years, is commonly used with pregnant women and on sensitive skin, and actually provides many benefits to skin.
You might think to yourself, after learning about the dangers of PDD, something along the lines of “this is good to know. I’ll be sure I avoid any black henna in the future, and I will be safe”. I wish that I could say that henna safety in today’s world was that simple. However, some additional awareness about henna is necessary in order to be able to confidently protect yourself from dangerous practices. Please do not assume that you are safe because you are getting a henna design from an “ethnic” or “traditional” artist. Many places in India (as well as the rest of South Asia), the Persian Gulf, and the African continent are using “black henna” and claiming it is traditional and natural. It’s not natural, it’s not traditional, and it’s not safe. Despite the wealth of information that supports the dangers of PPD and other chemical additives, it is easy to become a victim of an unsafe henna product if you are not careful.
For example, a fellow artist who had been practicing henna for many years assured me her paste was “safe and all-natural”, and said that it had been personally made by her mother in her family kitchen. She could not tell me the ingredients. In hindsight, this was a definite red flag, but I was newer to henna back then. I went against my better judgement and allowed her to apply the paste to my skin. To my dismay, the paste smelt of gasoline, made my skin feel like it was burning, and peeled a layer of my skin wherever the paste had come into contact with my skin. Lucky, I was not left with a permanent scar. However, as a henna artist who values the safety of my clients, it deeply unnerves me how many henna artists unknowingly use potentially harmful chemicals and tell you with confidence that their product is safe.
I have reason to suspect that this subtle deception of masquerading “black henna” as a safe method of creating dark henna designs is an alarmingly common occurrence. I make a habit of asking local artists about their henna product, many of whom are unlicensed artists doing henna for friends and family. They are very quick to assure me full-heartedly that their henna is safe and all-natural. However, when asked about the specific ingredients in their henna paste, they admit that they are not sure. They cannot assure me on the quality of their product because they have not mixed the henna themselves, but have often purchased a premade product with unlisted ingredients.
In some cases, an artist may proudly claim outright that their paste is “black” or “instant”. This is a clear sign that they are not using henna to create the stain, because natural henna is never black and always takes several hours to become a healthy dark brown color. An artist cannot know that their henna is safe unless they either mix it with quality ingredients themselves, or buy their cones from a reputable distributor who clearly lists all ingredients. Any reputable artist should be able to tell you the ingredients of their henna paste with confidence. Not only is buying unlabeled prepackaged henna paste unsafe, but it can often result in a poor-quality henna stain because there is no way of knowing the purity or age of the product.
Although it is strictly illegal to apply henna that contains PPD in Canada, because of the well-documented health risks, it is easy for henna artists to bend this law because PPD is still available as a hair dye. I have had a number potential clients request that I mix “black henna” hair dye into my paste. A client even brought a “black henna” vial to her appointment and assumed that I would apply this, as she described her previous henna artists had willingly done in the past. The packaging on the vial made it clear that the product was intended to be used as a hair dye, and cautioned strongly against contact with skin. I read the warnings aloud to her, and yet she was undeterred. She insisted that all her friends were using products like this to get “black henna” temporary tattoos, and she was not interested in a brown henna tattoo.
This is a common attitude of some clients and henna artists alike. The concern with what is trendy is viewed as more important than what is safe practice. I continue to get calls of this nature, from potential clients who appreciate my portfolio yet insist that they require “black henna”. Despite the risks, it is undeniably a trend that is very much alive. Because of the prevalent use of PPD, I have also met clients who have inevitably experienced the negative effects of “black henna”. They have the painful scars and chemical sensitivities to show for it. While they still have a love for beautiful henna designs, these clients have learned to ask the important questions when getting henna done to ensure they are having a safe henna experience, and they appreciate the simplicity of my recipe.
So, what steps do you need to take to ensure that you can have piece-of-mind when having henna applied? Lucky for you, I have done the legwork and compiled a list of 3 essential questions for your reference. Ask these questions to avoid the dangers of “black henna” or other risky additives:
Ask the artist how long you’re supposed to leave the paste on. If they say less than one hour, then they are likely using PPD. Traditional henna doesn’t stain your skin that quickly. Real henna needs to be left on the skin for several hours or more in order to give a great color, and reaches its maximum darkness after 24 to 48 hours.
Also ask the artist what color the stain will be once the paste comes off. Henna will leave an orange stain that will darken to red brown or dark brown, but it’s never black. A henna stain should start out orange and oxidizes to a reddish brown tone over 48 hours. A quality natural henna stain can become very dark on the palms and soles of the feet, where henna stains are the darkest. However, shining a light on it will reveal that it is actually a very rich brown or red.
Ask the artist whether they mixed their own paste. If so, what’s in the henna paste? If the artist can’t or won’t answer your questions, don’t let them henna you! It is not worth the risk. A quality henna paste should contain henna powder, an acidic liquid (such as lemon juice or tea), sugar and essential oil (this is optional). The type of essential oil used is important to identify. Keep in mind that some essential oils are safe and beneficial, such as Tea Tree, Lavender, Cajeput, Ravensara and Eucalyptus, while others such as Mehndi or Mahalabya oil are unregulated and may contain strong Clove Bud essential oil, ammonia and even kerosene. Terms to watch out for are “mehndi oil”, “black clove oil”, sodium picramate, metallic salts, PPD, or “henna stone”. Vague terms like “mehndi oil” may seem innocent but often signify the addition of toxic solvents like benzene or gasoline. If the mixture smells like ammonia, gas, or chemicals, this is another sign the artist could be using unsafe ingredients.