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Learn the ancient art of Henna with Wendy Feldmann

This demonstration was originally presented by Wendy Lea Feldmann†on 17 May 2010

Kenís Green Man in Henna Ė Wendy L. Feldmann

Henna as Body Art - It's Fun to Draw on Your Friends

I. Henna Through History

II. Henna Mixology

a. Acidic

b. Sugars

c. Oils / Terps

d. High Quality Henna

e. WendyMehndiís Henna Recipe

III. Applying Henna

a. Body Art

b. Hair Dye

IV. Henna Safety

V. Henna Resources

I. Henna Through History

Henna has been found throughout history. The mummies of the ancient Pharaohs show traces of henna on their hair and nails. Henna is included in many ancient rituals and ceremonies: weddings, circumcisions, births, and other rites of passage and celebrations. Henna has enjoyed a resurgence as an art form in the west, thanks to prominent flashes of it among celebrities in the media.

Although henna has a rich past with many customs and traditions, it is also a contemporary art form. Itís fun and easy, and any wild mistakes will wear off in a couple of weeks, and you can start again. Henna can be used to "test-drive" an actual inked tattoo, or just as a temporary form of expression.

The plant, Lawsonia Inermis, is of the Myrtle family, and is found in arid areas including India, Pakistan, Yemen, Morocco, northern Africa, northern Australasia, and Egypt. It has traveled along the Silk Road, and spread all along the borders of the Black Sea.

II. Henna Mixology

There are as many many varieties of henna recipes. The secret to good henna application is having the right ingredients and the correct mix. Itís kind of like a science project.

Lemon Juice, essential oils, high quality henna, and sugar

Henna will stain keratin, a fibrous structural protein, found in hair, nails, hooves, horn, as well as skin and leather. Henna will also stain wood, wool, egg shells, silk, and turtle shell.

For body art, the ingredients are simple - something acidic, something sweet, and "terps", which are essential oils with a high monoterpene alcohol content. This magic combination sets off the dye reaction, freeing the lawsone molecule from the henna leaf and allowing it to bind with keratin.


The most prominent acidic ingredient may be lemon juice, but any number of acidic chemicals may be used. Some, such as benzene, although used throughout sections of the middle east, are not recommended nor actually safe for topical application.


Sugar help the paste be drapable, like the consistency of honey, which is important for when you are drawing. Sugar also help the paste stick to the skin, and not crack as it dries. Fructose, dextrose, and sucrose (table sugar) each impart a slightly different characteristic.

Oils / terps:

Of all of the essential oils, Lavender is least likely to cause a skin reaction. Some of the oils that can be used also include Cajeput, Tea Tree Oil, Clove, Cardamom, Ravensara, Geranium Bourbon, Naiouli, and Neroli... the list goes on.

Eucalyptus Oil *can* have terpenes, yet it is unregulated, with too much variety in plant and processing to be consistent for quality body art henna use.

There are a variety of products out there called "Mehendi Oil", "Mehndi Oil", "Henna Oil", or some variation on that. These products can contain anything from "good" ingredients to benzene, kerosene, and other unsafe chemicals. Skip the "Mehndi Oil" - even if your neighborís best friendís grandma has *always* used it. Tradition doesnít mean itís safe.

High Quality Henna:

Henna is a vegetable product. It is the leaves of the plant Lawsonia Inermis, which flourishes in arid conditions. The leaves are dried, ground finely, and sifted. Like any vegetable, it benefits from proper storage. Age, heat, and exposure to air can reduce the staining power significantly.

Good henna is packaged fresh in air and light-proof packaging. Henna that has sat in a half-empty container exposed to light on a store shelf may lose its stain power.

At the Spice Market in the Grande Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey I was taken in by the huge barrels of reallllly green henna, which were (ahem) "really fresh!!" Turns out, that fresh-looking "really fresh green" can also be achieved by adding green dyes to the powder. The henna worked out fine, and the price was great (well, if you didnít include the journey), but Iím still not sure whatís in that green dye. I prefer buying my product now from reputable dealers.

