Henna body art is used to celebrate milestones such as weddings. Photo of singer Yuna from her Instagram.

Everything old is new again, just like our newfound appreciation for henna, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup

HENNA is a natural substance derived from a shrubby plant with leaves that can produce a reddish brown stain when crushed. It has been used as hair and skin dye for thousands of years in areas where the plant grows, including in northern Africa, the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent.

The mummy of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, who died in 1213 BCE, was discovered with hennaed hair. American academic Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD says, “intensive archaeological research in the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt has uncovered Bronze Age (3200–600 BCE) use of henna, but this does not exclude early use of henna in other areas.”

Many communities including here in Malaysia have age-old traditions that are based on henna, and milestones such as birth, circumcision and marriage are marked with its use. That said, the cosmetic use of henna has been greatly reduced in modern times, having been replaced by chemical hair dyes, nail polish and makeup.


Leaves from the henna plant. Photo by Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup.

NATURAL OPTION

However, in the same way that some consumers are consciously shunning processed foods in favour of fresh ingredients, they are also looking at beauty items that are less harmful, both to themselves and the environment.

For hair colour options, these consumers may want to turn to henna. For a long time, henna hair dye has been the practice of traditional beauty parlours or home kitchens, which makes it rather unfashionable. But the demand for natural cosmetics with no harsh chemicals is seeing henna becoming more upscale.

An early adopter of henna outside its traditional confines is British cosmetics retailer Lush. The brand’s products use natural ingredients with very minimal amounts of synthetic chemicals. Its henna hair dyes come in four shades, using henna from Iran and mixed with things like indigo and coffee to create the colour variety.

Unlike traditional henna dyes that come in powder form, Lush’s henna is sold in brick blocks as per the company’s minimal packaging ethos. The customer needs to melt the brick in hot water and leave the melted substance on their hair for about two hours. The colour is permanent, and Lush says it’s “safe to use as often as you like”.


Lush’s henna is sold in brick form.

GETTING TO THE ROOTS

There’s no Lush store in Malaysia, but the Eka Roots Hair and Scalp Wellness Centre in Bangsar offers henna hair colour treatment with all the conveniences of a modern hair salon, such as cutting and styling services.

It opened two years ago as a henna hair dye and treatment centre, but has since expanded to become a full-service herbal and organic hair salon. One of the ranges that it carries, Philip Martin, uses ammonia-free hair bleach with active wheat protein, while its hair straightening/rebonding process uses Argila clay.

“There’s no ammonia or strong chemical smell in the salon,” says co-founder Judith Leow. “This environment is also safer for our staff. We had an employee who’s a bit older, and he’d tell us that he’d get a nose bleed if he did normal rebonding more than three times a day. But that doesn’t happen here.”

Leow adds: “The staff wear gloves when applying henna or hair colour, but that’s to protect their hands from staining. It’s not a health necessity because the products we use don’t burn their hands.”

A number of her clients opt for henna or the Philip Martin organic hair colour range as a lifestyle choice against conventional hair dyes. This includes those who need to colour their hair regularly but don’t like the harsh chemical reaction of hair dye.

Henna is also good for busy people as only a top-up is needed to cover the new hair growth. It requires less maintenance as hair can be washed with regular shampoo. Henna is also nourishing to the scalp, giving the hair strands a natural body and shine.


“Henna cannot lighten, only darken.” Judith Leow. Photo by Khairul Azhar Ahmad.

BURGUNDY HIGHLIGHTS

Seeing my grey hair, Leow recommends the burgundy shade. It’s a reddish colour that’s closest to the natural colour of henna. The henna dye will not affect my black hair, but the grey ones will be become reddish highlights.

“Henna cannot lighten, only darken,” says Leow. “Our henna powder comes from India, and it has a small amount of synthetic chemicals, less than 0.2 per cent, to help with the take up rate. Otherwise the colouring process will take too long, about four hours.”

Eka Roots offers four henna shades including black and light brown. Leow says there are colourants in the henna powder to make the different shades, which includes natural ingredients like indigo and coffee for black, and tea for the more reddish shades.

