In many cultures, people often perform rituals where they apply types of pastes or paints on their skin. These "cultural cosmetics" are used often to bless or bring luck to the participants during the ceremony. In African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian cultures a paste that is commonly used during ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms, and other traditional affairs is henna. Henna (also referred to as "mehndi" in South Asian culture) is a dye that is released from the paste that is made up of a plant called Lawsonia Inermis, essential oils and water. This plant is grown in high heat regions such as Africa, tropical regions of Asia and India.
For over 5000 years this paste has been used for art, medicinal, cultural and religious purposes. Because the paste releases a stain on the skin, it became a cosmetic and art tool to accentuate one’s beauty on the body. In 1400 B.C., ancient Egyptians used this plant for all purposes during their mummification processes. The paste was used to stain the nails and hair of the pharaoh before the ceremony started. In the 12th century many cultures used henna to decorate the body to celebrate special occasions such as weddings, ceremonies and rituals.
For medicinal uses, the paste or just leaves of the plant were applied to cuts and burns because of the cooling effect that it has on the skin. After this is applied, the stain from the plant or paste acts as a natural sunblock to protect the skin from any sun damage. The skin cells that absorb the henna are right above the melanocytes (the cells that make melanin). Since the first few layers of the skin have been shielded from the sun by the dye, the melanocytes are temporarily prevented from producing melanin. After the stain has faded away from the skin (from showering and exfoliating), the spot where it originally was will appear lighter than the parts of the body that were not covered by the stain. If you are a creative person with henna, your design will be outlined by your tan after it has faded away!
Today, the use of henna for medicinal and healing practices is not as common as cosmetic and cultural purposes. Henna is used on brides in African, Middle Eastern and South Asian weddings. Here, it is seen as one of the first steps in blessing the bride for her wedding day. The cosmetic aspect is seen through significant patterns that the bride chooses and where she wants each element to be placed on her arms, hands, and feet. After the bride has left the henna paste on for at least 7 hours in a warm environment, she peels off the paste and allows her stain to darken over a 24-hour period until the day of her wedding. At the time of her ceremony, she will have a maroon-black stain of the designs that the henna-artist drew.
In the African and South Asian cultures, this color stain has many interpretations and meanings to it. For instance, in the Indian culture, this stain represents the ever-lasting love that the mother-in-law will have for the bride. In the Ethiopian culture, it represents luck and the strong bond that the couple has. A lot of these beliefs root back from family traditions and their individual relationships with henna. Hopefully one day, you can create a special relationship with henna and figure out how it roots back in your culture!