What Is a Henna Tattoo?

Caitlynn Lowe

A henna tattoo is a type of temporary tattoo that stains the skin. Both men and women can wear these tattoos, but women traditionally wear them more often than men. Artists who work with henna use a dye that comes from the henna plant, also called the mignonette tree. Imitation dyes not made from this plant are not truly henna dyes, and some even present a danger when used on skin. True henna tattoos are safe for most people to wear.

Henna leaves and stems are dried and ground for use as tattoo ink.
Henna leaves and stems are dried and ground for use as tattoo ink.

The origins of henna body art date back to the Bronze Age, but henna use continues through the modern day. Many Middle Eastern and South Asian countries continue to decorate women and men with henna before certain religious ceremonies, such as weddings. A wide variety of religions, including Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, use or have used henna as part of their traditions. In modern times, the appeal of henna tattoos has spread outside these regions and faiths. While many still use henna art during special ceremonies, some individuals may have a henna tattoo done for no occasion at all.

Henna tattoos are temporary designs made with dye from the henna plant.
Henna tattoos are temporary designs made with dye from the henna plant.

In order to prepare the dye, the leaves and stem of the henna plant are first dried and ground into a fine powder. A henna tattoo artist can either work directly with this powder or buy a pre-made dye. To create the dye, a manufacturer mixes lemon juice or another acidic ingredient with the powder to create a thick paste, similar in consistency to toothpaste. Other ingredients, like tea and coffee, are used to darken the final dye. Adding sugar makes the dye smoother and more adhesive to the skin.

After obtaining or creating the dye, the henna artist prepares the skin by thoroughly washing the area set aside for the tattoo. Professional artists typically use a hand-rolled cone made of cellophane to apply the dye. Traditional Persian application techniques use a thin, small brush to apply henna, while artists of the Moroccan tradition frequently use a syringe. Beginners often use a jac bottle — small plastic bottle with a pointed tip. For extra help, beginning artists can also buy henna tattoo stencils online or at the nearest specialty store.

Most henna tattoos are of elaborate designs, not specific objects. Instead of a heart or dolphin, a henna tattoo artist creates a complex arrangement of swirling, flowery shapes that often includes leaves, petals, dots, and straight and curvy lines. Traditional artists often know the symbolism behind each shape they use, but even beginning artists or professionals who know less about the tradition of henna can create beautiful, intricate designs if they plan the pattern out before applying it.

Henna tattoos often appear orange in color immediately after application, but they turn dark brown as the dye reacts with the heat of the human body. Wrapping the skin to keep it warm helps ensure a dark final product. The paste-like dye dries and the wearer chips it off his or her skin. The remaining stain lasts anywhere from one to three weeks.

While real henna is relatively safe for most individuals, black henna is not safe. Powders and dyes marketed as black henna are actually made from the indigo plant. These dyes often contain para-phenylenediamine, a chemical known to cause blistering, scarring, and other painful reactions when it comes into contact with skin. Consumers should be careful not to purchase black henna when they intend to buy henna powder or dye.

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