Neonatal Henna and Bilirubin Levels 
Catherine Cartwright-Jones
Kent State University

Bedouin, Hindu, Arab, Amazigh and many other henna using cultures often traditionally henna their newborns to celebrate the birth and to protect the precious children from malevolent spirits.  However, hennaing a newborn  is NOT a safe practice, and the tradition should be seen in the context of their rural birthing situations with those attendant problems.

Infant mortality was expected in many rural cultures, and the death rates of newborns in water-scarce arid ecologies was often 50% in the first few months.  Water resources for washing were  often so contaminated with human and wild animal waste, cholera and e-coli, as to be deadly when used to cleanse a newborn.  Therefore, when one views the Bedouin practice of hennaing a newborn's head, hands and feet to bless the child and shelter it from malevolent spirits, one must consider the relative safety of henna compared to the potentially filthy water available in a desert campsite.  In rural Morocco, early in the previous century, women never washed their children until they were two years old for fear of malevolent spirits in the water bringing disease and death: these were their interpretation of infections, diarrhea and cholera coming from contaminants borne in the local water. They cleaned their newborns with a mixture of henna and olive oil, less dangerous than the water.  Henna strengthened an infant's skin against desiccation, provided a sunblock, and may have deterred fungal infections. 

However, infants hennaed by their mother often have hyperbilirubinemia.   Hyperbilirubinemia is a serious risk to newborns, potentially causing brain damage, and anything that tends to raise bilirubin levels should be avoided!  Premature and G6PD-deficient neonatals are particularly susceptible to huperbilirubinemia, and both of these groups of neonatals are more likely than full term, G6PD normal neonatals to suffer blood cell hemolysis from a henna application. 

For important information about henna 
and G6PD deficient individuals and henna please go HERE!

Henna has Lawsone dye, 2-hydroxy-1,4 napthaquinone.  The structure of this molecule is similar to one of the naphthalene metabolites, 1,4 napthoquinone, a strong oxidant of G6PD-deficient red cells.  The study listed below demonstrated that henna is capable of inducing oxidation in G6PD normal blood cells, and much more so to G6PD-deficient red cells.  The amount of henna  sufficient to stain a newborn was undetermined, but the researchers felt hennaing a newborn's feet and scalp could be sufficient to create oxidant-induced injury to a newborn's blood cells, and that this might be responsible for the high number of hennaed neonatals with hyperbilirubinemia. 

Though G6PD-deficiency is relatively common in North Africa, Arabia and the Middle East, the mortality of infants from henna would have been eclipsed by loss of infants washed in unclean water.  Now that clean water is available to wash infants, and clinics can help low birth weight children, the benefits of hennaing a newborn rather than washing it are outweighed by the danger of hyperbilirubinemia.

Simply ... do not henna a newborn.  Its not safe  to do so because henna may be absorbed through the thin fragile newborn skin and destroy blood cells.  The liver of a newborn is not able to create new blood cells as easily as that of an older child.  Older children are not at risk for hyperbilirubinemia as are newborns, because their skin and livers are more completely developed.
However, before the age of 6 months, an infant's acid balancing mechanism is not matured, and the acidity of henna may harm the infant. 

Older babies may still be placed at risk if hennaed: henna is NOT a sterile product, it is a plant leaf, harvested and powdered, and some henna's are contaminated as one might expect of an uncleanned agricultural product. Premade henna pastes imported from overseas have been found to be contaminated with salmonella and ie-coli when manufactured with unboiled local water.  Other "henna" products may have toxic dyes and metallic salts added, but not listed.  Therefore, a cautious person should avoid hennaing an infant.

It is unwise to henna a very young child!  Most henna artists do not henna children under the age of 3.  If a child has a robust immune system, no anemia, and unbroken healthy skin, and is over 3 years of age, you can henna that child safely with 100% pure henna mixed with lemon juice or rainwater.  If you wish to prepare a "terped" henna for a child, use only Lavender essential oil as a "terp".

"Henna: A Potential Cause of Oxidative Homeless and Neonatal Hyperbilirubinemia"
William H. Zinkham, MD and Frank A Ski, MD
Pediatrics Vol. 97, No 5, May 1996

Web Resources on Hyperbilirubinemia:

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*"Henna, the Joyous Body Art" 
the Encyclopedia of Henna
Catherine Cartwright-Jones c 2000 
registered with the US Library of Congress
Tux 952-968