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Henna is one of the oldest dyes in the world. It is made from the plant, Lawsonia inermis L. The dye is used on the skin, hair, fingernails, and fabric such as silk, wool, cotton, and leather. This article explores the various uses of the plant and the henna dye by investigating how it is made and how it is used by different communities (such as Hindus, Muslims, Arabs, Africans etc.). 

The plant description

Family: Lythraceae

Scientific name: Lawsonia inermis

Authority: L.

Trade names: Henna and Mendhi (mehndi in Hindi)

L. inermis is a small to medium-sized shrub that grows up to 6m in height. The plant is endemic to northern Africa and southern and western Asia. It can grow in a wide range of environmental conditions but shows excellent growth under high temperatures. The leaves are smooth, opposite, and broadly lanceolate. The flowers are small and pinkish to white in colour. The fruits are small and brown in colour, containing anywhere between 30 and 50 seeds.  

Phytochemicals are chemicals produced by plants to help fight against fungi, bacteria, viruses, attacks from insects etc. The phytochemicals identified in the leaves include lawsone, a dye molecule, alkaloids, saponins, flavonoids, and tannins. The flowers contain terpene and β-ionone, which give essential oils the pungent odour. The reported properties attributed to the plant include antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, virucidal, antiparasitic, and anticancer activities.       


L. inermis is cultivated for a variety of purposes, namely, as an ornamental plant, a hedge plant, for medicinal purposes, and others. The different parts of the plants are used to make different products:

Medicinal uses

The leaves, flowers, seeds, and bark are used for medicinal purposes to treat an array of ailments. 

  • The leaves are used to treat hair loss and baldness, sore throat, skin infections such as prickly heat rash, wound, and swelling.
    • To treat hair loss and baldness – boil 50 g of leaves in 250 g of mustard oil, until the leaves turn black in colour. Allow to cool and strain the oil. Use the oil to massage the affected area.
    • To treat a sore throat – boil the leaves in water. Allow the decoction to cool and strain the liquid. Use the liquid as gargle.
    • To treat skin infections – dry the leaves and crush them to fine powder. Add a little bit of water to the powder to make a paste. Apply the paste in the affected area.  
  • The seeds are used to treat dysentery. To treat dysentery, the seeds are powdered and mixed with ghee. The mixture is taken orally. Decoctions made with the leaves and seeds are used to treat excessive vaginal discharge, excessive menstruation, and leucorrhoea.
  • The flowers are used to treat headaches caused by the sun’s heat. To treat headache the flowers are made into a paste with a little bit of vinegar added to the paste. The paste is applied on the forehead.  
  • The bark is used to treat jaundice and an enlarged liver. To treat liver disorders, ground the bark to fine powder, use the powder to make an infusion (like tea) that is taken orally. You can also boil the bark to make a decoction that is taken orally in 50 g doses.  

Other uses:

  • The wood is strong and fine-grained. It is used to make tool handles and tent pegs (for securing the tent to the ground). The wood is also used for firewood and to make charcoal. 
  • The flowers are used by the perfume industry to make essential oils.  
  • The leaves are used to produce a red-orange dye. 

How is the dye made?

The commercial dye made from the L. inermis plant is prepared by soaking the leaves in either ether or alcohol. When soaked, a chemical known as hennotannic acid is produced. Hennotannic acid is a red-orange dye with a chemical name 2-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone and a chemical formula: C10H6O3. It is also known as lawsone.   

A similar dye is produced by the flowers of a plant named Eichhornia crassipes, whose common name is water hyacinth.    

How is Henna made?

Henna is made using henna powder. Henna powder is made by drying the L. inermis leaves and grounding them to fine powder. 

The henna tattoo is made by adding water or oil to the henna powder to produce a consistent paste. Other ingredients may be added to the paste to enhance the darkening effect such as essential oils, mustard oil, charcoal powder, animal urine, coffee powder, etc. 

Apply the paste on the skin and allow it to remain for at least 30 minutes for the leave’s dye to penetrate the skin. The longer the paste remains on the skin, the darker the colour will be. Remove the dry paste to reveal the tattoo. The colour of the tattoo and how long it remains on the skin will depend on a number of factors such as the skin type, the tattooed area of skin, the environmental conditions and weather, bathing agents and frequency, etc.  

Countries such as India, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Somalia etc. where L. inermis is endemic, use henna for different purposes. The following section explores how different groups of people use henna.  

How different communities use the Henna 

Scientists think that humans first learned about L. inermis staining ability after finding blood-like stains on the mouth of grazing and browsing animals that ate the plant’s leaves. When humans would attempt to remove the chewed leaves from the animal’s mouth, their hands and fingers would be stained. The use of henna can be dated to the predynastic period in Egypt, where it was used to reverse greying hair. Henna has a special affinity with the proteins in human hair, giving it the ability to stain the colour into the hair shaft.

Historically, henna was applied on the hands and feet to protect against fungal pathogens (illnesses caused by fungi). Over the years these uses have evolved to include the following:

  1. Baraka

In Swahili and Arabic, baraka loosely translates to blessing. Baraka is believed to possess the benevolent powers that avert the gaze of the Evil Eye, a curse cast by a malevolent gaze. In some cultures, henna is contrived to possess the powers of blessing so it can be applied under the eyes and on the eyebrows, to protect the wearer against the Evil Eye.

  1. Following the sunnah 

The sunnah are the practices and traditions of the Islamic prophet Muhammed, that constitute a model for Muslims to follow. The prophet Muhammed reportedly used henna to redden his beard. Thus, Muslim men following the sunnah dye their beard with henna.   

  1. Following the Ḥadīth 

The Ḥadīth is a record of the reported words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammed, that Muslims are encouraged to follow. The Ḥadīth encourages Muslim women to use henna to dye their nails to demonstrate their femininity. 

In other cultures, women apply the henna dye on their finger and toenails (and the small area of the skin surrounding the nails) and on the soles of their feet. 

  1. Henna night ritual

The henna night is a ritual of adorning the bride-to-be’s hands and feet, with decorative patterns in preparation for her wedding day. This ritual is performed in most countries where L. inermis is endemic. It is most popular among Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Iranians, Moroccans, Jews, Sudanese, and others. 

  1. Medicinal purposes

In Arab countries, henna is used for medicinal purposes to treat conditions such as boils, burns, wounds, and others. The henna powder is used to make a poultice.   

  1. To dye silk and wool

Henna is used by groups of people who are against using synthetic dyes to tinge silk, wool, cotton, and leather.  

In some countries, henna is used by surgeons as a preoperative skin marker.  The uses of henna are wide and varying, with many kept as secret. Let us know about your experience with using henna in the comment section.

You can learn about other herbal-based products such as Vimbela, Hibiscus tea, and Sejeso, by accessing the article on VimbelaHibiscus tea, and Sejeso.

Safety precaution:

The use of traditional medicine in prescribed dosages will yield good results. Misuse and abuse may lead to complications. To learn about correct dosage, consult a traditional healer or a herbalist. You can also visit or email: to learn more about traditional medicine.  

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