Henna and Essential Oils
My henna paste contains essential oils, but why? Are they necessary? Does all natural henna paste have essential oils added?
Essential oils have traditionally been used in henna paste for a very long time. When I first started as a henna artist, I was wary of using the recommended amount of essential oils in my paste (600 drops (30ml) of essential oil in 1 cup of henna powder). I couldn’t fathom using that much, so I started slow. One of the time-consuming and essential things a henna artist must figure out is how to make the perfect paste. For me this took a long time because of how slowly I increased the amount of essential oil in the paste over time. Essential oils add smooth consistency as well as a darker stain.
If you like to geek out on how things work, then stay tuned. I will tell you exactly why essential oils make the henna stain darker, and will share with you the results of my essential oil experiment.
Essential oils contain a variety of different components, hundreds of different ones usually, in each essential oil. There is a class of components called monoterpene alcohols (lovingly called “terps” in the henna world) that are said to help draw out the dye from the henna plant while the paste is left to sit for a few hours after mixing. Then when the henna is applied to the skin – voila! A darker stain.
How do terps darken the stain? According to The Henna Page, the dye in in henna, called Hennotannic acid, is drawn out from the plant matter by using terps. Water is not very effective at doing this by itself because hennotannic acid is hydrophobic (eh what?). I have searched high and low for studies on this and can’t confirm or deny these statements. They are probably true.
But that’s no fun, in my opinion, and so I offer you another bit of information to consider:
In my essential oil studies I discovered that when certain terpenes are applied to the skin they can actually increase the absorption of various topical medications(1). This can be a problem for medications, but perhaps not for henna. If the absorption of the hennotannic acid is increased by the presence of certain essential oils, that would mean, most certainly, a darker stain.
These two bits of information could explain why adding essential oils to henna paste makes the paste stain darker and faster.
A Smoother Paste
The other benefit of adding essential oils to your paste is that it makes your paste smooth. If you were to add a different kind of oil to your paste because you wanted it super smooth, olive oil for instance, it would actually prevent the stain from developing on your skin. This is also why applying lotion to your skin before applying henna will prevent the stain from developing properly. The reason that essential oils do not cause this same problem is because essential “oils” aren’t real oils. When essential oils were first discovered, the alchemists called it an oil because it floated on top of water and felt oily, exactly what they thought oils looked and behaved like. But essential oils do not contain any fatty acids like that of olive oil, coconut oil, jojoba oil or other cooking and facial oils.
So if you want an oil that acts like an oil and looks like an oil but is not actually an oil, you’ve found it. Essential oils make your paste smooooooth without preventing the transfer of the dye to the skin.
Which oils are the best for henna?
So after I discovered that monoterpene alcohols were the component I was looking for in an essential oil, I did a comparison of some of the most popular essential oils used in henna. Here’s what I found (in Essential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand, percentages were averaged over different chemotypes):
|Essential Oil||Main Terps||% Terps up to…|
|Palmarosa||Geraniol, Farnesol, Linalool||91%|
|Tea Tree||Terpinen-4-ol 1,8-Cineole||63%|
We’ve got the numbers now, but there’s always more to consider. Some of these oils can be mild skin irritants. Most notably this applies to Clove oil and its main component – Eugenol. From my perspective, the best choices in this list would be palmarosa and lavender. These oils are generally considered mild and unlikely to cause any skin irritation.
I decided to become an aromatherapist a few years ago when I really wanted to understand how essential oils worked inside the body. One of the most fascinating parts of my studies was learning about essential oil chemistry.
So a few weeks ago I conducted an experiment. My henna paste mixture usually consists of a combination of cajeput and lavender essential oils, but I really wanted to try out palmarosa. I mixed 4 bowls of henna
- 100% lavender
- 50% palmarosa – 50% lavender
- 100% palmarosa
- 50% lavender – 50% cajeput
I tested out the stain of each on my hand and this was the result:
To me it seems that 100% lavender has the blandest color, and the others all seem to me about the same, with perhaps the 100% palmarosa being a tad darker.
Does this change things for Kingdom Henna?
Yes. Well… yes. I have decided to change my pregnancy formulation to include a little bit of palmarosa instead of 100% lavender. Palmarosa is a pregnancy safe oil just like lavender is. The reason I’m not switching it 100% over to palmarosa? The first time I smelled palmarosa, the smell was nice. But in large quantities in the henna paste the smell to me was overpoweringly like a dirty flower. I really do not care for the smell of it. Bummer! It may appeal to some, and perhaps over time I will enjoy it, but for right now I need to mix it with something.
There are no plans to change my basic henna paste recipe, I think the results were similar enough not to worry about it although I might add a splash of palmarosa in occasionally.
(1) Williams, A.C., Barry, B.Q., 1991. Terpenes and the lipid-protein-partitioning theory of skin penetration enhavement. Pharm. Res. 8, 17-24.
Kingdom Henna is located in Boise, ID and offers all natural henna tattoos for every occasion.