Mehndi has been a part of the sub-continental culture for centuries; a timeless custom symbolising joy and celebration. In our part of the world, weddings, parties, Diwali and Eid are incomplete without women sporting intricate mehndi tattoos on their hands and feet. Weddings are particularly popular occasions for this art, with many old wives’ tales claiming that the deeper the shade of a bride’s mehndi, the more her husband will love her. Eid is another time wherein Pakistani women flock to the bazaars to have their hands festooned with beautiful flowers, thappas and keriyaan.
However, be warned that dark mehndi is not always what you expect it to be. In fact, it might be compromising your safety. In the olden days, the process of making mehndi entailed soaking mehndi leaves, drying them and crushing them into powder form. This powder was then used to formulate a paste and filled into plastic ‘cones’ for application. Unfortunately, these cones took too much time and as demand for mehndi grew, the natural form was replaced by chemical mehndi. Ever since, many women have fallen victim to the disastrous effects of the chemicals this red/black mehndi contains. For university student Iqra Ejaz, the affect began in the form of a slight irritation, half an hour into application. “I washed the mehndi off but the designs on my hands started to swell and burnt with a stinging pain,” says Iqra. The allergy eventually got so bad that even medication provided no respite and now, three years after the incident, Iqra still has scars on her hand!
Sadly, Iqra is just one example of an unassuming customer falling prey to innocuous mehndi. Jia Mohammed, an employee of the Ideal Parlour in Karachi, narrates a story regarding a friend of hers who suffered a similar fate. “My friend Mona had her mehndi applied from a local beauty parlour on the day of her engagement. But instead of the designs complimenting her that day, her hands swelled up and now, two and half years later, the design is still there.”
Both Iqra and Mona had been unaware of the harmful red cone prior to their experiences. The real dilemma is when women who know about chemical mehndi still risk it just to save time. Rizwana Baig, a Karachi-based beautician and salon-owner confirms that many of her customers consciously opt for the red cone. “We inform them about the possible health risks but they still ask for it,” she says, adding that she has lost many customers owing to her salon’s refusal to use chemical mehndi. On the other hand, some reputed salons have started producing their own mehndi so as to reduce the health risks. “We make our own mehndi using natural ingredients such as oil and lemon,” claims Farhat Ehsan, managing director of Rose Beauty Parlour. “We are aware that the red cone causes allergies and strictly prohibit using. Our mehndi brand, Rose Bridal, is sold in the market too.”
However, not everyone has a negative experience. Some women experience no adverse reaction at all, despite leaving the mehndi on for hours on end. “Last year, my family and I went to the parlour near our place and asked for the red cone,” recalls Zainab Rizvi, a teacher at a private school. “Immediately after application, I felt an unbearable tingling sensation and washed my hands but my mother and sister felt nothing.”
According to skin specialist Dr Sana Khan of the Darakhshan Skin Care Centre Karachi, the effects of the red cone range from allergies to first, second and third degree burns. “We have received cases of skin problems owing to the cone and the cases were different in nature,” shares Dr Sana. “It depends on how long the skin has been exposed to the mehndi and whether it is generally sensitive or not.” Dr Sana further elaborates that at times the burns are so severe that the patient does not recover from them completely. She recommends using reliable and branded cones such as those sold by Saeed Ghani as these are not enriched with chemical substances. “If one really wants a dark mehndi, some Vicks vapour rub or lemon juice can help. You can also heat your hands over steaming water for the desired darker tone,” suggests Dr Sana.
This Eid, make safety a priority and be wary of the products being used. Women who are clueless as to how to spot natural or chemical mehndi should look for a very earthy scent and a muddy green colour. Chemical mehndi on the other hand is darker in colour and gives off a pungent smell.
Adeela Akmal is a freelance writer. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Mass Communication. She tweets @AdeelaAkmal
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, July 19th, 2015.