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Henna 101 - History, Benefits, And Varieties Of Henna

Skon Henna > Articles > Hair Care Blog > Henna 101 – History, Benefits, And Varieties Of Henna

What is Henna?

Henna is a dye that is reddish-brown in color, obtained from the powdered leaves of a tropical shrub and is used to color the hair and decorate the body.

Henna, Lawsonia inermis or the mignonette, is a large bush or small tree native to hot, dry climates across North and East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the southern areas of the Middle East, and South Asia.

History of Henna

There is strong evidence that the use of henna on a large scale originated in Egypt and people of India were far from the first to use it. In reality, Egyptians, Jews, Persians, and Turks were not only the ones to use it but also caused it to spread throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Henna was used as a hair dye and for drawing designs on the hand, fingernails, and body. It was also used to dye fabrics like wool, silk, and leather.

In ancient times, Henna had a strong medicinal worth and this appears to be its main claim to popularity even today. It is also said that Cleopatra used perfume made from henna to adorn her body. Henna was used for various traditions in different cultures since ancient times. Essential oils were made from henna leaves which were used by people to protect themselves from the UV rays.

Currently, India is the largest exporter of henna. Support from the government has improved henna cultivation and technology, helping farmers to have a cash crop as a backup when other crops fail.


What’s in the name? Henna, Hina, or Heena?

Henna plant, one of the most well known and used botanicals on earth, is known by its Latin names of Lawsonia inermis, L.alba, L.spinosa, and L.ruba and is commonly known today by the Indian name Mehndi. Henna will dye many colors naturally and fresh henna leaves create vibrant red mehndi body art designs. The ancient Arabic name for Henna or Hinna given to Lawsonia inermy or the mignonette is by far the most used and well known of all of the names. “Hinna”, originally is believed to be given by Arabic speaking Persians. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic name for henna is thought to be “Henu” and in Farsi, henna is known as “Hina” ( Henna is taken from Hina). In India, henna plant is referred to as “Mehndi” because “Mindi” or “Mehndi”, coming from ancient Sanskrit, especially in the Rajasthan area, means myrtle.


Henna Plant

From the records, it appears that henna plant was first given the Latin name of Lawsonia in 1753. The bark of the henna is gray, brown in color and is smooth. The leaves of the henna plant are medium green in color and can vary a great deal, even on the same plant.

The leaves when young, are quite smooth and flat whereas when their life is about to end, they begin to curl and are quite long. Leaves under the flowers are always small and young-looking. The leaves are in pairs and differ in sizes from approximately 2-4cm.

The flowers are quite small, (about 1/4th inch), grow in grape formations and are extremely fragrant. It grows best in heat up to 120F levels and stains better in these conditions. It grows better in dry soil and withers in temperatures below 50F degrees.

Henna leaves are not a one-step, “pick the leaves and you have red dye” deal. The green leaves when fresh are unable to dye above a light yellow. So a measure of work is needed to use henna as a dye. The quality of henna plays a major factor in the staining process.


Origin/Discovery of Henna

The foundation of Henna is quite puzzling, having been used for many thousands of years. The Henna plant is regarded as a gift to India from Egypt where they painted their fingernails along with it. Though there is evidence that it absolutely was there centuries before, some state it came to Asia through Iranian lands.

Some researchers argue that henna descends from ancient Asia while other people claim it had been brought to India by Egyptian Moghuls in the century C.E that is 12th. Nevertheless, others said that the tradition of applying henna started in East and North Africa in ancient times.

It’s thought that Mehandi was only for sale in the deserts of Asia as the local people there found that coloring their fingers and base of hands with paste prepared from the Henna plant assisted them to feel cooler. Eventually, brides began to embellish their foot and arms with henna incorporated into their wedding rituals.

There are myths that an Egyptian queen was the first to discover henna as a hair colorant while sitting next to the Nile some 3000 years ago. Researchers believe henna use existed for a much longer time in that area.


Emily Marie Wilson / Shutterstock.com

Henna Powder

In order to create henna powder, the henna leaves require a bit of processing. The henna leaf or berries are dried and then crushed to get maximum staining. Henna powder can be mixed with water, rose water, lemon juice etc. to make a paste out of it.

Benefits of Henna Powder

Henna is great for making hair bouncy, shiny and healthy whenever applied regularly. Henna is famous for repairing damaged hair by acting as a natural conditioner. All the below mentioned benefits of henna persuade to shift from chemical-based products to the natural henna powder.

  • It adds a protective layer to each strand of hair and hence prevents damage.
  • In addition, it assists locks from getting too frizzy and dry and leaves them smooth and hassle-free.
  • The natural properties of henna promote hair regrowth.
  • Henna powder can be used to produce an oil that nourishes and develops hair growth.
  • The blend of henna powder and mustard oil can be used to treat hair loss.
  • Using henna regularly on your hair cures and prevents dandruff because it has antifungal and antimicrobial properties that cool and soothes your scalp which is dry otherwise.
  • Henna hair color is the best and pure alternative for covering gray hair without using any chemicals. It helps to correct split-ends.
  • It removes oil and dirt without spoiling the acid-alkaline balance of the scalp.

Henna for Hair

The most popular application for henna is as a hair-colorant. Henna hair dye stimulates growth and prevents baldness in both men and women. Women use it precisely for their hair, whereas men use it for hair as well as beard. Henna has the ability to absorb oil from the hair, rendering oily hair to a more dryer, normal state.

Henna hair color helps to regrow hair and makes it longer and stronger. Henna can be used with various Indian herbs such as amla powder, shikhakai powder, indigo powder, reethi powder, tulsi powder, neem powder, multani mitti etc. which add to the benefits of henna powder.

