Henna is a flowering plant which is native to tropical areas of Africa, Southern Asia, and Australasia. The plant produces a dye which readily bonds with protein, and is used to color hair, skin, fingernails, and natural fibers.
People have used them to beautify their hair and skin since the Bronze Age. It remains popular in areas of India, Pakistan, The Sudan, and Libya.
The art of Mehndi uses Henna to temporarily dye the skin. Patterns are often intricate and extremely beautiful. These patterns are often applied to brides, and occasionally bridegrooms, before weddings. Mehndi became popular in Western culture in the 1990s, and is often, if erroneously, referred to as “henna tattoos”. In reality, Mehndi is not a tattoo – the ink is not inserted under the skin, and will fade in time.
In Morocco and other Arabic countries, Mehndi is applied to celebrate any special occasion — the birth of a child, family get-togethers, weddings, and other celebrations.
Henna leaves by themselves will not stain skin unless they are crushed together with a mildly acidic liquid. This will not provide the delicate lines needed for Mehndi patterns. For intricate designs, commercial henna powder is used. By mixing the powder with strong tea, lemon juice, or other acidic liquid, then allowing it to rest for several hours, a potent dye is created.
Once this paste is applied to the skin, henna’s lawsone molecules begin to stain the skin. For best results, the henna paste is left on as long as possible – up to eight hours. Adding sugar to the paste before applying it to the skin will prevent it from flaking off during this time, while making the colors more intense.
Once the henna paste has come off, the skin will be stained orange. Over the next several days, that will darken to a reddish brown. After that, the stain will fade as skin cells are exfoliated.