Henna Tattoos: Safer Body Art

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When it comes to body art, I’ll take pure Henna tattoos over dangerous, scarring inks any day. Henna ink, when mixed from pure, natural ingredients, provides a long lasting, beautiful design without  the risks or side effects of chemical ink tattoos (i.e. Parlor Tattoos).

I’ve waffled on the tattoo question for many years. My parents would have allowed me to get a tattoo from the age of 16. After I was commissioned in the Marine Corps, my dad actually wanted us to go together to get Marine Corps tattoos. I waffled. I couldn’t decide what design to get or where to place it. Over the years, I have had many ideas that I thought would be great tattoos, but I could just never make the commitment. Today, I am thrilled to have my skin unmarked by a parlor tattoo.

My Reasons for Not Getting a Tattoo

I have many practical and logistical reasons for not getting a “real” tattoo, but ultimately when asked why I have refrained, it always comes back to this:  I wouldn’t take a sharpie to Diana the Huntress.*

I love my body and my skin. It took me years to reach this level of satisfaction with my body, and now that I’m here, I love every unmarked inch of myself. It’s really too bad nudity is so taboo in our culture, because my skin fits me better than most of my clothes these days – of course, the lack of pockets would be a problem. I like the way my body looks exactly like it is.

There are also many risks involved in getting a chemical ink tattoo that just don’t seem worth it to me. Obviously, there’s the risk of buyer’s remorse. You get a bad tattoo, or your life changes, and suddenly the cartoon character on your shoulder doesn’t look so classy in a backless dress. Your options then: remove it and have a scar in its place, or cover it up with something bigger and gaudier. Skin ages and changes, tattoos fade and sag. Living in the South, I’ve been exposed to a near constant parade of women (and men) in bathing suits or summer clothes sporting tattoos that were probably quite lovely 20 years and three kids ago but now just look kind of sad or trashy.*

There are also the health risks to be considered. First, you must find a reputable parlor with minimal risk of getting scarred up or contracting hepatitis or the like. Then you have to consider the fact that many, many tattoo inks, even in good parlors, contain known carcinogens, heavy metals, and endocrine disruptors. Tattooed skin has been proven more likely to produce cancerous cells than un-tattooed skin. (References Enviornmental Health News, Alternet, and Doctor Oz). I figure if I don’t want to expose myself to those kinds of chemicals in my cosmetics, I certainly don’t want to inject them into my skin.

Another reason many people posit for not getting chemical tattoos is the pain factor. For me, it’s really not a reason. I’m not afraid of pain, and I’ve been through plenty of it in my life. I’ve taken on painful experiences that were transformative such as drug free childbirth and Marine Corps training. I’ve been abused, and I’ve experienced incomprehensible grief. I don’t wear pain as a badge of honor. I have nothing to prove. Letting someone jab needles into me for body art holds no significance for me. And I hazard to say that people who go on and on about and glorify how much their tattoos hurt and how important it is that tattoos hurt, have a very different experience of pain than I do. I love body art for the beauty of it, not so I can have something else to whine about.*

“Indecision may or may not be my problem” – Jimmy Buffett.

I am wildly indecisive about minor things. Put me in a stressful situation and I am calm, decisive, and determined. Take me shoe shopping and watch me melt into a puddle of in conclusion. I love and embrace change. I am constantly evolving, shifting, moving forward, and moving on. I have never found a tattoo design that I think is so quintessentially me that I may never want to change it. Even if I did, I have no idea where I’d put it – somewhere where it could be visible if I wanted it to be, easily concealable if not, and that wouldn’t show in a slinky evening gown. So, yeah…

 Henna is the Answer

I discovered Henna when I was researching going No’Poo. As soon as I used it on my hair once, I was in love and immediately started exploring its body art potential. I started doing Henna Tattoos around Feb/Mar of this year, and have been loving them ever since. In addition to allowing me huge flexibility in design and location, henna tattoos are much safer (and cheaper!) than parlor tattoos.

Now, when I refer to henna tattoo ink, I am talking about pure henna leaf mixed with simple, safe ingredients at home. The stuff you find in boxes or sold on the streets in Tijuana are likely to have all sorts of other chemicals in them which could be dangerous. There ARE “henna” mixes that contain carcinogens, which is why I always mix my own. The recipe I use at home can be found below.

If I ever were to want a permanent tattoo, I would definitely “try it out” in henna first. I love being able to have one design for a few weeks and then change it up. I love being able to try different places. If I get something I really like, I can just trace back over it, and I get three more weeks!  I love being able to have different body art on vacation than I would in my office setting. I am pretty addicted to Henna tattoos. And it doesn’t hurt that MacGyver is an excellent artist.

