Written by: Khadijah Yassin E.I.T. Biochemical Engineering
I must begin with the disclaimer: I am clearly stating–for the record–that this post is specific to the subject of white henna safety. It is in no way directed at any particular product, brand, artist, or anyone’s personal “white henna” formulation or work.
The main image depicted at the top of this post is a random stock photo titled, “Caucasian pregnant woman with dreadlocks in boho style. White mehendi on big belly. Expectation of baby in new age lifestyle.” It is not a statement against the artist: I know neither the product used nor the artist who created the design.
White at its Height
White Henna: it’s the trend that has taken social media by storm and the craze that has swept henna body-art lovers off of their feet, world-wide. Social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram are abuzz with the latest lacy, elegant, designs and with sharing newest glamorous patterns. The pics are often tagged with slogans like, “Love the White!” Even big fashion magazines such as Vogue and mainstream publications like People are touting white henna as the “Trend to Try” and the “Style that is taking over…”
Never did I imagine I’d see anything henna featured on the pages of any major fashion or style publication let alone Vogue! Is henna art perhaps moving up in the world of fashion and culture from what haute couture considered its previous lowly position–the thing of drum beating hippies and bohos–to the heights of high end fashion? If so, it’s about time! Henna has been far underrated as an artform, a fashion, and means of self expression for far too long.
- First, microbial growth within the paste requires that a chemical preservative be added to the paste: chemical preservatives are designed to kill living organisms and thus bring with them a host of potentially harmful and toxic effects to humans, moreover, irradiation of the henna powder has also become a common practice;
- Second, a henna stain is the product of an oxidation reaction, therefore, henna paste, once mixed, has a limited time window during which dye is active: the addition of hydro-carbon-based solvents to deepen stain has become a common practice due to how readily available and low cost such products are, in addition the admixture of synthetic dyes that mimic the stain of henna has become popular should the actual product demise while on the shelf;
The practice of adding solvents to commercially manufactured henna paste, specifically benzene, has led to a doubling in the risk of leukemia in Saudi Arabian women who regularly use commercially produced cones. The increase in the practice of addition of synthetic dyes such as the highly toxic coal-tar hair dye paraphenylenediamine (PPD) continues to become more common despite having been found to be the cause of numerous deaths, blood poisoning, skin burns and other serious health effects.
The FDA considers benzene to be a chemical contaminant and PPD is prohibited for use in cosmetics that are applied to the skin, yet, it these products are very easy to obtain across Canada and the United States.
The Dirt on the White
In essence, “white henna” is an entirely synthetic product developed by chemical companies and formulated from ingredients commonly found in pesticides, house paints, and science labs.
Don’t believe it? Keep reading.
So, how safe is white henna… really?
This puts “white henna” into a whole other category of products entirely. It it’s not really a henna product at all, rather, it’s properly classified under the category of synthetic cosmetics.
- Ureas ( diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea)
- Ethanol Amine
- Magnesium Aluminum Silicate
- Diethylaminoethyl Coumarin
- …and too many more to list
Part I: The Paraben Family
Parabens belong to a family of synthetically produced chemicals known as parahydroxybenzoates. Parabens are used as antimicrobials or preservatives by the cosmetics and the pharmaceutical industries, the most widely used parabens being: methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and butylparaben.
The Summary Before the Science
- Parabens can easily penetrate the skin
- The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed parabens under Category 1 Priority Substances–the highest risk category–based on established scientific evidence that they interfere with normal hormone function
- Parabens can mimic estrogen, the primary female sex hormone and occupy hormonal receptor sites designed for the body’s naturally occuring hormones
- Parabens have been detected in human breast cancer tissues, suggesting a possible association between parabens in cosmetics and cancer
- Parabens may also interfere with male reproductive functions
- Scientific studies have indicated that methylparaben applied on the skin reacts with UVB leading to increased skin aging and DNA damage
Endocrine Disruption: Damage to Hormonal Systems
The effects of parabens in this respect are a cause for concern as in mammalian studies, butylparaben, the most potent endocrine disruptor of the bunch, has been found to possess the ability to cause a phenomenon known as competitive binding.
Competitive Binding is the ability of a synthetic chemical, once it has entered the body, to occupy specific receptor sites intended for the body’s own natural chemicals–in this case estrogen hormones. Once a synthetic chemical has occupied the site it prevents the hormone intended for the target receptor, from binding at the target site.
Competitive binding becomes problematic and potentially toxic when and the effects of the synthetic chemical on the intracellular signaling pathways differ from the natural hormone intended for binding with the target receptor.
amending Annexes II and V to Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council on Cosmetic Products, extreme and stringent limits were set on the use of parabens to either 0.4% or 0.8% dependant upon the molecular form.
