Even in today's information age, I find that many people are still unfamiliar with henna and how it works. Here is a simple guide to the myths you may have heard about henna along with the real truth.
Myth: "Henna" and "mehndi" are two different things. Actually, the words refer to the same thing. "Henna" originates from Persian and is most likely to be recognized by people who speak Middle Eastern languages, and "mehndi" (or "mehendi" or "mehandi" or many other variations) is more familiar to those from Southeast Asia. Artists in the West use the two terms interchangeably.
Myth: Henna is harmful. Actually, henna is just about the safest thing you can put on your skin (or hair). The powdered leaf of the henna plant (lawsonia inermis) has been used since human society began and has an amazing track record of safety. However, some pre-made henna pastes can contain harmful additives, which is why the best paste is fresh and homemade by the artist.
Myth: Henna is a "fake tattoo." This one gets the goat of a lot of artists. Tattooing and henna are two separate art forms: a tattoo artist uses a very different skill set and materials than does a henna artist. Although most henna artists may be OK using the term "henna tattoo," henna is really an art form in and of itself. As one artist put it, "This isn't fake anything! It's REAL henna!"
Myth: Henna "washes off." I saw a character on the TV show Castle assure her dad that the henna "tattoo" on her wrist would "wash off." Groan. Nope, once the henna stains your skin, even lightly, it isn't going to wash off. It has to fade away as your skin cells die and slough off and newer skin cells replace them. Friction and chemical lightening (such as exposure to chlorinated water) can speed fading, but the stain cannot wash away because it's now part of your skin.
Myth: Henna is a paint. Related to the myth above, henna is technically a dye or a stain, not a paint. The difference? A paint sticks to the very top layer of your skin. Depending on the paint's base, it can be removed with a solvent. For example, a water-based paint can be removed with ... well ... water, a resin-based paint can be removed with oil, etc. However, the dye molecule in henna, called lawsone, actually bonds chemically with your skin cells a few layers below the surface.
Myth: Henna comes in different colors. True, natural henna stains only in the red/brown spectrum. (See my post about this topic here.) Any other type of product claiming to be "henna" that stains a different color may contain natural henna but also must contain some other type of staining ingredient. Some of these ingredients may be harmless, but others such as PPD (see my rant here) can be extremely dangerous. It is possible to create a henna-style design using body paint or glitter to achieve a certain color, but this is technically not henna.
Myth: A good henna stain lasts several months. It is impossible for henna, body paint or any other type of temporary body art to last this long -- the skin cell renewal process along with normal friction against the skin removes any temporary body decoration within weeks.
Myth: Real henna stains red. This is true ... but the red is usually a brownish red. Henna also can stain brown -- a reddish brown. The final color can depend on a lot of factors, including the client's individual body chemistry. Read more about this here.
Myth: Henna is a religious practice. Not exactly. Henna has and can be used for religious purposes, but henna has been used by people of all major religions in many different countries and cultures, and the reasons for its use are just as varied.
Myth: Henna contains marijuana. I was actually asked this at a festival! I couldn't for the life of me figure out why this customer thought that henna contained marijuana, then I realized she confused "henna" with "hemp" ... which, by the way, is not the same thing as marijuana either. :)
Myth: Doing henna is "stealing" someone else's culture. I can appreciate why people would be protective of their culture's practices if they feel misunderstood, disrespected or ignored in the West. However, henna was already crossing racial, cultural, ethnic and religious boundaries for thousands of years before anyone in the West knew what henna was all about. Just like rock 'n' roll and blue jeans have been embraced across the globe, henna is a marvelous art form that everyone should be able to enjoy!