Preparation of the henna and body placement of the design can alter the tone, but henna is always a reddish-brown. It is NEVER black. Photos you have seen of reputable henna artistsí work often shows black lines, but that is the henna paste still on the skin. (Sometimes itís the only way to capture an image of the design before the client gets away!)

WendyMehndiís Henna Recipe:

I have a separate set of measuring cups, teaspoons, and a silicone spatula for my henna kit. The essential oils seep into plastic, and sure arenít tasty!

Henna powder, with lemon juice and sugar added

For my awesome super-secret fantastic recipe, I use:

100 grams of high quality Henna

1.5 cups ReaLemon Lemon Juice

1 Tablespoon Sugar

1 Tablespoon Dextrose (or sugar)

1 Tablespoon Cajeput essential oil

1 Tablespoon Lavender essential oil

1 teaspoon Geranium Bourbon or other essential oils

My gargoyle (by Terry Massey) watching and waiting over the henna mixtures

Once blended thoroughly, cover the surface of the mixture with plastic wrap to seal out air. On top of that, place a folded paper napkin with a small stone on it. Set the bowl in a warm place to wait for that magical dye-release state. About 24 hours is a good length of time. But donít leave the mix somewhere too hot - extreme heat can destroy the molecule.

The dye-release state is noted when the napkin is lifted and shows orange stain seeping from through the plastic wrap.

This henna mixture has reached the dye release state - note the orange stain on the napkin

The consistency of the henna mixture should be smooth, and loose enough to run off a spoon in a string, like honey. If it is too thin, a little more henna powder can be added; if it is too thick, add a little more lemon juice.

Stir, and fill your applicators! I roll small cones out of mylar or cellophane, fill them with my own henna mixture, and seal them with Scotch brand tape (the one with the red plaid on the package works the best!). Lots of cones can be filled at once, and the extras are double-bagged and frozen until Iím ready for them. Iím not going to go into the rolling and filling of cones, as that has been well-covered on the internet!

Applying Henna with a mylar cone, using a 2-handed hold

III. Applying Henna

Body Art:

Henna is applied with squeeze bottles, cones, fingertips, or even with small sticks, like matchsticks.

The henna stain lasts on living skin from 7 to 10 days, although it can last longer. The duration of the stain is shorter on parts of the body closer to the heart, where the skin is thinner, and where the body rubs upon itself. Where the skin is thicker, such as the soles of the feet, it can last a very long time. The henna stain is permanent on hair, and leather, such as a drum head

The paste is applied to the skin, and left on to dry as long as possible. The dried paste is then rubbed off, leaving an orange stain on the skin, which oxidizes, darkening over the next 24 hours to a rich cocoa-brown. On palms and soles or heavily callused areas it can darken to deep mahogany or even near-black.

For me, applying henna is much like cake-decorating with very fine lines. I find the most convenient method to apply henna is to use the cone method. Iím also one of the weird ones that often uses a strange 2-handed hold. Who knows why.

Iím right-handed, but often use both hands to draw

When applying henna to the body, look for inspiration in the veins, the tendons, and the line of the muscle. Even birthmarks and freckles can influence the design. I find less of the "white paper fright" when my canvas is a person!

Henna design wrapping over a shoulder

For design placement, be aware of where the body wrinkles, where it folds, stretches, or touches itself. A henna tattoo on the inner wrist is pretty, but you have to keep that wrist straight for at least an hour to keep the design from wrinkling, smearing, or folding in on itself. The area around the inner elbow is also apt to smear, and the skin is thinner there, and rubs against itself, wearing off the design faster. A design drawn on the back of an upper arm while the limb is held out horizontally will distort once that limb hangs down naturally.

In a spiritual sense, Iím also aware that I am being given the honor of applying symbols to another humanís body. I wonít draw things that are negative or hateful - I consciously make the choice to draw beautiful and positive symbolic designs.

