Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Renaissance of Henna: Beauty and Medicine




Henna is an ancient herb of grace and healing whose applications date back to antiquity, but which modern day science is only now discovering.
Humans have been fascinated with body decoration from the beginning of creation. Henna has been used for body art and hair dye since time immemorial. It has enjoyed recent renaissance cutting across societal boundaries so that its use has evolved from a simple religious and cultural tradition, to an international and intercontinental body art. The healing and curative properties have led to its application in not only cosmetics, but in therapeutics as well.  
Applications of Henna
Henna is a plant that is native to the tropical savannah in Africa. Henna has been used by a wide variety of cultures and religions for thousands of years. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and others use henna for celebrations and festivities. Regions where henna is or has been practiced include North Africa, the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, sub – Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.

Henna produces a reddish-brown dye called Lawsone, which has been used to dye the skin, hair, fingernails, leather, silk and wool (the major component of which is protein). Lawsone is primarily concentrated in the leaves, though, whole, unbroken leaves will not produce the stain. The leaves are milled and sifted to a very fine powder form and then made into a paste, before application. The use of henna has been found in Islam and has been practiced by Muslims for centuries.
Body Art
Although the use of henna has branched out since its discovery, its most popular use is still beautification. It is entirely a feminine affair and is done mostly during festivities such as weddings, Eid celebrations, births, and so on. In Northern Nigeria, during wedding celebrations, a separate day is set aside for henna, where the bride, her friends and family come together and get hennaed. Various intricate designs are created with the most complicated patterns designed on the bride. Indians and Arabs also make henna an occasion during festive seasons.
Currently, henna is used as a tattoo dye especially in Europe and North America. The henna powder is mixed into a smooth paste, which is then used to make beautiful body art. The henna patterns vary from the lacey vines of India and Pakistan to the bold African geometric patterns to the Arab floral designs.
Henna is used mostly to decorate the hands and feet. Recently, pregnant women have also taken to decorating the abdomen with intricate henna patterns. Some cancer patients that have developed hair loss as a result of chemotherapy have found a new way to make a fashion statement by making beautiful and exquisite designs on their scalps.
With new trends in fashion, henna design has blended well with time. Current designs reflect a commingling of artistic traditions from Europe with those of the Islamic world, Africa, and the Indian sub-continent. The art is currently growing in complexity and elaboration, with new innovations in glitter, gilding and fine-line work.
Henna as a Medicine
Henna is mentioned as a valuable medicine in Egyptian hieroglyphs and in the writings of Theophrates, a disciple of Aristotle (History of Plants). Modern scientists have found henna to be antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiviral, anti-hemorrhagic and analgesic. Dr Hussain al Rashidy, after using henna in medical practice for many years, describes it as the ‘Magic Plant’.
The curative properties of henna are many, with it having healing affects on: 

  • Burns
  • Chronic wounds and ulcers
  • Nosebleeds
  • Herpes simplex and smallpox
  • Skin conditions such as scabies and pimples
  • The nervous system
  • The circulatory system
  • The digestive system
  • And even more!
Henna has been used effectively in the treatment of viral infections. The antiviral properties of the plant should definitely be explored further as it could even prove a breakthrough as a treatment for HIV!
Henna Perfume
Henna blossoms are fragrant and have been used to create perfume. When the blossoms are placed in a woolen garment, they perfume it and prevent moths.
However there is a dark side... Black Henna
In an effort to produce darker, more detailed and longer lasting designs, a lot of synthetic chemicals have been added to natural henna. These include: PPD, dispersed orange dye, chromium, etc. Para-phenylenediamine (PPD) is a chemical used mainly in photographic developing solutions, photocopying and printing ink, black rubber, grease, etc. It is not – and never was – intended for use as a tattoo dye. It is not meant for skin contact for long periods of time. 

Unlike the natural henna dye, which stains only the upper layers of the skin, PPD is a toxin, penetrating deep into the skin and then travels through the bloodstream. Toxins accumulate in the liver leading to liver and kidney damage and many other health problems. Allergic reactions include asthma, blistering, intense itching, permanent scarring and permanent chemical sensitivity. When using henna, always be careful to test a small patch of your skin for allergic reactions first, and always use natural henna where possible.
Henna art is what is meant to be – a beautiful, natural, temporary stain. If you want a henna tattoo, appreciate it for it's beautiful, earthy colours.
Dr Maryam Nasir Aliyu Web Developer

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