Now hear this! There is no such thing as a black henna plant. If someone offers you a “black henna” tattoo, you should report them to the cops. Repeat after me: Henna, good. Black henna, stupid.
I stopped watching television when I was 15 years old, and whenever I see a local news segment I remember why. Imagine, if you can, this scene on the idiot box:
Man on a stretcher being rushed into a hospital emergency room. Close-up shot of a horrific stomach-churning blister on his forearm. Accompanying voice-over in that deep and ominous, eye-rolling and exaggerated voice that’s come to be known in Hollywood as “the voice of God”: Up next–a temporary tattoo that could kill you.
After the commercial break for Zantac to treat your detestable acid reflux, a perfectly coiffed brunette looks into your eyes, and in her best, most earnest voice delivers this news meant to trigger a “note to self” that you will never again go near those nasty temporary henna tattoos:
And now, first a warning: if you are squeamish, you may not want to watch this next story. A man on vacation in Las Vegas decided to get a henna tattoo and nearly paid for it with his life!
That sound you’re hearing is the loud groans of frustration coming from people in the henna world, along with the accompanying stampede as they rush to their computers to remind people that the sensationalist news segment they just saw was not about beautiful, reddish-brown, safe, all-natural henna tattoos! They’re chirping about those dangerous, fake, so-called “black henna” tattoos we’ve been warning you against for the last 15 years!
Back in 1997, my gallery introduced henna tattoos on the West Coast and helped to jumpstart a global trend. A form of body ornamentation that safely dyes the skin for seven to ten days and used for thousands of years throughout India, Africa and the Middle East had made its way west and been promptly labeled a temporary tattoo. The media tripped over itself to report on the stunning, made-for-TV body art phenomenon. Madonna, Sting, Prince, Gwen Stefani and other celebrities started sporting them, and overnight henna tattoos were all the rage. Fifteen years later, they still are.
Along the way, others clamored for a temporary tattoo that would look like a “real”–read “black” tattoo–so the market coughed it up. Except that there’s no such thing as a “black henna tattoo.” To turn the henna black, a dangerous chemical known as p-phenylenediamine, or PPD (or other delightful agents like battery acid) must be added to the natural henna paste. Horrendous skin reactions and permanent scarring can ensue. So, on a regular basis, stories come out in the news about those dangerous henna tattoos. Yes, they mention that the additive is what makes it harmful but that comes much later, after they’ve succeeded in discrediting the safe, harmless stuff because, after all, what passes for news today is the pumped up, fear-instilling bullshit that gets the ratings. The buried truth is merely an afterthought.
The irony in all this is that henna is actually beneficial to the skin. The plant has many medicinal properties, chief among them, the ability to soothe and heal skin irritations. I remember visiting with friends in Paris one time. We’d brought a couple of henna kits as gifts and ended up applying the paste on our friends’ daughter whose leg had erupted with a nasty bout of eczema. When she woke up the next day it was gone. Furthermore, henna has been used safely by over 500 million people in India and by millions of westerners who do not want a permanent tattoo nor the risk of infection that can come with it.
Since the most recent rash (excuse the pun) of news segments following a March article in the Los Angeles Times, there has been an irrational reaction to henna and, along with it, new questions about jagua. Jagua is a fruit that grows in the Amazon. Indigenous people have used it for centuries for body ornamentation. It stains the skin black, looks like a permanent tattoo and lasts a week to ten days then fades away completely. We were elated when we found this natural way to deliver what some temporary tattoo enthusiasts had been asking for. But, for the moment, all rational thinking is out the window. No matter that jagua is not and never has been “black henna.” It’s just that the barking dogs are drowning out the real story, as usual. This too shall pass. It always does.
“Contact dermatitis as a reaction to pure henna is extremely rare despite its frequent and repeated use over thousands of years all over the world.” Dermatology Online Journal
Carine Fabius is the author of Mehndi, The Art of Henna Body Painting and Jagua, A Journey into Body Art from the Amazon.