This article is the first part of a two-part series. This section will discuss the history and science behind the use of henna on various areas of the body.
Part Two will demonstrate how these techniques are done.
If you are familiar with using Ancient Sunrise® Henna for Hair, you will already know about the wonderful benefits of using henna. Hennaed hair is stronger, smoother, shinier, and has lasting color. Because of its many beneficial properties, henna (lawsonia inermis) has been used not only on the hair but on many parts of the body for various purposes since possibly as early as 1700 BCE.
Lawsonia inermis grows naturally in hot, semi-arid climates. Regions include Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian Subcontinent. Wherever it grew, the people of those regions found a use for it. It was likely discovered when livestock grazed on henna plants and herders noticed the red coloring around the animals’ mouths. If the herders inspected the animals’ mouths for wounds, thinking the dye was blood, they would have noticed that their hands had become stained as well.
Henna has been used for both cosmetic purposes as well as practical applications. Its ability to stain keratin and condition the hair led to its use in grooming and beautifying practices for both women and men. Its additional health benefits made it useful for combating a number of skin conditions, as well as being visually appealing.
Henna is now more commonly known for its use in body art, such as the elaborate designs that cover the hands and feet of brides. Henna stands are popular at fairs, festivals, and in areas of tourism. Traditionally, henna is used to decorate the skin with patterns for religious and cultural celebrations, and simply for adornment. Apart from its use to create delicate, intricate designs, henna was also applied as a solid, even color on areas such as fingertips and feet for both beauty and practicality.
Dancers and musicians hennaed their fingertips to bring more attention to the movement of their hands. A henna “slipper” on the feet was common in many cultures. Using henna for cosmetic applications was once as commonplace as using makeup or nail polish. In many cases, not applying henna would be something akin to not brushing one’s teeth; failing to do so would make a person seem dirty and neglectful of their personal hygiene.
Physical and Spiritual Cleanliness
Henna stains darkest on hands, feet, and hair.
Because henna was applied after washing, it indicated cleanliness, and therefore purity. This is especially the case with women. If a person’s hands, feet, and/or hair was freshly hennaed, one could assume that they had recently been to the public bath.
It was assumed that illness was linked to the Evil Eye, and that henna repelled it. A freshly washed and hennaed body was both physically and spiritually clean. It was believed that the was particularly attracted to the bodily fluids of women. A woman was considered dirty and susceptible to the Evil Eye while , after intercourse, and during childbirth; afterward, she washed and hennaed herself. Fresh henna stains showed that she was again clean and pure. In the case of a household with multiple wives, fresh henna marked the women with whom it was safe for the husband to interact.
A mother feeds her newborn. Her hands and feet are adorned with henna patterns. Her wet-nurse has brightly hennaed hands, feet, and hair.
“The Amah Feeds the Newborn” Detail from Life in The Country: The Nomad Encampment of Layla’s Tribe, Tabriz, 1539 – 43, Cambridge, Harvard University Art Museum 1958.75
Remedies which included henna as an ingredient have been discovered in historical texts such as the Ebers Papyrus that date back to thousands of years ago.
is a text from Ancient Egypt containing hundreds of detailed descriptions of remedies, pharmacopoeia, and formulas gathered and cataloged from numerous sources. It dates back to around 1550 BCE. Many of these remedies included henna as an ingredient. Of those, most common
Modern day scientific studies have found that using henna as a remedy is more than an old wives’ tale.
In addition to the above properties, the simple binding of the lawsone molecule strengthens keratin, reinforcing and conditioning the area to which it is applied.
When henna paste is applied, the dye migrates into the surface layers of the stratum corneum. As it oxidizes, the stain darkens. The surface layers of skin are shed over time, and the lower layers grow to replace them.
Strengthening Skin and Lessening Pain
Henna’s dye molecule, lawsone, binds firmly to keratin, allowing it to stain skin, nails, and hair. When it does so, it adds reinforcement.
When henna is applied to skin, the treated areas feel thicker, stronger, and less susceptible to pain. While it strengthened and protected skin, henna also helped to soften and shed excess rough skin and callus, keeping the skin smooth and attractive. Dancers hennaed their feet to make them more attractive and to keep their feet from blistering, cracking, and hurting after long hours of performing. Musicians did so as well, to protect their fingers as they played. Women who worked with their hands hennaed their fingertips for the same reason.
It is likely that the pain receptors under the skin become somewhat dulled by the addition of lawsone. One study found that people with hennaed fingertips rated the pain of a needle prick lower in comparison to those without hennaed fingertips. This is helpful knowledge for those who prick their fingers to perform regular blood sugar testing.
Henna protects a musician’s fingertips.
A Lady Playing the Tanpura, Rajasthan, Kishangarh, ca. 1735, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1996 (1996,100.1) Indian Court Painting, 16th – 19th C
Anti-Fungal and Anti-Microbial Properties
Besides its capacity to bind to and stain keratin, henna was and still is used for its anti-fungal and antimicrobial qualities. Historically, it has been used to treat ailments such as athlete’s foot, diaper rash, and wounds. (Note: Do not apply henna to young children unless you are absolutely certain that they do not have a hereditary ).
Ringworm, athlete's foot, and related skin fungus conditions seem to be eradicated with one or two good applications of henna. Dandruff, often caused by fungus, is lessened after a person uses henna on the hair. Henna is safe to use on to treat fungal infections.