The history of henna is as colourful and rich as the natural dye itself, intertwined with over 5000 years of human history. Many scholars argue the birthplace of henna is ancient Egypt where, according to legend, the queen Cleopatra would use henna as paint to decorate her body, while mummies were also adorned with decorative patterns.
There are also links between henna and the Middle East and North Africa, as well as India, where it has been used as part of wedding ceremonies for centuries across Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian cultures. But beyond its decorative properties, henna is also a powerful natural ingredient that can be used as part of our beauty and general wellbeing daily routines.
The origins of henna
Henna is a dye derived from the leaves of the primordial henna plant that grows in warm climates. While there is some conjecture regarding when it first came into popular use, the recorded history of henna points to ancient Egypt.
Medicinal scripts, cave paintings and the dyed hands of the mummified royal, Ahmose-Henuttamehu, all suggest that henna in Ancient Egypt fulfilled a daily and ceremony use. Henna was everywhere.
And the more you look into historical sources, the more likely you are to encounter henna history. The omnipresence of the dye across oceans and continents as well as its many varied pronunciations – such as hinna and mehndi – are evidence of a rich history of trade and cultural intermingling.
Why did henna become so popular?
Going back to its origins in warmer climates, henna was popularly used as a coolant or lotion to soothe wearers’ skin when temperatures shot up. One ancient text, the Ebers Papyrus, records the use of henna as a key ingredient in folk remedies for surface wounds. Henna also proved a fabulous alternative to jewellery – the poor could look just as extravagant as the rich thanks to intricate body art.
However, looking deeper into the history of henna, these cooling properties also turned out to be extremely useful as a skincare product. Henna is known for its natural antiseptic properties, which means it helps to filter away impurities and leave our skin feeling soft, without irritation.
When applied to the scalp, for example as part of henna hair dye or as a shampoo and conditioner, it can help to calm inflammation. It is also an anti-seborrheic, which means it can alleviate dandruff – all while increasing the hair’s natural shine.
The history of henna – as a hair dye
Fast forward around 500 years through history and we see henna being used as a hair dye. In the 19th Century, Western women were inspired by pre-Raphaelite artists, and would mix henna powder to create their own natural shades of red.
Via colonial routes from the Ottoman Empire, henna was imported into Victorian England alongside swathes of other natural dyes and spices. Henna-dyed tresses were extremely popular, signalling that a woman was both wealthy and cultured, and especially among the bohemian-inclined.
Henna also has historical roots in Muslim traditions, where it has been used by men to dye beards. According to tradition, in Islam, it is permissible to dye the beard as a way of differentiating men from other faiths such as Christianity or Judaism. Many Muslim men choose shades of brown or red to achieve this distinction and cover greys, though the colour black (achieved with henna and indigo powder) is forbidden.
Henna hair dye today
After the Edwardian period and the post-war depression, henna powder became harder to come by. This expounded by the invention of PPD in 1863, a common component of chemical dyes, henna dropped in popularity. That is, until recently…
With an increasing emphasis on ethical and sustainable beauty, we’re seeing a significant move towards henna and other similar natural dyes. Made from completely plant-based materials and biodegradable, as well as being safer for your skin, henna is a natural winner.
Why itselixir chose to work with henna
We’re passionate about producing organic beauty products that are kind to the environment. We’ve seen first-hand the effects of high street products on the environment, from excessive plastic wastage to chemicals entering natural water streams.
Our products are made entirely of organic ingredients, sourced from henna extracts in India and Brazil. We wanted to sell products that were kind to the skin, and to Mother Earth. That’s why we have sourced products from companies that care about sustainability and their impact on the planet.
Our henna hair care ranges
Thanks to the colourful history of henna and its kindness to the environment, we’ve developed a range of everyday haircare products and henna hair dyes. The Henne collection combines henna, mango butter and green tea to fortify the hair, while the Surya Brasil range is ethically sourced from the Amazon rainforest, and helps to achieve your perfect shade.
From history to modern day
From decorative henna in Ancient Egypt to modern-day haircare, henna offers the perfect vegan alternative. Try it yourself and embrace your inner Cleopatra!