“Black Henna”- What’s the Problem?

Black Henna-What's the Problem?
photo and artist credit unknown at time of publication

Henna aficionados, whether artists or simply people who enjoy adorning themselves, are rather quick to notice new trends in henna design. Sadly, one trend that keeps coming back around is laden with dangers.

“Black Henna,” as it is known, is not ACTUALLY henna that gives a black stain. Many people have a passing familiarity with henna and assume that “black” henna is just a variation, and that it is, therefore, as safe to use as “plain” henna. This is a common misconception that proves the phrase  “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” 

Hermione Lawson (a name that sounds stunningly similar to Henna’s scientific name: Lawsonia Inermis) of the British Skin Foundation explains: “Black henna and normal henna are commonly confused, but they are not similar at all. Natural henna is derived from a plant and gives a more orange-red colour, whereas black henna can contain the chemical PPD which is illegal for use in temporary tattoos because it can be dangerous and is a common allergen for certain individuals.  It can cause a reaction called contact dermatitis which can see the skin become red, itchy, inflamed and the skin can even blister or scar.”

Black Henna- What's the Problem?
severe blistering on black henna tattoo, photo credit unknown


What kind of chemical IS PPD and why is it bad to mix it into henna? PPD (Para-phenylenediamine) is used in fur textile dyes, photographic developing agents and rubber compounds.  Black hair dyes are the only approved method of use that involves human bodies, but the regulations are quite stringent.  The dye must not be on any longer than 30 minutes and cosmetologists are strongly advised to avoid it making contact with the scalp or surrounding skin.  PPD in hair dyes must be diluted (PPD amount must be below 6%.) When used as “henna,” PPD amounts ranges from 40-70% (some incidents have even been in the 80% range!). PPD seeps directly into the bloodstream, which is made even worse by the fact that black henna pastes are left on the skin for well over half an hour.

Black Henna- What's the Problem?
Contaminated paste and the results

While PPD may not cause a reaction in everyone (current estimates of allergic reactions range between 3% and 15% of those who have been exposed), reactions are not predictable, can be extremely severe, and the repercussions can ripple out forever. When PPD is applied directly onto the skin and is allowed to dry, it BURNS.  A “mild” reaction might simply show up as skin redness that fades.  Other reactions can be far more painful. Redness, blistering, intense itching are just the beginning; open sores and permanent scars that can only be removed surgically, if at all can occur. Some people develop life-long sensitivities to fairly innocent things such as: black rubber, pen ink, some food colorings, some preservatives, some prescription and over-the counter medications, sunscreen containing PABA, dyes in clothing and or hair (meaning you might never be able to wear sunscreen, black clothing or color your hair EVER again!)

For some sensitized individuals, the result can be even more dangerous- The DuPont MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet)’s “Notes to Physicians”  makes the following statement: “Severe overexposure may cause facial, pharyngeal, and occasionally, laryngeal edema. Death may be rapid due to acute respiratory distress.” Meaning that swelling of the face and/or throat can lead to difficulty breathing, which can result in death. 

As if PPD itself is not a big enough concern, sometimes  PPD is mixed with benzene, or hydrogen peroxide! Laurie Revia Manning, a retired Pathologist and a henna artist who is part of our HIR family, worked for many years with chemicals like xylene (similar in composition to benzene and which turned any accidentally exposed skin completely white!) As a result of years of exposure, she lost her sense of smell, despite using all of the required safety precautions (such as working with chemicals under a hood.) These chemical are harsh and volatile. Benzene is a substance found in crude oil, gasoline, plastics, strong solvents, and other petroleum related products. Benzene has been confirmed as a carcinogen. The United States Department of Health and Human Services associates it strongly with Leukemia and other blood cancers (and pre-cancers) of the blood. Dubai has banned benzene and PPD as henna additives due to a verifiable (and frighteningly high) increase of Leukemia connected to women who had received contaminated henna body art.

Sobering, indeed. No one can predict whether or not a first-time black henna recipient will have a reaction. But if they have a second one- even if they suffered no ill effects whatsoever the first time, they are almost guaranteed problems. PPD was clearly never meant to be applied directly to the skin. With such horrible consequences, why would anyone get a “black” henna tattoo?

Sadly, ignorance is to blame. Tourists and festival goers (the usual victims) have no reason to know anything whatsoever about black henna and its dangers, and sadly, many henna artists value the easier application, faster gratification, larger numbers of people hennaed and frankly, higher income over the safety of people they will likely never see again. Many henna artists are also ignorant of the dangers, assuming “black” henna is just a variant. Well-informed and experienced artists know better.

Black Henna- What's the Problem?
Paste and burn (photo credit unknown)



“Black henna” was not an issue until the 1990’s, when Henna artists in tourist destinations and vacation hotspots began experimenting with other materials to add to henna in order to accelerate the “curing” process, to give a bolder and more predictable color result and -frankly- save money so they could make more money. Use of PPD in henna was particularly widespread in  in Africa, India, Bali, the Arabian Peninsula and even here in the litigious West. Slathering it on as a thick mixture that at least resembled real henna created  quick jet black temporary tattoos. This was- and still is- often seen as more desirable than the naturally-occurring brown, orange or maroon shades, particularly for bolder, geometric, tribal or more “masculine” looking designs.  Most of these artists are never held accountable because their clientele are only passing through for the day -whether it is on a beach, a festival or a street corner. Even if the henna recipient realizes the connection between the black henna and their symptoms, they are often too far away to do anything about it- most symptoms don’t show up for 3-12 days!

