Henna and Fingernails
Patterns for Henna and Fingernails
How to Henna Your Fingernails


Some of the oldest and most widespread henna applications are those for fingernails.  Fingernails consist of keratin, the same protein material as skin and hair, so henna stains fingernails in the same way as it does skin or hair.  Henna strengthens fingernails and cuticles by binding to the keratin strands.  Henna also deters fungal infections of the nails.  These qualities were important to women who did hard agricultural work in soggy irrigated fields, grinding grain and other household tasks, yet had to keep their fingertips smooth for weaving and sewing, or who simply wanted to look nice and not suffer from split nails and cuticles.


Egyptian mummies from the early Egyptian dynasties have darkened fingernails consistent with henna application, though there were no representations of living people with hennaed fingertips prior to the New Kingdom.  Henna would have kept mummies' fingertips supple, so the skin would not withdraw back from the fingernails and retain a lifelike appearance, and would have deterred fungal blooms which spoil preservation.  From the New Kingdom period on, the songstresses of Amun-Re are depicted with hennaed nails.  This can be seen in the mummy board of a Songstress of Amun-Re from Thebes, 1050 BCE, in the British Museum, London.  Other Egyptian women and men are depicted with uncolored nails through the New Kingdom period.


    Akrotiri Fingernails
Hennaed palms and nails: “Lustral Basin”,
North Wall, Adorants, Xeste 3, Akrotiri, prior to 1640 BCE,
drawn from high resolution scan

The women of the Minoan world hennaed their nails as seen on the fresco “Mistress of Animals” and Crocus Gatherer, Room e3 a, first floor, North Wall, and in “Lustral Basin”, North Wall, Adorants, Xeste 3, at Akrotiri, dated prior to the eruption of Thera in the first half of the second millennium BCE.   Cycladic, Mycenaean, and Cypriot figures of women from that period also show women with hennaed nails.
Women hennaed their nails for two festivals in the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean.  One festival was in late March or early April, part of a fertility festival coinciding with the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the long summer drought.  The second occasion was the end of the drought and beginning of the winter rains.  The tableau from Xeste 3 seems to be a depiction of this spring festival.

Medieval Spain

Spainish Nails
Woman with hennaed nails from
Caceria, painting on leather ceiling of the Sala de los Reyes, late 14th c
Palacio de la Alhambra, Granada
drawn from high resolution scan

Christian women in Medieval Spain also hennaed their fingernails, as can be seen on the ceiling of the Alhambra.  Christian saints, depicted in medieval Spanish manuscripts such as Beatus of Fernando I, c 1047, Valladolid Beatus c 970, and Biblia Primera Leon c 920, also have hennaed fingernails.

Women in Spain continued to henna their nails until 1526 when henna was made illegal in the Edict of Granada, as a part of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim legislation.  Mari Gomez la Sazeda successfully protested the law and overturned the ruling in court.  However, in 1530, the Bishop of Gaudix complained to the chancellery of Granada that his female parishioners were wearing henna.  At this point, the ruling was adapted to specify that if a woman hennaed, she could be arrested and tortured to determine whether the henna was being used as a part of Jewish or Muslim practice, such as a wedding, circumcision, bath, or Id.  If she was convicted of using henna in a heretical act, she was put to death, but if she could prove that she used henna only for appearance, she was released.  On January 1, 1567, the Edict of Granada outlawed henna without exception. ( Lea )

Lan Na

Princess from temple fresco, Wat Phumin, Nan, early 19th century
drawn from high resolution scan,
showing hennaed fingernails  

Lan Na princesses cultivated extremely long hennaed fingernails, depicted in temple paintings in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Lower classes of women in these paintings did not have long nails, nor were their nails hennaed.  Photographs and color portraits of women in the late nineteenth century show only princesses with long hennaed nails.  Other women had short nails, and their fingers are often stained with indigo from weaving and dying work.
Lan Na was an inland country in Southeast Asia unknown to Europeans until the nineteenth century.  The country was in the area that is currently northern Thailand, bordering eastern Burma and western Laos, and was unified with Thailand in 1892.  Their culture was distinct from China, India, Burma and Thailand.  They were Buddhist, with a complex belief system involving spirits, spirit possession, and a ritual system to manage these spirits.

Princess Tipkesorn, Chiang Mai
drawn from high resolution scan of late 19th century court portrait,
showing long hennaed fingernails

Several groups of Lan Na men tattooed their thighs, torsos and arms and some women tattooed their breasts, but there is no clear evidence that they wore patterned henna beyond their fingertips.


Women throughout the Muslim world for the last 1500 years have been depicted with hennaed nails, though their nails are clipped short.  The rules for cleanliness, as outlined by the Prophet Mohamed, strongly recommends trimming fingernails very short, so fingertips can be kept clean for prayer, and to prevent filth under the nails coming in contact with food.  Men are infrequently depicted with hennaed nails.
Abu Hurairah  reported: The Prophet said, "There are five acts which conform to the pure nature:  Circumcision, removing of the pubic hair, clipping the nails, plucking the underarm hair and trimming the mustache.''  (Al-Bukhar )
Mohamed recommended that women henna their nails:  “ A woman made a sign from behind a curtain to indicate that she had a letter for the Apostle of Allah. The Prophet closed his hand, saying:  I do not know this is a man's or a woman's hand. She said:  No, a woman. He said:  If you were a woman, you would make a difference to your nails, meaning with henna.”  (Sunan Abu Dawud, 33:  4154: Aisha, Ummul Mu'minin).
The correct cleansing of hands and nails is called "Wudu".  For more information on Wudu go HERE!

Orthodox Judaism   

Henna is the only fingernail colorant approved by Orthodox Judaism because hands can be completely cleaned for prayer.  Regular fingernail polish creates a barrier between cleansing water and the nail surface, so complete purification is impossible.  Both Islam and Sephardic Orthodox Judaism recognize that women may henna fingernails and still be purified for prayer.

Hennaed Fingernails and Anesthesiology   

In many cultures, women henna their fingernails and feet before giving birth.  This practice often perplexes western-trained physicians, who use a pulse oximeter clipped a thumbnail to monitor hemoglobin oxygen saturation levels when a patient is under anesthesia.  Regular fingernail polish blocks these readings, and sometimes a nurse will be assigned the impossible task of trying to remove henna from the fingernails with fingernail polish remover.  However, henna does not interfere with pulse oximetry readings, as established by testing in a controlled study by Al-Majed and Harakati in King Khalid University Hospital, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Hameedullah; Rauf MA; Khan FA, Dept. of Anesthesiology, The Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi, Pakistan.  Women do not need to abandon their practice of hennaing for birth, or be concerned that hennaed nails would interfere with other health care.

al-Majed SA, Harakati, MS. The effect of henna paste on oxygen saturation reading obtained by pulse oximetry. Trop Geogr Med 1994;46(1);38-39.

Online references for Hennaed Fingernails and Anesthesiology

Henna and Pulse Oximetry: al-Majed and Harakati

Other Refences for this Page:

Susan Conway, 2002
Silken Threads and Lacquer Thrones: Lan Na Court Textiles
Art Media Resources: River Books, Chicago

Lea, Henry Charles; 1968
The Moriscos of Spain, Their Conversion and Expulsion
Burt Franklin New York

Doumas, C; tr. Doumas, A.
The Wall Paintings of Thera
The Thera Foundation, Athens 1992

Abu-Dawud, S.
Hadith Collection

Mentre, M. 1996
Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Spain
Thames and Hudson

Smith, B.,
Spain, A History in Art

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*"Henna, the Joyous Body Art" 
the Encyclopedia of Henna
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