As a beauty writer and editor, I've encountered few trends that are as polarizing as faux freckles. Love them or not, however, you can't deny how popular they are — particularly on TikTok, where users have created multiple viral faux-freckle hacks and methods. The most popular by far? Henna freckles; yes, that means applying henna dye directly to the face in attempts to create realistic-looking freckles that last longer than makeup but not as long as semi-permanent tattooing.
Considering that henna is often used to tattoo the skin temporarily, this trend might seem ultimately harmless. But, as it goes for many beauty trends, henna freckles do come with certain risks. So I asked the experts to break down everything you need to know before trying henna freckles (or any other type of henna-based makeup). As it turns out, doing it safely might take a lot more research and effort than you would have thought.
When asked about the safety of henna freckles, the henna artist and all three dermatologists I spoke with pointed out just how important the source of henna is when it's being used on the skin (the face especially). As San Diego dermatologist Melanie Palm points out, many henna dyes are formulated specifically for use on the hair — those types are an absolute no-go on the face for a few reasons.
"Black henna can cause severe skin problems if used for tattooing," Palm explains. "These are intended for use on the hair, and not for cosmetic use on the skin." As she points out this type of henna is regulated by the FDA, which has deemed use of it on the skin illegal.
And what happens when your skin comes into contact with Black henna isn't pretty. "Henna tattoos, especially those with added dyes, can be a source of contact allergens, which can cause various skin responses," Palm elaborates. "The irritation depends on the severity of the allergy and length and concentration of exposure. Severe responses can cause oozing, inflammation, skin redness, and severe pain or itching."
The best way to avoid potential harm from henna freckles is to look for naturally-derived dyes — and the best place to find those is directly from a reputable henna artist who makes their own dyes, specifically for use on the skin.
"There are a bunch of [henna artists] in the US who sell henna that's made at home and the benefit of this homemade henna is all of the ingredients are natural and safe," says Jill Desai, a New Jersey-based henna artist. Her process for creating the dye is simply to combine henna powder with sugar, water, and essential oils such as lavender and eucalyptus; the same goes for many other henna artists.
The kicker here is that you'll need to do some research to narrow down your hunt for an artist that sells their own henna. Desai recommends looking through Instagram hashtags such as #naturalhennacones or #homemadehenna and doing a little stalking from there to get an idea of each seller's experience and expertise. You can do the same on Etsy.
From there, it's best to look for artists that you can prove work out of a salon (because salons must operate under a business license and are therefore held accountable by state and local governments). Artists who work independently or on a freelance basis might or might not have an occupational license — that requirement differs depending on location. An artist should also have a website or some sort of social media profile where you can view the quality of their work — if they don't have any of the above, you should probably avoid purchasing their henna.
No matter where or from whom you end up buying your henna dye, give it a big whiff as soon as you crack it open. "If it smells like you're at the gas station or if it just immediately gives you a headache, don't go near it," Desai says. A natural henna dye, she continues, should smell more like lavender, eucalyptus, or another essential oil.
Buying directly from a henna artist certainly takes more effort than buying the first option to pop up online, but according to Desai's estimate, it should only cost a few more dollars. Plus, it'll be well worth it to lessen the risk of skin irritation.
Natural henna dyes should be safer, but they can still pose a risk, especially if you have sensitive skin. "Even natural ingredients can be problematic; just think of poison ivy's effect on the skin," Palm says. Even if you don't have sensitive skin, you should be extra careful with henna because you can't just rinse it off in the event that it irritates you.
"Henna does not rinse off easily, so if a person is sensitized to henna, it could cause a more severe skin problem due to its difficulty of removal and length of exposure," Palm explains. "If you develop a contact allergy over time, each exposure to henna will cause a more severe skin reaction."
The best way to predict how your skin will react is to test your henna on a small portion of skin away from your face. "Apply a thin amount of the product to the back of the wrist or forearm and cover with a bandaid for three days," advises New York City dermatologist Elyse Love. "If there is no rash at the end of the three days, it is likely safe to apply."
You can also use the patch test as practice for creating that faux freckle shape and determine how evenly they will fade. "Put some fake freckles on your forearm first," recommends Connecticut-based dermatologist Mona Gohara. "This gives you an idea of your likelihood of reaction and you can see how it will fade out."
Applying the henna on the best base possible is important not just for your skin but for the appearance of your henna freckles. "If the skin is broken or punctured during placement, there is a possibility of skin discoloration, scarring, and disfigurement," Palm explains. So if you've got any cuts or open blemishes, you'll definitely want to wait them out before attempting henna freckles.
If not, all you've got to do is make sure your face is freshly washed and dried when you decide it's time to go ahead and apply. "I would first wash your face and don't put any lotion or anything on top; I would probably do this closer to bedtime," Desai recommends. "Stipple on the henna however you want your freckles to be, keep it on for about an hour or two hours."
After those two hours are up, Desai advises brushing — not washing — the dried henna off your face. "Go to sleep [and] the next morning you can wash your face."
If some of these risks and side-effects sound a little scary, that's because they are. After all, as Gohara says: "No one wants their cute freckles to be on a background of red rashy skin."
If you've taken all of these henna freckle precautions and are still hesitant, Palm recommends a no-brainer solution. "Consider trying it out with a professional that does henna tattoos so that pre- and post-treatment suggestions are spelled out for you and the first application is handled by someone experienced with this form of temporary tattooing."
That said, you might not feel safe visiting a professional in-person right now due to the coronavirus pandemic. Luckily, you can learn more at a distance from henna artists like Desai, who've spoken openly about the risks of at-home henna freckles on their Instagram stories and other platforms. If you know a henna artist that you trust, there's no harm in reaching out to them for first-hand advice, either.
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