How to Mix Henna Tattoo Ink

You want to start with “body art quality” pure powdered henna leaf. This is the powdered leaf of the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis), and nothing else. I get mine from my local herb store, which carries Frontier brand herbs. You can order this brand of henna online here. You can also order high quality henna from Mehandi.

The amount you will need varies based on the size of the tattoo you would like to do and the device you plan to use to apply it. I usually just scoop out about 3 tbsp of the henna I have already mixed up for my hair. If I mix up a batch just for a tattoo, I usually make half a coffee cup (how’s that for measurement?), which is always WAY more than I need, even for my biggest tattoo.

Put your henna powder into a glass mug, dish, or bowl that you don’t mind getting stained (my henna has actually never stained any of the mugs or bowls I put it in, but I still don’t use my favorites). Using a non-metal spoon or chopstick, mix in lemon juice (or any other acid – lime juice, vinegar, etc.) until your mixture is the consistency of thick yogurt or smooth mashed potatoes (it will be stickier than mashed potatoes, but it’s the thickness that matters). Once mixed, place an airtight cover over the surface of the mixed henna (touching the surface of the henna). Plastic wrap is most often recommended for this, but I am experimenting with alternatives because plastic wrap is not environmentally friendly.

Let the covered henna and lemon juice mix sit for 12 hours at room temperature. The very top “skin” of the henna should turn brownish, indicating dye release, the rest should remain green. At this point, you have henna hair dye. You could technically use this on your skin, but to make the ink easier to work with and to ensure the best color, two more ingredients are recommended: sugar and terp.


Adding a little Fair Trade sugar or something similarly sweet and sticky like maple syrup allows the henna to better bond with itself and your skin. To get the best dye, you need the henna to hold together and form a crust. Sugar is the preferred method for ensuring this happens. The amount you need will be based on the amount of dye you’re making, but you don’t need much. The Henna Page offers excellent detailed instructions on this step (and the other steps, too).


A “terp” is a monoterpene alcohol, a chemical produced by plants. Adding a little terp to your dye increases the potency of the hennotannic acid (the dye) in your henna for a faster, darker stain. There are a number of essential oils that contain terp, but I use Tea Tree Oil since it has been traditionally considered safe (and even recommended) for use on skin. Just a couple drops will do. The Henna Page also offers excellent guidance on the Terp step.

How to Apply a Henna Tattoo

This is really a matter of preference and availability of materials. Basically, you just need something that you can fill with the gooey liquid that will create fine lines. The tool I’ve most often seen other people use is a jac bottle (or what I think of as a fabric paint bottle) a bottle with a fine tip on the end. We use a syringe which allows MacGyver to do really intricate, beautiful work. You can also use a carrot bag (like you would for icing) or a mylar cone, or really anything else you can think of. For instructions on how to use all the tools I’ve mentioned and more, check out the Henna Page.

Whatever you’re using, you want thick lines of henna on your skin, just like one would create with puffy fabric paint or icing (though smaller than one would usually use for icing a cake). Once your design is applied, don’t touch it. Allow it to dry thoroughly. As I mentioned, it should for a crust. After it’s completely dry, it may crack a little, which is ok, but you should still avoid cracking it. The longer the crust stays on your skin, the better dye you’ll get. Once in a while, I’ll even put medical tape over a tattoo (after it’s completely dry) and sleep with it on, though that’s not necessary.

After a few hours, the crust will begin to flake off and you should have a beautiful red/brown stain underneath. At this point, you can wash off all the crust if you’d like.

Just like with henna hair dye, the stain will continue to develop for three days. Also note that the dye will act differently on different parts of your body. Henna gives the darkest, longest lasting stain on hands and feet. It works, usually, on any body area, but hands and feet get ideal results. For me, I love to put it on my back, but those tattoos don’t last nearly as long as other locations – which makes me sad.

Eye of the Beholder

*Before anyone gets offended, or starts personally attacking me online or through emails, please heed this:  These are my own personal opinions. I don’t like the way a lot of parlor tattoos look. I also don’t like the way pastel colored skinny jeans look. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to insult people who DO like those things. Some people think all tattoos are beautiful. That’s their preference. Some people don’t like henna. Again, individual preference. The world would be a much sadder and more boring place if we all had the exact same idea of beauty. Henna just happens to fit with mine. Look for a more detailed post on body modification of all kinds in the future. If this post has offended you, or inspired you to want to strike out against me in some childish way, perhaps you should ask yourself why. Your anger comes from you, not from me.

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