Sourcing the finest, safest henna from Iran

Sistan and Baluchestan Province, Iran. As it has for hundreds of years, the sun dawns over a henna harvest, cultivated amongst fruit and vegetable crops. The dry climate in this most southeastern region of Iran is not suited to many plants, and yet it’s ideal for the production of lawsone - the material that gives the henna leaf its vibrant staining properties. Hardy plants like henna are an important source of income in this region and also necessary to counteract the soil erosion that has come with overgrazing, drought and deforestation.

Henna has a long history of safe use as a hair dye and in body art, known to date back at least as far as the Ancient Egyptian period, and it is still used for this purpose today in North Africa, The Middle East and Asia. The dye also plays an important ceremonial role in many Muslim, Jewish and Hindu rites of passage, commonly bridal.

Yet, in the last 50 years, there has been a rise in henna blends contaminated with dangerously high levels of hair dye chemicals. This is so-called ‘black henna’: a highly sensitising substance capable of inducing extreme allergic reactions.

'Black henna': a dangerous trend

Authentic henna, which comes in a greyish green powder and stains your skin an orange-brown colour, has low allergenic potential and has been used safely for thousands of years. However, since the 1970s, the increasing availability of commercial hair dye gave traditional henna users access to para-phenylenediamine (a highly allergy-inducing hair dye ingredient also known as PPD). When combined with henna, this created a darker, longer-lasting stain on the skin in a much shorter period of time - all of which was desirable for locals. 

Black henna tattoos are illegal within the UK, but difficult to regulate. They are also popular with uninformed tourists travelling abroad to areas they might not be illegal.  Alongside ingredients like turpentine and even animal urine, these tattoo blends contain significantly higher levels of para-phenylenediamine than are allowed in hair dyes - up to 30% compared to the maximum on-head concentration of 2% allowed within the EU. On first exposure, there may be no side effects at all but on later exposure to a product containing para-phenylenediamine, blistering, inflammation, and scarring can occur. That's why finding a trusted supplier of safe, unadulterated henna is so essential.

Trade restrictions

Lush Co-Founder Mark Constantine believes the finest henna in the world is grown in Iran. 

Sourcing this beautiful ingredient, however, has always been tricky for the Lush buyers due to political conflict. Britain and Iran have an uneasy relationship, with Iran caught between British, European and Russian colonial conflicts historically - and American ones also after the Second World War. Recent diplomatic relations between the two countries have severed on numerous occasions, which made visits from Lush impossible. Contact with Lush’s henna suppliers, an Iranian family-run business that operates in Germany and Iran, was consequently limited to emails and first-hand reports from Iranian journalists commissioned to visit. After diplomatic relations were tentatively revived in 2015, and travel became possible once more, the Lush buyers were finally able to visit some provinces of Iran.

Lush buyer Mark Rumbell, who was responsible for henna sourcing between 2015 and 2019, explains, “It was the first time that anyone from Lush had been able to visit. Part of what we did was to actually go and show people our final product and say this is what you make, and it goes all over the world.” 

Back to the source

Iran is the eighteenth-largest country in the world, with a wealth of natural resources and a rich heritage of art and science. Stretching from the Caspian Sea in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south, and bordered by countries including Armenia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Turkey, the climate varies in different zones, from mild and fairly wet on the northern coast to arid and hot in the south east. It’s in the latter that you will find Sistan and Baluchestan Province: the region where most of Lush’s henna comes from.

Much of Sistan and Baluchestan Province is religiously and culturally divided. It is mostly populated by Shia Muslim Iranians and the Sunni Muslim Balochi (a population whose ancestral territory is now divided between Iran and Pakistan), causing conflicts of identity. High levels of poverty have also facilitated the rise of drug trafficking in the area. Much like journalists travelling to conflict zones, Lush buyers undergo specialist hostile environments training to prepare them for buying trips in high-risk regions. However, because the British government still advises people not to travel to this specific region of Iran, Mark was once more unable to get the insurance needed to visit on his trip in 2015. Instead, the owners and directors of Lush's henna supplier invited him to travel to other farms they sourced from in the neighbouring Hormozgan Province, so he could still see the henna process from start to finish.

