I stumbled upon an interesting headline recently about a henna tattoo artist drawing henna crowns on cancer patients. This got me thinking about my first experience getting a henna tattoo in college.
Beauty in NATURE
Freshman year was already well underway. If I can recall, my Resident Assistant, or RA, was from India and at least once a month all the girls on my floor would participate in activities she lead. For one event my RA told us about the significance of henna tattoos and common situations where people wear them. The tubes of red henna ink were small enough to fit in my palm and so holding them in place was manageable enough. I turned one of my hands faced down and proceeded to draw my first intricate design with the washable ink. It was fun! I was always nervous I’d ruin the tattoo though, even after drying. An amateur at best.
Despite it being pretty much the only one of its kind, henna goes by two additional names depending on where a person’s from: hene or mendhi. But more often henna is the word most people go by (hene if you’re in say, Saudi Arabia? Turkey?). Henna, specifically comes from white flowers of a fragrant tree or bush, and produces a red-orange dye called Lawsone which naturally binds into the keratin in our skin. The amazing aspect of this tree, I found, is that it’s a true-blue desert plant. It thrives only in temperatures of the triple-digits and shrivels below 50°Fahrenheit, needs soil that’s so dry it’s borderline sand anyways, and in fact the plant produces the most dye when the climate’s hotter.
Once Upon A Time in History
This plant shows up most commonly in the Middle East and North Africa. Old cultures such as of those countries gives me no surprise at henna dye’s stellar reputation; over 9000 years in the making!
Many peoples in ancient times used henna to protect themselves while enduring harsh, dry climates and direct sunlight. The neat thing, I found, about the trend itself is how widespread it was on a social level. People wore henna tattoos as a fashion statement if jewelry was unaffordable. Nevertheless, both upper-class and middle-class folk wore henna decorations on their skin. One doesn’t need to celebrate a special occasion to wear henna, but popular events associated with it include: weddings, birthdays and holidays. General widespread henna influence also pan out vastly in the United States, especially recently over last couple decades, and additionally show up in Jewish celebrations.
Hair, Skin & Nails
This substance plays many multipurpose roles. Since centuries before, people use henna to dye their hair, paint nails, and cover their skin. So far, I’ve been stressing the trademark red of henna. Initial application, to be clear, will vary in hue depending on the dye applied and most often looks more greenish in color. It almost looks like a brownish dull matcha green. Henna tends to peel after application to reveal the famous orange-red look. Since henna naturally takes to skin, applying itself, it will appear different in color from person to person. Still the same stuff.
A word of caution or two applies in this case as with any other substance, though. News to me, I didn’t know there was a shady, artificial type of henna out there. I’m not surprised, considering how commercialism and popularity tend to invite knock-off duplicates. This one has wreaked some havoc, though. There are two cases I found out about of an adolescent boy and a teenaged girl both having suffered severe scarring and skin peeling after applying black henna to their skin–both being separate events only a few years apart. Another shocker for me is that similar incidences like these have been going on over, at least, the past decade!
This black dye is apparently made of tar, other artificial, chemical substances …and a tad bit of henna. Basically, all the things labeled with an “X” in a chemist’s closet ^^. I also understand that these incidences have an aura of what I’ll call the classic net hysteria. Ever see headlines first, read articles later? Find those same headlines in news feeds blown out of proportion by followers who don’t know anymore related info than you do? In this type of situation, people already have their minds made up, unfortunately. This black henna case seems that way to me. Doesn’t make it any less dangerous, of course. Another crazy trend is that these events happen somewhere over seas in a “tourism” situation. I don’t know if there’s something conclusive about that–my research doesn’t support my gut, but I still find it odd. Advice? Be careful, come Halloween?
The fact that the flowering plant that henna ink comes from is called the lawsonia genus kind of tickles me, considering my last name is “Lawson,” heh. All this time and I never even knew. Henna reminds me of how amazing nature is, considering how it seems to survive some of the harshest conditions. I also find it ironic how if I were in the desert, starving for food and water while also being under extreme heat, there’d be a plant at my disposal that can thrive in exactly the same conditions and yet give me what I need to survive: shade, literal cover by the dye itself cooling the skin, and a possible water source. Pretty awesome plant.
Need all-natural sunblock? Try henna!
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