The Breast Cancer Link
While regulators have deemed extremely low concentrations of parabens in cosmetic products to be “safe,” breast cancer research challenges their hypothesis by demonstrating that parabens are able to accumulate within the body, meaning, that even if effects are “weak” and even when used in small concentrations bioaccumulation within the human body can occur, that is to say, the more one uses it, the more of it is collected and stored in human tissues.
Detailed studies have enabled the identiﬁcation and measurement of high concentrations of different types of parabens in twenty samples taken from human breast tumors analyzed using high-pressure liquid chromatography followed by tandem mass spectrometry.
Comparison of individual parabens showed that while methylparaben has not been identified as being of the most potent parabens in competitive binding it was found to be present at the highest level within tissue samples, representing 62% of the total paraben content identified in tumor samples taken from breast cancer patients[13,16].
Further information concerning the safety of parabens has yet to emerge as in-depth studies on the topic are lacking. Despite the protestation of many concerned doctors and scientists, FDA Regulators have permitted the use of parabens in both cosmetics and foods despite admittedly lacking information necessary to be able to assess its long term toxicity respective to it’s potential carcinogenicity, estrogenicity or other yet to be discovered hazards .
Part II: Hidden Sources of Formaldehyde
in my White Henna?
Chances are More than Likely
“TAHA International Inc. recalls Shakeel Bhai Mehandi Waley …” Government of Canada Recall & Safety Alerts, Government of Canada, 11 Apr. 2017, http://www.bing.com/cr?IG=FED3046DA7FB4BF5BB82F8CD8AFBAB57&CID=0C4FA5485AD76B491435AEDF5B786A5B&rd=1&h=IDkytGhC9nKbvfDpWOml3OHM7RbLCUzKnfmSY4YVPpc&v=1&r=http%3a%2f%2fhealthycanadians.gc.ca%2frecall-alert-rappel-avis%2fhc-sc%2f2017%2f62968r-eng.php&p=DevEx,5045.1.
 Neeraj, Verma, et al. “Retention of Color Intensity in Henna Paste During Storage.” Natural Product Radiance, vol. 7, no. 2, 2008, pp. 117–121.
 Underwood, Mitya. “Henna linked to leukaemia in women.” The National, The National, 9 May 2010, http://www.thenational.ae/uae/henna-linked-to-leukaemia-in-women-1.526815.
 Singh, Shweta. “Mehendi cones may carry harmful ingredients – Times of India.” The Times of India, City, 12 Aug. 2010, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/Mehendi-cones-may-carry-harmful-ingredients/articleshow/6301746.cms.
 Mailonline, Sophie Inge For. “’I’m never touching hair dye again’: Woman claims she was an ‘hour from death’ after she developed BLOOD POISONING following a severe reaction to a home colouring kit.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 27 Mar. 2017, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-4350280/Woman-just-hour-death-using-hair-dye.html.
 Chris Brooke for the Daily Mail. “Coroner attacks cosmetics firms after mother died of massive allergic reaction to her L’Oreal hair dye.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 20 Feb. 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2960349/Mother-died-henna-tattoo-holiday-Dubai-triggered-massive-allergic-reaction-L-Oreal-hair-dye.html.
 Source: Ingredient Labels from popular brands of “white henna”
 Routledge, Edwin J., et al. “Some Alkyl Hydroxy Benzoate Preservatives (Parabens) Are Estrogenic.” Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, vol. 153, no. 1, 1998, pp. 12–19., doi:10.1006/taap.1998.8544.
 U.S. FDA. Parabens. http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety (last update Oct 31, 2007).
 United States, Congress, “COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 1004/2014.” COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 1004/2014, Official Journal of the European Union, 2018.
 DHI Water and Environment. Study on Enhancing the Endocrine Disrupter Priority List with a Focus on Low Production Volume Chemicals. Revised Report to DG Environment. Hersholm, Denmark: DHI, 2007. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/endocrine/documents/final_report_2007.pdf
 Okubo, T., et al. “ER-Dependent estrogenic activity of parabens assessed by proliferation of human breast cancer MCF-7 cells and expression of ERα and PR.” Food and Chemical Toxicology, vol. 39, no. 12, 2001, pp. 1225–1232., doi:10.1016/s0278-6915(01)00073-4.
 Darbre PD and Harvey PW. “Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks.” J Appl Toxicol.28, 5 (Jul 2008):561-78.
 O.H. et al (2006) Methylparaben potentiates UV-induced damage of skin keratinocytes, ScienceDirect, Toxicology, Volume 227, Issues 1-2, 3 pages 62-72
 Harvey, Philip W. “Parabens, oestrogenicity, underarm cosmetics and breast cancer: a perspective on a hypothesis.” Journal of Applied Toxicology, vol. 23, no. 5, 2003, pp. 285–288., doi:10.1002/jat.946.
 Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Ingredients – Parabens in Cosmetics.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, http://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/ingredients/ucm128042.htm.