An exploration of henna’s significance and traditions in the SWANA culture.

As a kid, I often created patterns and shapes with henna I’d find around the house that my mom brought after celebrations. My hands would become orange-stained after creating a little world from Henna paste. My grandmother used henna to transform her greyish hair into a flamboyant copper shade whenever she felt like pampering herself. She could shed a few years off her appearance in her home in just a few hours.

Henna’s History

Henna, حِنَّاء‎, (called mehndi in Hindi and Urdu) has critical cultural and social significance, and it has been around for more than 5000 years in different parts of the SWANA region. In Egypt, this plant was used by the Pharaohs 9,000 years ago, but it was also around since millennials ago in the Eastern Mediterranean (now the Middle East). Egyptians used henna to paint mummies’ nails before they buried them, making it a sacred ritual, even though it was primarily used for festive purposes. In hot regions, henna was also applied to the soles of feet or hair to cool off the body as it dried. 

In the 1950s, henna was discovered to leave a temporary reddish-orange stain on the skin, which inspired its use as a decorative art form. Lawsone, the dye in henna plants, binds with our skin’s keratin, creating the staining effect. The increasing accessibility of the material has made it a popular beauty product for all socioeconomic groups. During special occasions like weddings and festivals, women and men adorn their bodies with intricate henna patterns. Based on country and ethnicity, these patterns have specific social meanings and vary in style and design.

Henna How-To?

Henna is most commonly applied to the palms, the backs of the hands, and the feet. However, it can also be applied to other parts of the body for superstitions or aesthetic purposes. Additionally, henna can safely dye hair, nails, and fabrics like silk, wool, and leather. 

You will need henna powder (usually available at local markets) to prepare the henna paste. When you soak it overnight, the new powder mix will appear vibrant and deep green, while the old powder may appear slightly brown. As soon as the paste is applied to the body, it must be left untouched for a few hours. To remove it, you need to flake off the dry parts and then slowly add some water to wash it all off. After removal, the orange stain will remain for a week or so. In case that’s a bit too much for you, henna cones are just as good and easily accessible.

Henna As A Hair Dye

As an alternative to harsh commercial hair dyes, henna is a natural and gentle solution. It can cover grey hairs or achieve a rich dark brown or copper hue. Unlike chemical dyes, henna stimulates and conditions hair, making it healthier-looking.

Using Henna as hair dye is a very simple process. Here’s our step-by-step guide:

١. Start by choosing pure, high-quality henna powder without any additives. Combine the powder with water to create a thick paste, and let it sit for a few hours or overnight to release the dye.

٢. Protect your hairline, ears, and neck with petroleum jelly or thick cream before applying the henna. Wash your hair with shampoo to remove dirt, oil, and product buildup, and don’t use conditioner – it can interfere with the dye.

٣. Start at the roots and work to the tips until you are completely saturated. Use gloves to avoid staining your hands. Once applied, gather your hair on top of your head and cover it with a shower cap or plastic wrap to retain heat.

٤. Allow the henna to develop for at least 2-4 hours, or longer for more intense colour, before rinsing it out with warm water. Avoid using shampoo or a conditioner during this step.

٥. After rinsing, let your hair settle for 24-48 hours before washing it with shampoo to allow the henna colour to develop and last longer fully.

Where To Buy It

١. Jamila Henna

A hit amongst henna lovers because of its vibrant and long-lasting colour. Shop here.

٢. Henna by Dr. Azra

If you shop from Dr. Azra, you can make your own henna using the Henna Kit or indulge in fresh, ready-made cones in the UAE. Shop here.

٣. Moroccan Henna

This one is famous for its high-quality henna powder, as it doesn’t contain any additives. Shop here.

٤. Henné Color

If you are not sure which henna to get, this brand has an array of henna-based hair dyes and powders featuring natural ingredients that deliver vibrant outcomes. Shop here.

٥. Surya Brasil

This one offers a diverse range of products composed of henna (powders, creams) while being committed to sustainability and ethical practices. They also offer hair dyes that nourish and condition your locks. Shop here.

Yasmine is a Tunisian-Italian freelance writer based in Amsterdam. Her writings are strongly inspired by her North African upbringing and culture, and her thoughts on identity and diasporic nostalgia. You will mostly find her reporting on societal phenomena in the MENA region, often in relation to digital culture, art, and fashion