Henna hair dye blends with the existing hair color and most people have variants in hair color, especially when white or grey is present. Light colored hair dyed with henna would appear much more vibrant and stand out from the rest of the resulting hair color.

Henna powder is applied to the hair as a thin paste which is prepared by mixing the henna with sufficient, nearly boiling water. It is allowed to stand for about ten minutes so that the coloring matter may be extracted before applying. The paste is applied and the head is covered. The length of time depends on the nature of the hair, its original color, and the desired color.

A brush should be used and apron be worn to apply the henna. It is also important to wear gloves while applying henna. Apply vaseline in advance while applying henna close to the hairline so that the head doesn’t get stained.

Different varieties of henna:

  • Natural Henna/ Red henna

This is the real form of henna which leaves a reddish-orange stain on the hair and body. This is pure henna and is green in color. It is used to make a paste by adding natural oils and water into it. Red henna leaves the hair strong and lustrous.

  • Black Henna 

Black henna is a black henna dye that consists of Paraphenylenediamine (PPD) and is very unsafe to use on the skin. It stains black in no time. It is being widely used for dying hair and body art. But the adulteration of chemicals can be harmful to the skin and hair.

Medicinal Properties of Henna

Ayurveda and Unani are the oldest forms of healing in India. Many people attribute the key uses of henna in Ayurveda as-

  1. Hair health and baldness
  2. Asthma, coughing and breathing problems
  3. Colic pains
  4. Bleeding piles and skin problems
  5. Birth Control
  6. Impotence
  7. Dysentery

Various parts of the henna plants are used for various purposes. The bark was used to calm people and is known for its astringent qualities. It was also specifically used for jaundice, leprosy, and enlargement of the spleen.

The seeds or berries can be used to make deodorant and cures weakness. The flowers cool the body and help with sleep. Henna cures headaches caused by the heat of the sun as it provides a cooling effect and it was used as a sunscreen in ancient times to protect people from the UV rays.

Henna helps in preventing hair fall, dandruff, split ends and makes the mane strong, shiny and healthy. Moreover, Henna leaves are used to treat fungal problems and skin diseases due to its antifungal and antimicrobial properties. Henna is being tested for all sorts of applications like cancer prevention and memory loss. Henna is also used to make essential oil which is good for the skin.


Henna in the form of body art has emerged as an important part of many happy gatherings and occasions. It is a medium of celebrating the joys of life, company, and celebration. In some cultures girls are allowed to first use henna after their first or second menstruation, moving them into a new world of womanhood.

The wedding setting is most certainly where you will see the most elaborate henna designs. Henna is usually applied during the traditional ‘Night of the Henna’. It is a fun-filled night with every family member and close friends of the bride and the groom becoming a part of it. The bride and the groom (in some cultures) apply henna on their hands and legs (women only). The darker stain of the mehndi signifies the deepness of the couple’s love. The actual Night of the Henna can vary greatly depending on the local where it is held but mainly includes music, dancing, food, bonding, gifts and of course henna.

Henna Artists

1. Neha Assar

Neha has around 26 years of experience in ornate mehndi and body tattooing. Her list of celebrity clients is ever-growing, already consisting of such names as Kylie Jenner, Drake etc.

2. Pavan Ahluwalia

Pavan Ahluwalia is an English artist. She holds the Guinness World Record for being the fastest henna tattoo artist – 512 armbands in an hour.

3. Shivani Patwa

Shivani is an experienced artist from Ontario. She specializes in traditional and Arabic bridal mehndi. Her clean lines and space usage are totally outstanding.

4. Amrin Wahid

Amrin can be called “the queen of henna”. She is based out of Dubai, her designs are just as amazing and a perfect fit for the modern bride.

Organic Henna vs Chemical Based Hair Dye

Side effects of Chemical-based hair dye

Chemical-based hair colors might look fascinating but they can be really harmful as they contain ammonia, peroxide and many other similar chemicals. It can cause various allergic reactions like irritation, itching, redness, and swelling. Sometimes, the chemicals make contact with your eyes which can lead to conjunctivitis or pink eye and cause discomfort. These hair dyes contain persulfates which can cause asthma. These chemicals can also create fertility issues in men and women.

Organic Henna Hair Color Benefits

The organic hair colors are free of harmful chemicals such as PPD, ammonia, sulphate, etc., and hence are safer to use on hair and scalp. These are also long-lasting as compared to the chemical-based hair dye. It contains natural ingredients and vegetable extracts which provides much-needed nutrients to the hair and deeply nourishes and conditions them. In addition to that, there are no adverse reactions in the case of natural hair dyes which is a plus point.

The best henna hair dye blends very well with the natural hair color and gives a natural look to the hair.

Books on Henna

  • Henna Head to Toe by Norma Pasekoff Weinberg
  • Henna’s Secret History: The History, Mystery & Folklore of Henna by Marie Anakee Miczak
  • Henna Magic: Crafting Charms & Rituals with Sacred Body Art by Philippa Faulks
  • Henna Sourcebook by  Mary Packard
  • Natural Hair Coloring: How to Use Henna and Other Pure Herbal Pigments for Chemical-Free Beauty by Christine Shahin
  • Ancient Sunrise® Henna for Hair by  Catherine Cartwright

Movies on Henna

Henna is a 1991 Indian film, written by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, produced and directed by Randhir Kapoor, and starring Rishi Kapoor, along with Pakistani actress Zeba Bakhtiyar in the title role and Ashwini Bhave.

Strong Reference Sources

  1. The book ‘Henna’s Secret History’ by Marie Anakee Miczak