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Henna - A Beautifying Agent For More Than Five Millennia

posted on: Sep 9, 2020

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer

According to ancient belief, henna is a symbol of blood and fire and represents the ambiguous nature of all things holy. Above all, it was for early man a token of beauty and life. Historically, its impact has been so profound that humans have used it in their religious services since time immemorial. Ancient Egyptians, Buddhists and later Muslims have all employed henna to some extent in various aspects of their religious services. No other pigment has been so important to man for such a long period of time.

Long before recorded history, its leaves were utilized to adorn the body and make the hair glitter. The early use of this once legendary plant as a natural cosmetic has filtered down to our times. Today, the black hair of many Asian and African women, conditioned with henna is but a continuation of a tradition from the remote past. Anyone, in our times, who visits the historic metropolises of Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Fez or the ultramodern cities of the Arabian Gulf countries will notice the shining black hair of their women, inheriting the use of henna from the days of antiquity.

Drawings of the renowned Cleopatra and the famous Queen Zenobia, who led the Arab tribes of the desert against Rome, show these celebrated women with gleaming black hair flowing over their shoulders. The women of the Middle East and adjoining lands have never forgot this age-old method of bringing out the natural lustre of hair.

(PHOTO: henna powder)

Yet, despite the fact that henna has been known in the Asiatic and African worlds since the dawn of history, it has been only in this century that it has been introduced as a natural cosmetic into most of Europe and North America. Strangely, this ancient hair colouring was, until a few years ago, hardly known in the western world. However, in the last few decades, as a hair tint and conditioner, henna has been making inroads in countries far away from its former homelands. Not just for hair but now for designs on hands and feet.

Today, it is a Hollywood craze and can be found in trendy shops right across North America. Its most common customers are teenagers who usually use it as an alternative to the painful tattoos. The use of henna by well-known people like Madonna, Neve Campbell and Michael Cirven who manages the Lakaye Mehndi Studio in Los Angeles has helped to make this ancient beautifier popular.

The lawsonia inermis or henna plant, also known as Egyptian Privet or the Mignonette Tree, is a shrub which grows from six to twenty feet high and is native to South West Asia and, curiously, to Australia. Today, it is cultivated mainly in China, Egypt, India, Iran and Morocco. The henna plant is not the same type in every country in which it grows. Depending on the variety a wide range of colours are produced, varying from reddish-orange to coppery-brown. Moroccan henna tends to be a shade of orange, but as one travels eastward the tint changes until it becomes the much sought after Iranian red – a type believed to be the best in the world.

The shrub is primarily grown for its reddish-brown pigment, but is often cultivated as an ornamental plant, especially for its small fragrant flowers that vary in shade from white to red. However, in the main, it is cultivated for its cosmetic qualities. Before the plant sprouts flowers, the small oval leaves are harvested and dried. The veins are then removed and the leaves pulverized into powder to form the famous natural dye that has been used to condition the hair and skin since recorded history.

(PHOTO: The lawsonia inermis or henna plant)

In the mist of time, this organic colouring was introduced into ancient Egypt where it was employed to tint the fingernails and other parts of the body. Wall paintings in the tombs of the Pharaohs show regal Egyptian ladies having nails painted with henna. To the ancient Egyptians and their pharaohs, it was a holy cosmetic. They used it as a healing ointment and to paint the fingers and toes of the pharaohs before mummification.

From Egypt, the plant was introduced into Greece and North Africa. The Greeks used its flowers as head decorations in funeral ceremonies, but the North Africans employed it chiefly for adorning the body. For thousands of years, in the Arabian Peninsula and the lands along the southern edge of the Mediterranean, henna has been used as ornamentation for parties, circumcision ceremonies, and especially for weddings. The hands, feet and toenails of young brides are beautifully decorated with this natural-healthy dye a night before the wedding in what is called ‘Henna Night’.

On other occasions, the soles of the feet and the palms of women’s hands are covered with artistic designs of henna. This is said to bring good luck and happiness and decrease sweat secretions, bringing comfort to tired bodies – a remedy also employed in many hot climate countries.

Among the peoples of ancient civilizations henna was used as a purifying agent, playing a variety of healing roles. The ancient Egyptians discovered its potency in killing fungus infections and, hence, used it in preserving the dead. Through the centuries, this medical attribute has made it a much sought-after medication for burns, skin irritations, ulcers, treatment of smallpox and for neutralizing fungi that creep into cracks of feet. Also, since the dawn of history, the leaves of the henna plant have been dried and made into a tea that is drunk to minimize headaches, and gargled as an astringent for curing mouth sores.

Above all, from the era of the ancient Egyptians and before, henna has been employed as a natural colouring for the hair and, at times, as a dye for men’s beards. Its basic use is to tint the tresses to degrees of reddish hues or just to magnify the hair’s natural colour. Many women believe that after a few treatments, their curls will become thick, scalp dryness will be eliminated and falling hair will cease to be a problem. Unlike a number of dyes in use today, pure henna is harmless to the hair or scalp. Its carbohydrate and protein ingredients penetrate into the hair bulbs, preventing split ends while at the same time nourishing and strengthening the hair.

(PHOTO: henna hair coloring in ancient Egypt)

To be truly effective, only the natural product should be used. In our times, henna is often marketed and mixed with other materials. The leaves of the plant, sold in a liquid, powder or paste form are used in a whole variety of modern cosmetics. Purchasers should beware that there are many henna compounds on the shelves containing metallic substances. These blends are not the famous natural henna and should be avoided. They could very well damage the hair or scalp. One must make sure to only purchase the pure product.

The conditioning or tinting of hair with henna, although messy, is a simple operation. The following method, which has stood the test of time, can be easily followed:

1) Place powdered henna in a bowl, then stir in hot water until a thick creamy paste is formed. Keep hot by placing the bowl in a pot of boiling water.

2) Without shampooing beforehand, apply henna to the hair by covering each strand from the scalp down. Make sure all the hairs are thoroughly covered.

3) Leave in hair for about an hour, then wash out before shampooing.

The use of this recipe to condition black and brunette hair is, in most cases, very successful. On the other hand, it is not always advisable to apply henna to blond, grey or white hair. Often, it tends to impart unnatural shades to these colours. Another factor that should be taken into consideration is the repeated use of henna. It should be used in moderation. Its application time after time will cause orange overtones and make the hair stiff and dry.

Besides its use as a hair conditioner, in a number of countries, henna is utilized to care for the skin, especially before important occasions. Various parts of the face, arms, feet and the body itself are painted in artistic designs. It is believed that this not only makes the skin smooth but enhances women’s beauty.

The ladies of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, for special events, use henna for this purpose. Boiled tea water mixed with henna and/or other natural materials like almond oil, eggs, eggplant peels, camomile, lemon, dry red onion peels, vinegar or yogurt are applied to the bodies of brides before wedding feasts or to a woman before she goes out for an important evening. For this application, the following simple recipe is often used:

1) Mix two parts henna to one part thick yogurt, then add a little water and stir until a thick paste is formed.

2) Apply to the body and allow to remain for 20 minutes, then wash off with water.

Also, according to Barbara Walden in her work, Easy Glamour, North African women use the following recipe to smooth and strengthen brittle nails:

1) Mix pure henna (not red or burgundy) with a little boiling water and an egg.

2) Brush the mixture on the finger nails and toe nails then leave on for about 15 minutes before washing off.

Used to decorate the body, give the skin smoothness, strengthen the nails, or as a hair conditioner, natural henna, for at least five millennia, was much sought after in the ancient lands. Today, its use has become worldwide.