Farmers in Hormozgan Province have been harvesting henna for hundreds of years, though the quality of the crop is not as fine as that of Sistan and Baluchestan Province. The henna leaves are harvested by hand three times a year and dried in the sun. Harvest day is a family affair, with all lending a hand under the experienced eye of grandmother Omina, whose son Mr Ibrahim runs the farm. He explained to Mark that the plants themselves only need replacing every 35 to 50 years, and a henna branch planted in the ground will flourish if given enough water. 

Despite this, henna tends to be treated as a supplementary crop in these regions as other plants can be harvested more frequently and take up less space. The farms in Sistan and Baluchestan Province, for example, grow dates as a key source of income. These sticky fruit trees wind-pollinate themselves and so require very little maintenance, and the sweet dates can also be stored for long periods of time. 

When the henna crops in both Hormozgan and Sistan and Baluchestan Provinces have been harvested and dried in the sun for several days, they are transported north, to the ancient settlement of Yazd in the midst of central Iran.

Milling in Yazd

Once an important post on the infamous Silk Road, Yazd has been a major processing centre of commodities including henna for decades.  The city’s location, in the midst of an inhospitable desert, has kept it safe from invasion and modernisation alike many times and has also preserved a series of ‘quanats’: ancient systems of underground water canals, reservoirs and watermills. Only a few henna mills remain open, but, where they do, ‘mazars’ still use traditional methods to expertly sieve and pulverise henna crops, predominantly for export overseas.

The owner of one such mill, Mr Turk, is a henna connoisseur, able to tell the origin of the powder with just a glance. Mark recalls: “He would use a knife just like one you would use to sample cheese, poke it into each bag and extract a little henna then tell us where it was from just because of the colour and grade. He would say things like “This henna is from this town; it’s very windy so there’s lots of dust in the leaves.”

Initial sieving and quality tests take place at Mr Turk’s factory, where the henna leaves are  flattened by a large, 50-year-old stone wheel. These ancient wheels are incredibly durable - lasting 70 to 100 years. One concession to modernity has been the use of a mechanised wheel rather than one powered by a camel or donkey.

For Mr Turk, Lush’s henna requirements are a vital source of profit, but only because recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq have so dramatically altered his business model. Whereas once, he could rely on business with neighbouring countries, nowadays, he only exports around 10% of sieved henna to other Arab nations. “If you live in a narrow alley, then you have to have a good relationship with your neighbours,” he reflects wryly when asked about how the political situation has impacted his business.

Quality control in Kashmar

Once processed, the henna is then transported from Yazd to a factory in Kashmar, east Iran, run by Ghassem, Mohammad and other family members. Here, employees sieve it more thoroughly, perform microbiology and quality-control tests and package the henna for a European market.

General manager Ghassem established the business at the age of only 23, while studying at university, and describes the startup process as challenging: “It was initially very, very hard because we didn’t have any money and we started with very low capacity for work. Iran has the climate to grow many plants, and, on the other hand, Europe has lots of potential to use these products but not the weather to produce the plants. At first we had no experience but now we have much more. We can touch this industry now.”

Ghassem’s younger brother Mohammad, who is a chairman of the company, describes the process the henna goes through at the Kashmir factory: “We buy the henna that has been milled, and use an instrument to sieve it again, and package it because the milling in Yazd is very traditional and not the highest quality. We also have a laboratory where we test the henna for colour, quantity of dust, moisture and size, all of which are very important.”

A family business

Their factory may be characterised by extremely high standards (Mark’s shoes were mechanically deep cleaned before he looked around) but running a business based on traditional family values is incredibly important to both Ghassem and Mohammad. The former explains, “Family is very important in Iran. When you have a business family, you see them everyday and you are in connection with them all the time. We like to eat dinner and speak about work; it is very good for us. We enjoy our business all the time.”

Indeed, Ghassem’s motivation for selling to a European market was also based on principles he learned from his father. He explains, “We wanted to make more jobs for other people and European people use these products a lot. We work not just for ourselves, because it was the way of my father to live for other people.”

He continues: “Many farmers in Iran are illiterate. They only know agriculture as corn, but corn [growing] is from many many years ago. The world of today is different and we have new products, like liquorice, eucalyptus and mint. So we pay part of our money to train farmers to grow their knowledge so they can harvest other seeds. Training other people is a very important policy in our company. These people are our friends and family.”