Meanwhile, my burgundy powder is mixed with warm water to create a paste and applied with a brush to each strand of hair. Tea tree oil is added to my paste to help with my dandruff, which leaves my scalp with a cooling effect. The duration for application depends on hair length — mine is 40 minutes because my hair is below shoulder length.

Next comes steaming for 30 minutes. According to Leow, steaming helps to open up the hair follicle so that the henna is more thoroughly absorbed. Then it’s off to the sink to wash off the henna, which has to be done multiple times. At this point the henna has dried and caked onto my strands and is quite stubborn to remove.

With less than three hours in the salon with my hair coloured, washed, cut and styled, I leave with a subtle grassy scent from the henna, which isn’t unpleasant. The colour tends to run in the next few days when my hair is wet, staining my towel and pillow, but Leow mentions that this is normal.

The burgundy colour comes through a lot more over the coming days, particularly under sunlight. Henna is a more gentle hair colouring experience, minus the smelly chemicals or liquids of conventional hair colouring. Granted, the colour option is limited, but for consumers wanting a more natural product, henna will always be there for them.


Henna paste being applied to hair. Photo by Judith Leow.

HENNA FACTS

HENNA from the plant Lawsonia inermis contains lawsone, a tannin dye molecule, in its leaves. It is not visible to the naked eye because it is masked by chlorophyll. When the leaves are pulverised and mixed with a slightly acidic liquid such as lime or tamarind juice, the dye molecule becomes available as the cell walls' cellulose dissolves.

The dye molecule can then migrate out of the paste, breach cuticle cell walls in the hair shaft and bind with keratin, which is the protein in our hair.

The process is similar to putting a wet tea bag on a white table cloth. The tannin in the tea migrates from the tea bag into the cloth fibres, binds with those fibres and leaves a stain. The longer the teabag is there, the darker the stain.

Henna for body art has higher dye content than henna for hair, so more lawsone is available to saturate the cuticle.

Meanwhile, health officials in the United Kingdom have warned about the use of paraphenylenediamine in henna, which is used to make black or dark henna. The chemical is allowed in limited amounts in hair dye, but it’s not considered safe to use on skin as henna body art.

Source: Adapted from Hennaforhair.com.


The henna colour options available at Eka Roots. Photo by Khairul Azhar Ahmad.

NATURAL INK

IT used to be quite common to find henna plants growing in the yard. In the years when people were more self-sufficient (and before the proliferation of bottle hair dyes and nail polish), henna was planted along with herbs like pandan, lemongrass and curry leaf for regular household use.

The Malay and Indian communities both made use of henna as skin or hair dye. While the plant is not native to Southeast Asia, it grows very well locally. Henna application traditionally heralded a special occasion, such as a wedding ceremony. But it can also be a regular beautification practice for people who want to cover their grey hairs or decorate their hands.

Henna is available commercially as a powder, but traditionally, henna was used simply by plucking the leaves off the tree, pounding it into a paste, applying it and then waiting for the colour to transfer. Because it is a natural ingredient, it’s best to use freshly plucked leaves and apply the henna paste immediately.

Other factors that can affect the vibrancy of the reddish brown stain are the quality of the leaves and how long the paste remains on the body. Fresh henna paste on the palm for 30 minutes will result in a noticeable orange hue, but leave the paste on for several hours and the shade will be a more opaque red.

The henna will usually get darker in a few days, and then disappear in the weeks to come due to the body’s natural exfoliation process.


Henna application traditionally heralded a special occasion, but it can also be a regular beautification practice. Photos by Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup.

1. Henna leaves picked the day before, ready to be pounded in a mortar and pestle.

2. Pounding the leaves until it becomes a paste. Water may be added if the mix is too dry.

3. Fresh henna paste, ready to be used.

4. Rub lime or tamarind juice on the skin before applying the henna paste and wait until it dries before removing for the best result.

5. An orange hue on the palm after leaving the paste on for 30 minutes.


An example of henna powder that available commercially.

aznim.ruhana@nst.com.my

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