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Tricia

The Use of Henna for Body Art

Tuesday, 14 August 2012  |  Tricia

Introduction to henna
Henna powder for body art is made from leaves, harvested from bushes, and dried and ground into powder. The dry powder is mixed into a paste using various substances - most importantly, something sour like lemon juice to make it acidic. The acid releases from the powder a substance called lawsone, which is a dye. When the paste is applied to the skin in patterns, the lawsone combines with protein in the skin, leaving a stain. This stain is the henna tattoo.

Body Art Quality versus Hair Quality Henna Powder
Body art henna is more finely sifted than hair quality henna. This makes a smoother paste allowing the paste to flow in finer lines without clogging.  Body art henna usually has a higher lawsone dye content than the average hair quality henna – body art quality henna ranges from 1.5% to 3% lawsone. Henna with a lower percentage of lawsone is suitable for hair, but not for body art.

Every batch of henna powder is different, based on its country of origin, its lawsone content, the way it is processed, and even the quality of the harvest in the particular year in which it was grown. It is impossible to tell the quality of the henna powder just by looking at it. Different skin types also respond differently to henna. Henna with a higher percentage of lawsone is a more potent colouring agent. Pure henna is not diluted by other products, making it more potent. Also, these other products can be very harmful. PPD, for example, is sometimes used with henna powder, especially to make so-called ‘black henna’; however, it can cause very severe allergic reactions with long term effects. In general, the fresher and purer the henna powder, the better it will work for body art.

Preparing Henna Paste for Body Art
The only necessary ingredients of henna paste are henna powder and lemon juice (or another gentle acidic liquid). It should be mixed to about the consistency of thick yoghurt.  Other ingredients are optional and have different effects on the way the paste works. Many henna artists concoct their own unique brews with a great range of different ingredients. Some of the more popular ones are discussed here, for the purpose of general interest and information – this is not meant to be used as a recipe!

Adding Something Acidic - The henna paste needs to be slightly acidic (about pH 5.5) to work. The acid releases the lawsone dye particles, so they can penetrate into the skin. Lemon juice works very well or other acidic juices, vinegar, wine, or powdered citric acid can work just as well – anything that will acidify the paste to release the dye. Once mixed, the henna paste needs to be covered and left to sit for a while, for the acid to do its work, and free up the lawsone particles. When this has happened, the surface of the henna goes slightly brown, because the dye has been released and is reacting with the air. Henna will only dye skin once this dye release has occurred – it will not work if it is used immediately after making the paste. However, if the paste is left for too long, the released dye can react too much with the oxygen in the air, and so be used up and unable to react with the skin. If this happens, the henna will not be able to dye the skin. Paste can be kept in the fridge or freezer to prevent this from happening.

Henna paste is affected by ambient temperature and humidity. On drier days, it is more prone to cracking; on colder days, the stain will not take as well. This can be taken into account when choosing the ingredients, and timing, of a batch of henna paste.

Adding Sugar - Henna works by staining the skin. The lawsone in the henna seeps into the skin and leaves a mark, so the longer the paste is left on the skin, the longer the stain has to set in. Sometimes, the henna can crack and start to fall away before it has fully stained the skin. To help prevent this, sugar can be added to the henna paste, making the paste smoother and less prone to cracking. Sugar also gives the henna more stringy texture so that you can drape lines more easily. Honey, fructose, dextrose or other natural sugars can also be used to similar effect.

Adding Essential Oils - Certain essential oils will help henna because they contain monoterpene alcohol, a natural plant product. It helps the henna paste to stain the skin more quickly, and darken quickly as well, because it makes more lawsone available and facilitates faster oxidation. Only essential oils that contain monoterpene alcohol will have this effect, such as tea tree, lavender, frankincense, geranium, cardamom, cajeput, neroli, pine, rosemary, etc. Some essential oils have absolutely no effect on henna, however. Higher quality oils are more effective in improving the henna. After the oil has been mixed into the paste, it needs to rest for a while to have time to react – over an hour at least, but it can be left overnight with the henna paste.

Storage
Powder - if henna is kept airtight, cold, and protected from light, it can last for years. Heat, light, and air make the dye lose its potency.
Paste - in the fridge, henna paste will stay good for a few days. In the freezer, it will last for a few months. This works because the lower temperature stops the lawsone dye from reacting with the oxygen; the cold lawsone stays in the paste, ready to react with the skin.
Essential oils – these should be in dark glass jars, kept away from light, and in a cool environment. Beyond their use-by date, and generally as they get older, they lose their potency and efficacy as a henna-darkening agent. The shelf life varies widely for different types of oil.

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