When a passing fad leaves a lasting scar

Madonna made them desirable. But, henna tattoos can be with you for longer than you planned
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When Madonna was launching the single "Frozen" from her album Ray of Light in 1998, she scanned around, as she always does, for a completely new look. It was an important release for her, the first in a few years out of the public eye. She turned to the East for inspiration, and the accompanying video featured a windswept Madonna, clad all in black, flapping around in the Mojave desert. The emphasis wasn't on her cleavage or her pout, as has so often been the case. This time it was her hands – each one painted with an intricate henna tattoo spiralling up her arm.

Not long afterwards, she featured on the National Lottery show on Saturday night, curling and twisting and stroking her hands in close-up for the camera. Overnight, henna body art, or "mehndi" as it is traditionally known, went from being a long-established practise used by Hindus and Muslims, usually at weddings, to a major fashion trend.

"It was a huge craze for the beauty industry a couple of summers ago," says Bethan Cole, commissioning editor of Vogue. "It came out of Hollywood – one of those celebrity-driven crazes. But it went mainstream pretty quickly. It was linked to the trend for wearing bindis. Maybe if you went to a festival or the Tribal Gathering, you would spot someone getting their hair braided or their hands tattooed – but thankfully, it was never something that really functioned on the club scene or at indie level. It was never really very disco, was it?"

But for many, it was the ideal fad, a harmless, pain-free alternative to the needle-and-ink variety. It was relatively cheap and impermanent, but at the same time, it was a look that suggested that its wearer was in tune with eastern thinking – spiritual, on the surface, at least.

Application is simple. A natural henna pitgment gets painted, usually free-hand, on the skin, which is dried out like a layer of mud and then brushed off. Twenty-four hours later, the pattern develops into a rich dark brown. Traditionally, it was done over the hands and feet, but nowadays Japanese and Celtic symbols are popular, as well as ankle bands and daisy chains looped round (usually) pierced belly buttons.

Recently, however, skin specialists have noticed cases of people developing severe skin reactions soon after having these tattoos done.

"My daughter had one done when we were on holiday in Tunisia," says writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. "I don't know what they put into it, but it burnt into her skin. Her upper arm is now completely scarred. It was very frightening to watch this stuff burn into my little girl's flesh.

"I'd been wearing it on my hands and feet at weddings for years, and she was completely uninterested. It was only when it was turned into a fashion item – when she saw all these white people queuing up to get one – that it became something she really wanted."

Another victim, a seven-year-old boy, had a henna scorpion painted on his shoulder by a street artist. Shortly afterwards, his skin broke out in an angry rash, and now he faces permanent skin-discolouration and scarring as a result.

The problem with the tattoos is not the henna dye itself, which is a natural plant extract, but a colour-enhancing chemical called para-phenylenediamine (PPD), which gets added in modern tattoos because modern users want them to be darker and longer-lasting.

"People developing allergic reactions to henna tattoos have been seen with increasing frequency in the past few years," says Dr Samantha Hunt, the registrar dermatologist at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. "PPD, a chemical normally used in hair dye to make the colour permanent, is added to some henna to prolong the life of the tattoo. PPD can cause an allergic contact-dermatitis, which is seen most commonly as an eczematous reaction. In some cases, severe scarring is left when the tattoo has faded, but a permanent mark is left in the shape of the original markings."

Traditionally, henna tattoos were not connected to beautification. Mehndi was tied to the notion of marriage and commitment, and the position of the bride in the family. The idea was that the bride did no housework until the henna had worn off, usually after a couple of weeks – a sort of "honeymoon period".

"What irritates me," says Alibhai-Brown, " is that, like many of these non-western 'trends', people know nothing about their value until someone like Madonna discovers them. Then they become expensive, consumerist, and that destroys them. If people are interested in henna they should find out more about it, instead of adding all these chemicals to it."