Black Henna- What's the Problem?
Ellis Burke receiving his black henna tattoo.

In one vivid example, a  three-year-old-boy (Ellis) went into toxic shock after getting black henna tattoo while on holiday in Spain. His Spiderman tattoo began to burn his arm almost immediately. His mother took him into the ocean to try to soothe it, but it did not help.

Black Henna- What's the Problem?
The Tattoo already starting to burn

His mother stated “We’ve been going to the same resort for the last four years and my eldest son has had it done several times at the same place by the same guy… In fact Ellis had one done the week before and was fine.”

A few days later, he had a high temperature, struggled to breathe and began vomiting.  He was taken to the hospital right away, but discharged- and he did not improve. So his mother took him elsewhere,  and he was diagnosed with severe toxic shock and rushed to the children’s burns unit.  Ellis stayed overnight in the hospital, but was stabilized and released the next day.  When interviewed, his mother Shabana stated I knew nothing about this PPD until I came back and read about it online. As far as I know its use in henna tattoos is banned in this country. I now have to clean and dress his arm three times a day and it’s likely there will be permanent scarring. He’ll also be sensitive to anything with PPD in like hair dye so will have to be careful for the rest of his life.”

This poor kid is only one of many innocent people hurt by black henna. 40% of British dermatologists had seen patients with skin reactions due to black henna tattoos- about 80% of the black henna reactions were in children under the age of 16. Some of the black henna tattoos  analyzed contained no natural henna in them at all.

As henna artists, we have a responsibility to ensure everyone who receives a tattoo from us is SAFE!  This might mean extra diligence and more disclosure than some of us are accustomed to.

If you are receiving or applying henna at a festival, fair, amusement park, vacation destination, or henna party, consider the following safety tips:

If you are working at a high traffic event, have a complete list of your henna ingredients ready and review these ingredients with every client. A typical ingredient list might read: Natural Henna Powder, Water, Essential Oils (like tea tree or lavender.) Mixing henna is not a trade secret. Any responsible and confident henna artist will happily reveal what is in their henna paste.

Henna itself is not known to be an allergen, but certain things we typically add to the mix could be problematic for some clients. If hennaing on pregnant women, children or other sensitive individuals, (or if you are unsure) use mild ingredients and oils. (When in doubt, leave them out!) NEVER henna babies- only henna children over 8 years old. Do not henna children with hyperbilerubenimia and avoid doing henna on adults with G6PD. (Lavender oil should only be used on pregnant women with caution!) See our previous blog for more on this topic! 

Good Henna or “Black henna?”

  • Use common sense! ONLY use safe natural henna! If you don’t make your own henna, do not buy henna with ANY chemicals added or without listed ingredients. If ANYTHING in the ingredients ends in “z/sene,” it is BAD NEWS.
  • Use your nose! Henna paste has absolutely NO smell OR with a strong chemical smell: Henna mixed with benzene, kerosene, or gasoline will have a chemical smell underlying the natural earthy smell of henna and any other scents mixed in. Black henna without chemicals or essential oils might be completely lacking in scent. Real henna has a lovely wet earth/grassy smell- almost like hay, and may be mixed with essential oils (like eucalyptus.)
  • Use your eyes! Black/jet toned henna paste that claims to stay dark for more than a few days. Henna paste should be a shade of green or brown- it should never be black or blue black. ( The only exceptions would be certain natural hair dyes that blend henna and indigo, as illustrated by Henna Sooq. If you are ok with safe chemicals, try this one which contains a different chemical to make it black.)
  • Use your voice! Ask the artist how long will the henna needs to stay on your skin? REAL henna needs time to produce a really good stain- the paste needs to be left on at least a few hours, but the color will develop over the next 24-48 hours, depending on the paste and  the skin of the recipient. The resulting color is not a predictable outcome, unless someone consistently applies the same henna in  the same place, and even then, there are variations that can affect the final stain. If the artist answers “only an hour or so,” there is probably something else mixed in with their henna. If you are promise results that last 1-3 weeks without fading, it has PPD.  If the paste is mixed with peroxide, or if peroxide is wiped over the design to bring out the color, it has PPD in it.
  • Use your instincts!  If anything feels off to you, do NOT get henna from that person!

Anyone who has a reaction to a black henna tattoo should immediately see a doctor, and make sure that you report that you had an application of para-phenylenediamine on your skin. And remember, if you have had a black henna tattoo, do NOT dye your hair with ANY hair dye without getting checked for a PPD allergy!

So, with all that cheerful information out of the way, WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE if you really want a bold look? JAGUA ! Jagua deserves its own blog, and there is a great mine of information about it HERE!!!

Need a reliable source of quality, natural, clean henna? Check out our Official Sponsors for the 2016 Henna Intensive and Retreat: Henna Sooq (they have both powder and pre-mixed henna for those who are intimidated by the mixing process!)

Stay tuned for more!                                                                                                          

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This blog was brought to you by the Henna Intensive & Retreat. Want to learn more about the art of henna and body art? Join us for a 5 day/ 4 night retreat in the beautiful mountains of sunny Southern California! Find out more about this life changing event at www.hennaintensiveandretreat.com


Content and editing by  Sarah Baxter-Arias –  www.danceandsingsarah.com

This article is greatly indebted for vital safety information to:











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