If you’ve ever fancied the thought of your body as a canvas, but haven’t the money, endurance or commitment to go under the needle, a henna tattoo could be the solution. An ancient practice in India and the Middle East, the trend has recently spread as far as the fingertips and toes of Hollywood celebrities hoping to work a little Eastern mystique into their look – Madonna, Rihanna and Jessica Simpson have all been photographed showing off their statement swirls and patterns. And despite the henna tradition being largely one for the ladies, Aussie boxing champ Michael Katsidis made the ultimate statement of masculinity by rocking a huge henna sun on his back. We guess this is the body-art equivalent of wearing a pink shirt – you have to be a real man to pull it off.

Standard tattooing is forbidden under Islamic law because it permanently alters the body. However, henna is not inserted under the skin in the same way as conventional tattoo ink, and does not harm or alter the body, meaning the technique is permitted among Muslims. According to scholars, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is even said to have used henna to dye his beard and is believed to have been a fan of the leaf for medicinal purposes, too.

In more recent times, it has become a popular and stylish way for Middle Eastern women wearing abayas to decorate their hands and feet, particularly for weddings. Indian henna designs are generally the most intricate: the lacy, dense patterns cover the entire hand, as well as arms and feet. Block colours are sometimes used too, particularly on the fingertips. In contrast, Arab designs are simpler, often comprising flowers and leaves. Those searching for edgier designs can look to Africa for bold geometric patterns, or Egyptian styles, which often feature fire dragons, pythons and lions. The most fashionable styles right now are extensive henna tattoos that sprawl right across the back, dipping down over the shoulder and curving around the waist. These alluring designs are particularly popular with brides.

Yet even these more extensive tattoos only take about an hour to create. Henna comes in various shades of reddish-brown, applied using a paste made of henna powder and water through a cone that looks
a lot like something a chef would use to pipe icing onto a cake. Advice for henna newbies: if you’re having a tattoo on your feet, make sure you wear flip flops when leaving the salon to avoid smudging your new design, and try not to get the area wet (this includes sweating) for a few hours afterwards, or you’ll end up with a sludgy green mess. You have been warned.

Henna hazards
While the natural form of henna – the powdered plant mixed with water – is harmless, some salons also use chemicals such as benzene, petroleum and P-phenylenediamine (PPD) to darken the henna compound and make it last longer. These chemicals can cause dangerous skin reactions and have been linked with leukaemia, causing them to be banned in Abu Dhabi this summer.

How can you avoid the dangers here in Dubai? Always ask for the henna paste to be mixed in front of you, and be particularly cautious of salons offering black henna, which contains PPD (natural henna will only stain a reddish brown). If your skin starts to sting at any time during the henna process, leave the salon immediately and see a doctor.
Where to go
We called 15 salons in Dubai, and these are the only two that refused to use the possibly carcinogenic black henna.

Rachna Salon
This spot isn’t flash, but the staff are experts in henna tattooing. There are seven stylists, some of whom have 10 years’ experience. They specialise in Indian designs, but also offer Arabic styles. A simple design on the back and palms of your hands will cost Dhs100.
Al Wasl Road, Umm Suqeim (04 394 4489)

Aroushi Beauty Salon
This reliable salon boasts one artist from India. A simple design on one hand will cost Dhs40.
Oud Metha Road (04 336 2794)