IMITATION "Henna" Warning
Imitation henna is a general term we use to describe products that claim to be henna, but are adulterated with toxic industrial dyes, solvents, and other dangerous additives.
What is imitation "henna"?
First, let's first define real henna. Henna is a paste made of the finely ground leaves of a small tree (botanical name lawsonia inermis). The tree itself is called the henna tree, and it grows in many parts of the world including North Africa, India, Pakistan, the Middle East and beyond. Its leaves stain skin the same way as blueberries or turmeric (more). It's been used safely for thousands of years therapeutically and as a cosmetic.
Unfortunately, some factories began adulterating the natural henna paste by adding industrial dyes and solvents - thereby creating "imitation henna". This is done to create a shelf stable product that can be mass produced and sold on a global scale. These solvents and dyes are what are staining your skin - not henna! If they contain any real henna at all, it has long-expired and is not effective. The additives are unsafe and often illegal. Factories falsely label the products as henna - to the confusion (and danger) of consumers who are unaware of the issue. Here, we hope to clarify the differences between safe, real, natural henna and the dangerous imitation "henna" products.
What's wrong with imitation "henna"?
Imitation "henna" products use a variety of unsafe ingredients, including: gasoline, kerosene, lighter fluid, paint thinner, benzene, and PPD (p-phenylenediamine or paraphenylenediamine)*. These are frequently used in high concentrations. For example, PPD is a common chemical in hair dyes though the concentration is typically under 3% (further, the box will instruct you not to allow it to touch your skin). However, PPD concentration in imitation "henna" products is typically 10-40%. It has lead to severe blistering, permanent scarring, organ damage and even death (see links at end).
* PPD is especially dangerous because it is a sensitizer. That means that repeat exposures increase your chance of a serious reaction even if you've never reacted before.
If theY're so dangerous, why do THEY make them?
People began making these products because real henna is very perishable. It has to be stored frozen, which isn't conducive to mass production and overseas shipping. It was also done as a matter of convenience. Real henna has to be left on for several hours. Industrial dyes and petroleum-based products will stain in half an hour or less.
... AND WHY ARE they AVAILABLE online and at markets?
Unfortunately, legal loopholes in cosmetics labeling on imported products allow these companies to blatantly lie about the ingredients. They might use ambiguous terms like "mehendi oil" (there is no such thing), or leave ingredients out entirely. They often say "100% natural" or "no chemicals" when this is absolutely false. There are no legal repercussions for these companies. Often they label these as: black henna, red henna, brown henna, instant henna, or emergency henna. Common sense in knowing that henna paste only lasts a few days at room temperature tells us that it's impossible for shelf stable products to be "natural".
How to tell the difference
The most obvious way to identify imitation "henna" is that it usually comes in factory-made packaging. If it has colorful labels with photos and text, stay away.
REMEMBER: packages are often falsely labeled with claims of "natural" or "no chemicals". Due to lack of regulation, manufacturers can print anything they like on the label (including a modified ingredients list) without risk of legal action. Use the information below, or download our printable checklist, so that you can determine for yourself if the product is safe, natural henna.
#1 : Packaging - Real henna is hand-mixed by henna artists because it is perishable (it only lasts a few days at room temperature). It's not possible to buy natural henna paste unfrozen or from overseas. Henna in pre-printed cones or tubes are a red flag, as it indicates it has been mass-produced in a factory.
#2 : Scent - Real, natural henna smells GOOD! Alone, it smells grassy or like hay. Usually, it's blended with essential oils which will smell fresh and inviting (unless you don't like the particular oil :) ). Commonly used oils are cajeput, tea tree and eucalyptus which all have a similar spicy/medicinal scent, and other oils may be added to enhance the smell as well - such as lavender or lemongrass. Imitation "henna" will have a strong, unpleasant odor and will often smell like hair dye or gasoline.
#3 : Time - Real henna needs to be left on the skin for 4+ hours in order to stain the skin effectively, and then water should be avoided for 24 hours. It takes about 48 hours to darken. Chemical "henna" is often called "instant henna" or "emergency henna" because it only needs to be on the skin for 30 minutes or less, you typically are instructed to wash it off with water and the stain is dark immediately.
#4 : Ingredients – Ask the artist to tell you the exact ingredients in their mix. They should have mixed it themselves, or have purchased it from another henna artist who mixed it themselves. Either way, they should be able to disclose a complete ingredients list for you.
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CDC listing in their NIOSH Guide to Chemical Hazards: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0495.html
American Contact Dermatitis Society's "Allergen of the Year" 2006: http://www.contactderm.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3467
EPA Hazard Summary: http://www.epa.gov/airtoxics/hlthef/phenylen.html
FDA consumer warning: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm343932.htm
Learn more about the dangers of "black henna" en espanol