But while tattoos done with real, natural henna are completely safe, those done in black henna — which is made with chemicals instead of from the naturally-occurring henna plant — can be dangerous, and not at all worth the risk.
Black henna can cause chemical burns, and there have been many instances of the substance burning into people's skin. The latest story of black henna gone wrong reminds us that this type of temporary tattoo should always be a no-go.
Teigan Koorts, a 13-year-old girl, was on vacation in Greece last month when her mom, Kristy Koorts, said that she could get a henna tattoo done, much to Teigan's delight. They went to a henna artist there, and chose to get a black henna tattoo in the "weakest" strength, Koorts told Metro.
It was supposed to last for a month — and it did — but instead of just leaving a stain on her skin like natural henna does, Teigan's tattoo burned into her arm and wouldn't stop burning for four weeks. She now has blisters along her arm in the same shape as the henna tattoo, and her mom worries that it may have scarred her daughter forever.
"I remember taking a photo of her having it done and thinking about how much she was going to love it," Koorts told Metro. "It was just meant to be a holiday treat but it turned into an absolute nightmare."
Lisa Butterworth, a henna artist who goes by Kenzi who runs a podcast called Caught Red Handed, all about the art and culture of henna, tells Refinery29 that people often get black henna done at tourist-heavy vacation spots — which isn't too surprising, since black henna is illegal in both the US and the UK.
"So-called 'black henna' may contain the 'coal tar' color p-phenylenediamine, also known as PPD, which is only permitted for use as a hair dye," the Food and Drug Administration says.
It's the PPD that likely caused the blistering reaction in Teigan and others. But don't let these cautionary tales scare you away from henna forever — after all, it is really beautiful and can be a fun and safe experience.
To make sure you're getting real, natural henna, Butterworth suggests asking your artist some questions. Even if they lie and say the henna is natural, there are a few clues that it might not be.
Black henna, for example, stains faster than natural henna. So you should ask how long you need to leave the paste on. If your artist says it only needs to stay on for an hour, then it's probably not natural. Natural henna needs about 6 hours to create a good stain, Butterworth says.
You should also be wary if your artist says it'll stain black. Natural henna stains brown, and will never be black, Butterworth says, although the paste might be a very dark brown that almost looks black as it drys. There is a natural dye, called Jagua, that is made from fruit and stains a dark blueish-gray, Butterworth says. But even Jagua is more likely to give someone an allergic reaction than henna.
The best way to tell whether your henna is natural or not, according to Butterworth, is the smell.
"Black henna smells chemically," she tells Refinery29. "Natural henna smells of essential oils. It smells nice."
Black henna, on the other hand, smells like hair dye or the chemicals used in beauty salon. So if you find yourself trying not to breathe in the smell of the paste your henna artist plans to use, don't let it touch your skin.
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