Henna - cosmetics

Henna is one of the oldest cosmetics known, used as a dye to stain nails, hands, feet and hair. The art of staining patterns onto the skin is known as mehndi.

Skin and hair dye

A photograph of a packet of henna hair dye from Kew's Economic Botany Collection.
Image: This packet of henna hair dye was bought from Southall market, London.

The dye is produced by mixing ground henna leaves with water, although tea leaves, indigo leaves, ground coffee beans or lemon juice are sometimes added to deepen the stain.

Among other compounds, the dying properties of henna have been attributed mainly to a compound called lawsone, which is found in the leaves (about 1% lawsone). Lawsone can bind to some proteins, such as keratin found in hair, which is why it is an effective dye for the body.

Other plants, such as indigo or the seed of the betel nut palm, may also be mixed with henna to change the shade of the dye. A combination of henna and indigo creates a black dye for hair.

Henna is also often used in cosmetic products as a hair conditioner and other preparations have included it for its reputed astringent, anti-dandruff and nail strengthening effects. Lawsone has also been used as a sunscreen.

Perfume

Essential oil obtained from the flowers (mehndi oil) is used in Asian perfumery. In Pakistan, henna flowers are strewn upon oil seeds and are left in the sun for a few days, then old flowers are replaced by fresh, so the oil seeds eventually become permeated with the fragrance of henna flowers. This oil is used for grooming hair and is massaged onto the face and body as it is thought to improve the complexion and relieve aching muscles.

More images of Henna