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Henna is NEVER Black!

This is one of those topics that I see cycling all over social media, and for good reason.  Legitimate, safe henna artists are constantly striving to educate the public against the dangers of “black henna,” which is in fact not henna at all, yet time and time again we see stories of awful reactions to black henna.  One only needs to do a Google image search for “black henna tattoo scars” to be flooded with horrific images of raised, red, and pus filled outlines of henna designs:

Google image search of “black henna tattoo scars”

It really is difficult to even look at. Nobody wants to imagine their child with a reaction like this.  The sad thing is that the majority of these people are not those who weighed the risks and decided to live dangerously and go for it anyway…these are people who innocently trusted a henna artist whom they thought was professional and safe, only to end up scarred for life by an experience that was meant to be fun or to commemorate a happy occasion.

Real, natural henna paste is never black.  It is made from a powdered plant that grows in the Middle East, mixed with lemon juice, sugar and essential oils. It smells lovely, leaves a temporary stain, and naturally fades over the course of a few days or weeks as your skin naturally sheds and regenerates. Here are a few photos for reference:

Fresh, natural henna paste: Henna powder, lemon juice, sugar and essential oils.

Having my foot done by the fabulous Lisa Seltzer. Note the color of the paste.

Freshly applied paste that I did on my own hand…it starts to darken as it dries but generally it should brownish.

Color variations at the different stages of a natural henna stain

So what’s so bad about black henna?  

Black henna contains para-phenylenediamine, also known as PPD, a chemical found in commercial hair dyes.  It is NOT intended for use on skin.  PPD, when directly applied to skin, can cause allergic reactions resulting in itching, redness, blistering and scarring. However, many henna artists mix it into their pastes, with a much higher concentration than you’ll find in hair dyes, in an effort to darken and lengthen the stain more.

 But I had a black henna tattoo and I’m fine!

Many people, when finding this out may think, “I had a black henna tattoo on our vacation but thank goodness it didn’t swell up and I didn’t have a reaction! I must have lucked out!”  However, it is important to note that even if a person doesn’t see any adverse visible reactions to a black henna tattoo, they can still have an anaphylactic reaction decades later if they decide to dye their hair.

Exposure like this to PPD can cause a sensitivity to hair dye that can last a lifetime.  In one recent very sad and extreme case, 39 year old wife and mother Julie McCabe had an anaphylactic reaction to her hair dye years after having a black henna tattoo in Dubai, went into a coma, and later died.

Less severe reactions can cause the design to blister, turning a temporary design into a permanent scar.

How do I protect myself and my kids from black henna?

Guilty until proven innocent.  First, be proactive and take responsibility for your own safety.  This may sound harsh, but your health and your children’s health are in your hands, and are more important than hurting a henna artist’s feelings! Do NOT trust a henna artist just because they are working out of a well known mall in your area, at a party put on by people you know.  Sadly, many event planners and organizers hire henna artists trusting that they wouldn’t be in business if they weren’t using safe materials, only to later be blamed for dozens of emergency room visits.   (This article mentions reactions to henna done at a mall that I’ve been to dozens of times, just minutes from where I used to live in a major city!

Be observant. Before you ever agree to have a henna tattoo done, observe the artist.  What color is their paste? It should be a light or dark brown color, not black.  Look at the photos they have on display of actual work they have done.  Is the paste black?  What does the final stain look like? A safe, natural henna stain should be an orange color immediately after the paste is removed, darkening over the course of a few days to a brown or burgundy color, not black.  

Ask questions. The most important thing you should do is ask the artist what ingredients are in their paste. Ask them flat out if they use only natural henna or if they add PPD or any other chemicals to their paste to enhance color.  You have a right to know what they are putting on your body!  A safe henna artist will most likely praise you for doing your research and asking them what is in their paste!If their answer, attitude, or body language makes you uncomfortable, go with your gut and keep walking.  NO henna tattoo is worth scarring your body or risking an allergic reaction later in life. Unfortunately seeing the word “natural” on their marketing materials does not mean that their paste is PPD free either, as this poor 6 year old boy found out the hard way.  This is why it is important to ask specifically what ingredients are in the paste, and to ask specifically whether there is PPD or any other chemicals.

Educate your kids.  Chances are your kids will come across henna, whether it be on spring break or a class party in their own school, and you won’t be there to investigate for them.  Again, right in my own backyard, 35 8th graders were sent to the ER with reactions to black henna tattoos they received at their 8th grade graduation party in 2011!

Ideally this article has reached you before a black henna artist has, but even if you have already been exposed, my hope is that you now know to stay away from hair dyes in the future, and pass this on to help educate and protect others.  Thank you for taking the time to read this post and protect yourself from negligent artists and naive event planners. Who knows, it could save you from a visit to the ER, or even save your life!

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