As I mentioned last time, henna first became known in Western countries as a hair dye — but in recent years, it’s also grown popular as a skin paint. In its countries of origin, especially India and Pakistan, henna has been used this way for centuries. Painting henna designs on women’s bodies, especially the hands and feet, has grown into an art form known as mehndi. It’s used especially for weddings. In the West, it’s considered more of a fun thing to get — like a temporary tattoo.
You can look for a mehndi artist in your area or order henna and patterns, or decal-type tattoos, online and apply it yourself. You may see people offering to apply mehndi at fairs and in tourist areas — and here’s where you have to be most careful. To keep it fun — and harmless — try to make sure that what’s going on your skin is pure henna.
Henna itself almost never causes a bad reaction in anyone. And “body art quality” (“BAQ”) henna, according to the Henna Page, is the top 10%. (If you decide not to go through with the body art, it makes an excellent hair dye.) Of course, this is what a good mehndi artist will use, and what you should buy if you want to try mehndi at home. Labeling laws in the U.S. make it easy to check if the product is being sold as pure henna.
However, products sold for professional use don’t have the same labeling requirements, so it can be hard to tell what exactly a fairground vendor is putting onto your skin. One thing you should keep in mind: As the Henna Page puts it, “Henna is NOT black.” If your body art is black, something else has been added. It may be indigo, a natural dark blue dye, or it may be PPD, a coal tar coloring agent. PPD’s only legal use is in hair dye. Yet the FDA reports “In some cases, the so-called ‘black henna’ consists only of hair dye, which the artist mixes straight from the package and applies to the customer’s skin.” This has led to problems for some — not only skin irritation, but a long-term sensitivity to dark dyes.
So, if you want to try mehndi, stay away from “black henna” and fly-by-night vendors. Using pure, top quality henna will keep everything temporary and harmless.