A Magic Wand for Eleanor

Once the henna is applied to the skin and allowed to dry (about 30 minutes), there are also different ways to seal the paste to the skin for longer application time:† sugar solution (look out for bees!), medical tape, hairspray, white glue, tissue paper... but donít use plastic wrap - it causes the skin to sweat and the henna to run, ruining the design!

Add Some Pizazz - donít forget the Glitter!†While the henna is still wet on the skin, you can poof some glitter over the sign for added pizazz and sparkle. Glitter doesnít make the design last any longer, but it makes what was a brown-mud design really sparkle and catch the eye! I carry an assortment of glitters along when I work.

Glitter adds sparkle and fun to an already fun design

I use cosmetic-grade glitters, and not just any random glitter from the craft store. Cosmetic-grade glitters are ultra fine, without the sharp edges. They wonít scratch eyes and other sensitive body parts. They come in a multitude of colors, from opaque to transparent, to UV reactive.

Dying Hair:

Did you know that Lucille Ball was a Henna-head? Yup - her gorgeous red hair was courtesy of this lovely versatile plant. Henna covers grey hair, and also adds strength, shine, color, and reduces split ends! I have been hennaing my hair for several years now and I love it!

As for good body art, henna for your hair should be fresh and pure as well.

To dye hair, I only add lemon juice, then allow the mixture to reach the dye-release state before applying it to hair. Apply the mixture, wrap your head, leaving the mixture to sit on your head for a few hours. Wash it, condition it well, and over the next couple of days, watch it settle from hot henna color to rich highlighted tones.

Excellent resource:†Henna for Hair

IV. Safety - How to Avoid the Bad Stuff

Henna is never black. It comes in one color - brown. Period.

"Black Henna" and PPD:

Why is this "black henna" bad?

"Black henna" is usually made using Para-phenylenediamine, or "PPD" which is black hair dye. In a nutshell, PPD can cause permanent harm to your body, not just scarring of the affected area.

Up-to-date thorough information (including what to do if you have had a bad reaction to black henna) can be found here: The Henna Page

Real henna requires knowledge and time to create a quality product. Once you mix it, you can freeze it in individual cones; once you un-freeze it, you have to use it.

"Black henna" usually contains PPD mixed with water or peroxide. It is a no-brainer to mix, and has a long shelf life. But it also can seriously harm people.

Down at the beach, youíve probably seen those booths touting phrases like "Black Henna!", and "Lasts 45 Days!". *Please* donít go there! I was just down at Myrtle Beach, SC and saw them everywhere. It was heart breaking. Although the use of PPD for skin use is banned, itís still used, and often not regulated or enforced.

So how can you tell the difference between "good" henna and "bad"...?

These few quick tips address odor, color, & time:

Odor - a good henna mix smells good, like hay and essential oils. If you detect a petrol or chemical smell, stay away.

Color - Will the stain be orange and then brown (a good sign)? Or black? (yikes!!)

Time - How long before the product stains your skin? Less than an hour? (yikes!† again!) Or over a time longer period?

Other Concerns:

I suggest avoiding the pre-made cones or tubes of henna for sale at ethnic grocery shops and over the internet. Again - itís a Russian-roulette of chemical ingredients, regardless of the wording printed on the packaging. Be wary of words like "Natural", "Fresh", "Pure" and "Salon". Be safe - mix your own. As a body artist, you owe it to your clients.

Itís good to ask about allergies and sensitivities. Some folks are more sensitive to certain essential oils. Also, be sure that the person you are hennaing is not G6PD deficient. This genetic trait can cause reactions to henna itself. Itís a good idea to forgo henna for all children under the age of six. Pregnant bellies can be hennaed, although it is advised that the only essential oil used be Lavender Oil.

Henna design for a beautiful pregnant belly

V. Henna Resources

I canít thank Catherine Cartwright-Jones enough for her tireless journey in seeking ever more information about henna and sharing it with the world on The Henna Page (

A heartfelt "Thank you" also to all of my henna sisters and brothers who have shared their experiences and know-how to inspire us in our own henna journeys!

Reputable sources for Henna and supplies:

The Henna Page

Henna for Hair

Amerikan Body Art

Henna Caravan

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