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What is Henna?

Sonia Nair
Nowadays, the term henna is associated with body painting, tattooing and hair coloring. In fact, henna is a plant, whose leaves are used for coloring skin and hair.
Henna is a flowering plant that is commonly found in the semi-arid, tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. The henna plant (Lawsonia inermis) is the only species of the genus Lawsonia, and belongs to the family Lythraceae. Henna leaves contain a red dye molecule called lawsone, which can bond with protein.
Hence, the dye from this plant has been used through the centuries, to color the skin, hair and nails; and fabrics like, silk and wool. The word 'henna' denotes the dried leaf powder, or the plant itself. It has been observed that, the tender leaves in the top shoots have the strongest dye. These leaves are dried and powdered to form the highest grade henna.

Henna Plant

Henna plants can be found as tall shrubs or small trees. It can grow to a height of two to six meters, with numerous branchlets and spines. The elliptical-shaped leaves have tapered ends. This plant produces small white flowers, and seeds in the form of brownish capsules.
The dye molecule called lawsone, which is found in the henna plant, is primarily concentrated in the leaves. Usually, the leaves are harvested during the flowering season.


According to some studies, the history of henna can be traced back to the Bronze Age. It is believed that, henna body art and hair coloring were practiced by the people of that period.
Another contention is that, henna hair dye was used for the first time by the Ancient Egyptians. One of the theories regarding the use of henna is that, this plant is native to places with hot climates; and people used to crush its leaves and apply the paste on their palms and feet, to cool their bodies.
Gradually, people started using it for cosmetic purposes. It is also said that, it was the inhabitants of the Middle East who started using powdered leaves of henna; and from there, the use of henna spread to Europe. In India, Pakistan and some of the neighboring countries, henna is known as 'Mehendi', which is associated with various festivals and traditions.


Henna is used for hair coloring, for body tattooing, and for coloring the finger nails and palms. It is also used as an ingredient in some shampoos and conditioners. Its flowers are used to make perfumes.
Henna flowers impart a fragrance to the clothes, when kept in wardrobes. This practice is also beneficial for warding off moths and other insects from destroying the fabric. Henna is also used as a herbal remedy for various conditions. It is believed that, henna can cure burns, cuts and bruises, and swelling.
Henna has antifungal and anti-bacterial properties. Traditionally, henna was used for decorating the hands of brides during wedding celebrations, for hair coloring, and as a herbal medicine. Nowadays, this herb is mainly used for body tattooing and skin painting.
Earlier, the use of henna was confined to certain regions, but now henna hand designs, body painting, tattooing and hair coloring, etc., are very popular across the globe. The popularity of henna is so widespread, that this plant is now commercially cultivated in many parts of the world.