If you asked me about my earliest memory with beauty, I’d tell you without missing a beat that it was when I was five years old, and a relative returned with souvenirs from performing the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage in Mecca. She returned with trinkets aplenty, and in that stash, was a little bag of henna powder. I sat on my parents’ kitchen floor as I watched my freshly post-partum mother who made the paste, and put a dollop each onto my fingernail.

I wasn’t a fan of the earthy smell as a child, but when she washed the paste off to reveal my burnt orange nails, I was completely enthralled — by how an unassuming powder changed the colour of my nails, and as I soon learned, how this the key to the intricate designs I saw on brides in weddings.

Similarly for other Indian and Muslim friends of mine in Singapore, henna has always been associated with celebrations, including Eid, Deepavali, weddings and other festivals. A core memory for almost any Muslim woman in Singapore is making their way to the iconic Geylang Serai bazaar — then, without frills or fancy air-conditioned tents — for a pre-Eid visit to a mehndi artist.

An evolving art form

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This adornment was almost essential even during the kampung days, according to my mother. Everybody had a henna plant, and just before Eid, they’d pluck the leaves, share amongst the neighbours, grind it to a powder and adorn their fingernails and hands with the stain.

It’s hard to denote exactly the historical origins of using henna as adornment but some speculate that it dates back to Cleopatra. Scholars believe that the ancient Egyptians would paint the nails and hair of the deceased before mummifying and entombing them. Other scholars claim that the use of henna was documented in ancient Indian texts.

In recent years, henna has seen a resurgence, from drawings at the back of hands that mimic tattoo designs, a departure from the usual flowers and swirls, to using henna as a form of semi-permanent makeup, including staining your lips to a darker shade of red as you would with a lip liner, to even using it to create the look of faux freckles.

The trend follows other popular henna-related fads, such as using white and gold henna. On TikTok, the #hennafreckles hashtag has 159 million views and the #henna hashtag has 6.6 billion views, with many of the top-liked videos showing creators using henna to paint freckles on their faces. In fact, there are brands like The Henna Plug, a Black and Muslim-owned company that exclusively creates henna for faux freckles.

Many South Asian creators on TikTok have spoken out about the freckle trend, due to the fact that it promotes the Eurocentric beauty standards to both misuse henna and ignore its cultural value. It’s a fine line between appropriation and appreciation — as very often, everyday things from South Asian culture like yoga and chai become “cool” only when creators of the ethnic majority show an interest in it.

The reality is, the minority races — and in particular, those who have henna rituals as part of their culture in Singapore — don’t mind other races using them.

Use your privilege and educate yourself and others around you. Ask yourself if there are any cultural connections to the item you want to adorn yourself with. And if there are, determine its cultural significance, history and its people. How can you genuinely appreciate something if you don’t know anything about it? Am I using someone else’s faith or culture as a fashion accessory?

Back to basics

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While using henna as semi-permanent makeup might seem innocuous, it can still pose a risk, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Aesthetic doctor Dr Rachel Ho at La Clinic says, “currently, patch testing is the only available way to assess for henna allergies”.

The reported risks of allergic contact dermatitis to the components of the henna dye are low. The risks depend on the ingredients used in the dye – some dyes may be mixed with ingredients that increase the risk of sensitisation (e.g. para-phenylenediamine to darken the colour and increase the colour uptake). These allergic reactions can result in complications such as hyperpigmentation and scarring.

Secondly, inhalation of henna powder has also been associated with reports of allergic reactions. Angioneurotic edema on the face, lips, and airways has also been observed within a few hours after topical application of henna.

She adds that “henna should be avoided in people with an enzyme deficiency known as glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency. The colouring agent in Henna, lawsone (2-hydroxy-1, 4-naphthoquinone) can cause life-threatening episodes of haemolytic anaemia in individuals with a genetic deficiency in G6PD activity. Deaths have been reported from henna application in people with this enzyme deficiency.”

While henna has traditionally been used to colour hair, Eri Su, director of Eri Su Salon, actually discourages the use of henna on the hair.

“While I love it as decoration for your hands and nails for brides and festive occasions, I’m not a fan of henna on the hair as it changes your texture. Henna makes your hair more porous and coarser, which may make it less manageable in time to come,” he says.

Of course, you can always go back to the basics of how henna has always been used — on the palms and the back of your hands. Professional henna artist, and founder of Zahmendika, Zahra Jamaldin, who’s been in the business for seven years, fell in love with the art of mehndi when she first saw women adorning their hands with them at the Geylang Serai bazaar.

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“I started to purchase some of the instant henna cones from the bazaar and started drawing on my mum, sister-in-law and friends’ hands! While my clients appreciate my work and attention to detail, I find that I, and my fellow henna artists, find this artistry a form of therapy,” she says.

A pro tip from Zahra: “After application, keep your henna damp — I made a proprietary syrupy paste that clients can spray on their henna designs to keep them damp. As long as it’s damp, it’ll continue staining your skin, so your henna design will be darker and lasts far longer.” And of course, if you know of a henna artist, consider reaching out to them for first-hand advice too.

Text: Faz Gaffa/HerWorld