In 2020, the business employed 16 new people in farming, accounting, production and quality control roles, and invested in more projects involving corn flowers, tarragon, mallow and fennel. “It is also exceptional that all major leading positions are taken by women,” says Sales Manager Nicolas Märgner. “We are doing a good thing here.”

Back on home soil

Although Lush buyers have seen for themselves the high standards in place, there is no slacking once back in Poole. Each new batch of henna is carefully checked, with Mark noting, “If you grow tomatoes in your garden, you can’t expect the same number and the same quality each year. It’s the same with henna.”

Hairdressers at the Poole HairLab (Lush’s in-house R&D department for hair) also perform a strand test on natural, uncoloured hair, using a Lush brick made with the new henna or indigo, and conduct a filter paper test to see how the colour compares to previous batches. These samples are sent to henna brick inventor and Lush co-founder Helen Ambrosen and fellow inventor Wesley Burridge for analysis against previous batches and dyed hair samples.

Helen explains, “Stan [Krysztal - cosmetic chemist, Lush employee and friend who passed away in 1992] taught me to use this filter paper method. It was more widely used in his day because things like silver nitrate were quite commonly added to the ingredients back then. We’re looking for differences. If we see anything odd, we would question it and if there were contaminants in the henna or indigo, we’d be able to see it in the filter paper.” 

As well as undergoing additional checks for contamination, one batch in every five is also tested for microbial growth, responsibility for which falls under Testing Coordinator Jet Shears. “As we make frequent batches of henna bricks in our production rooms, we test at least one batch a week of each colour,” she explains. The henna to be tested is sent to a local microbiology lab, plated up onto a vegetarian agar base and then incubated for five days, before the results are analysed. “It's quite common to see a fair number of bacteria in the bricks,” says Jet, “as the powders used are a natural material derived from plants. We don't want to see any counts that are too high though, so, if we do, we waste this stock off immediately. We keep master samples of all of the batches made for three years too in case we need to check back on any batches for any reason.”

Buying responsibly

In 2020, Lush used 22 tonnes of henna and 13.5 tonnes of indigo, making these ingredients two of the largest quantities of dried herbs sourced by the company. When buying in these volumes, any business decision has the potential to have a massive impact on people, places and ecosystems. It is also important that profits trickle down to the people at the start of the chain: the farmers and communities who are the real experts. That’s why price negotiation is always balanced by an understanding of what the people involved in the harvesting and production of the ingredients need to make a living. 

Pendle Hill, who has sourced henna for Lush since 2020, explains, “Henna is such an important material in these regions. It’s a source of income, but also a crop that stretches back through time and provides a really clear link to the history of a region. The work we are doing in Iran is engaging with local people to work out how we can get henna at a fair price, with traceability, quality and standard that is meaningful to Lush and gives us something to really shout about. It's really nice to work with a distributor who ensures the farmers are paid a fair wage for a quality product and is actively working with Lush to introduce new agroecology principles.”

Agroecology consultant for Lush Tarek Soliman explains, “Agroecology is about working with people around food and farming towards understanding the opportunities and limitations of the ecosystem without resorting to chemical agricultural inputs (like pesticides). While the use of pesticides does not affect the quality or the safety of the final product, they can have implications on the health of farmers, biodiversity of the land, and make the agro-ecosystem more vulnerable to pest attacks.”

Tarek explains that this isn’t the same as organic farming (although the two do overlap). “Pesticides are a short term solution for farmers, but there are long-term impacts for the ecosystem. We could simply just use organic suppliers but think that there is more impact in supporting farmers’ transition to agroecology, especially when they want it but don't know where to start, or find it too risky, or lack the tools to do it. We have a good mutual understanding with our henna suppliers and will to make it happen, which is very important to have for such a project to succeed. We hope to inspire small-scale henna farmers and producers to join us in this journey towards regenerating the entire henna supply chain.”

This article is an edited extract from Chapter 12 of True Colours: Hair Colouring for the Curious and the Cautious, published by Lush.

Image (taken by Jo Bridger): Mr Ibrahim inspects the henna crop in the Hormozgan Province.

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