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Sourcing the finest, safest henna from Iran

Political conflict between Iran and Britain might complicate the supply chain of this very ancient ingredient, but we believe there is no finer henna in the world. Let us tell you why.

Sistan and Baluchestan Province, Iran. As it has for thousands of years, the sun dawns over a henna harvest, cultivated amongst fruit and vegetable crops. Underfoot, heavy, iron-rich soils trap the scant moisture and encourage the production of lawsone: the material that gives the henna leaf its vibrant staining properties.

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

Yet commercial western interest in henna as an alternative to synthetic dyes is also growing, and this has led to a worrying rise in adulterated henna products.

'Black henna': a dangerous trend

Contaminated henna might not just give you a dodgy colour; it can also be dangerous.  Commercial interest in temporary tattoos has facilitated the rise of henna blended with dangerously high concentrations of permanent hair dye ingredient Para-phenylenediamine (PPD). These so-called '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. 

'Black henna' tattoos contains ingredients added to enhance the darkening effect of a product, like PPD, turpentine, and even animal urine. Significantly higher levels of PPD can be found in black henna tattoos compared to regulated hair dyes - up to 30% compared to the maximum 4% concentration allowed within the EU. Blistering, inflammation, and scarring are common side effects of black henna application, though an individual may experience none of these then react badly to a PPD-containing hair dye later down the line. 

That's why finding a trusted supplier of safe, unadulterated henna is so essential.

Trade restrictions

Lush CEO and trichologist Mark Constantine believes the finest henna in the world is grown in Iran. But economic sanctions implemented by America between Iranian and American banks have made it very difficult for businesses to build a relationship without a distributor. Political tension between Iran and Britain in recent history also made it very difficult to visit. Finding a distributor who could supply both the quality and transparency Lush requires was the job of former Lush ingredients buyers  Jo Bridger and Mark Rumbell, who worked with a Berlin-based, botanical materials distributor to source the material. The distributors supply henna from an Iranian sister company run by the same family.

Jo explains: “My first role in buying was as a researcher, where I was given the job of finding out information that would help buyers make better decisions. The distributor we now buy from provides beautiful Iranian henna and offers us much more traceability along their supply chains via the Iranian arm of their business. We have been invited to visit Iran many times, but we could not get travel insurance, as there was no British Embassy in the country. Likewise, there was no Iranian Embassy in the UK for us to get visas. It was only in 2017, when the diplomatic relationship between our countries was restored, that we were able to go to Iran.”

With Lush purchasing over 50 tonnes of henna a year, it was an opportunity to finally meet the brothers and sisters who run the Iranian branch of the company, including general manager Ghassem and company chairman Mohammad. Both are younger brothers of Yasser who manages the German distributor, with whom Lush has regular contact.

Yet, despite being able to travel to Iran for the first time, restrictions put in place by the British Government still made Jo and Mark’s visit problematic. That’s because the best growing conditions for henna can be found in the Sistan and Baluchestan Province: the poorest region of Iran, which borders Pakistan. The Balochi people living here are predominantly Sunni rather than Shia Muslims and consequently face discrimination and high levels of poverty which has facilitated the rise of drug trafficking in the area.

Jo explains: “The British Government recommends you don’t travel to the Sistan and Baluchestan Province, and, because of this, our insurer won’t let us go. So we had to have this discussion with Ghassem and Mohammad because we really wanted to see the farms. They suggested that we go to Bandar Abbas, in the neighbouring Hormozgan Province, as, while the henna there is not of high enough quality for Lush to buy, it goes through the same process as the henna we buy.”

Back to the source

Iran is the eighteenth largest country in the world, and so while the Homozgan Province climate is still suitable for henna growing, its culture is different, with the population mainly composed of Afro-Iranians who have a different dialect, food and style of dress. Although the quality of the henna is not as fine as that of the Sistan and Baluchestan Province, farmers in the Hormozgan region have been cultivating the plant for more than a century. The leaves are harvested by hand three times a year and dried in the sun. The plants themselves only needed 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. Mark explains, “The price of henna is good but profit is low as the plants are only harvested three times a year in contrast to other fruit and vegetables that can be gathered frequently and need less land.” 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. 

Milling in Yazd

The henna that Lush’s Iranian suppliers source from both the Homozgan Province and Sistan and Baluchestan Province go to the same place to be milled: the city of Yazd. Once an important post on the infamous Silk Road, Yazd has been a major processing centre in commodities including henna for decades. This ancient city is famed for its rich mercantile history and ancient architecture, with its first known mention in documents dated back to 3,000 BC.

The city’s location, in the midst of an inhospitable desert, has kept it safe from invasion and modernisation alike many times. It has also preserved a series of quanats: ancient systems of underground water canals, reservoirs and watermills that have sustained urban life for centuries. Although industry has dwindled, Yazd’s inhabitants are still famed for their prowess in the processing of goods including textiles, sugar and henna. Only four mills remain open, but Mazars (henna grinders) still use traditional methods to expertly sieve crops, predominantly for the western hair dye industry. 

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 - typically 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.

Jo and Mark learned that since the recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq began, Mr Turk’s exports to other Arab countries had been reduced to 10%, putting Lush’s buying into perspective. “We’re a really big customer for them”, says Jo, “but actually we’re only a big customer because of what’s happened. So that was a sad, poignant thing to think about. As a company we have so much purchasing power within the henna market and that’s scary.

“I said to Mr Turk, ‘Now that Britain and Iran have a diplomatic arrangement, we [Lush] can visit but how has this affected your life? And he gave a really lovely answer (I later found out that he was a spiritual man) and said, “If you live in a narrow alley, then you have to have a good relationship with your neighbours.”

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 further 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. We looked to customers in Europe who want quality and quantity. 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. If, for example, one of our customers needed henna which was milled down to a different size, we would produce this for them.

“We also have a laboratory where we test the henna for colour, quantity of dust, moisture and size, all of which are very important. We can also analyse pesticide usage there.”

A family business

Their factory may be characterised by extremely high standards (both Mark and Jo’s shoes were mechanically deep cleaned before they 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. It was very important that we help other people and so when we started up I thought about ways we could employ more people and colleagues.”

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.”

This family ethos is felt by employees too. During the visit, Jo was pulled to one side by Azade, the factory manager who had been in charge for two years. She recalls: “She took me to one side and told me ‘Four months after I first got this job I found out I was pregnant, and the way they’ve treated me is amazing.’

Jo was touched by the gesture: “I had no insight of what a woman’s experience of life was like until I spoke to her. But she felt comfortable enough to say that and wanted to say that. Women, their bodies and what they wear are always lazily used as markers of how ‘free’ a country is, so to hear from Azede about her life, job and family gave me more insight, than just the pictures on the internet I had seen - of nameless women wearing chadors.”

Back on home soil

Although Mark has seen for himself the high standards in place, there is no slacking once back in Poole. He and his colleagues quality check each new batch of henna for colour, 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.” 

One batch in every five made 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 easily 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. “We mostly look for bacteria, yeast and moulds,” says Jet, “but also we want to make sure there are no potentially pathogenic strains, so we run additional tests for these too. It's quite common to see a fair number of bacteria in the bricks 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

Henna sourcing is just one example of the political barriers in place that make sourcing good quality, traceable ingredients from fairly paid and treated farmers difficult. Yet there are also wider impacts to consider such as growing demands on the planet and climate change. If resources become finite or crops fail, how does Lush balance its need to satisfy customers with a responsibility to the wider world? 

Being an ingredients buyer for Lush brings both the opportunity of finding and working with expert producers and farmers, and the challenge of navigating a murky industry made up of increasingly limited resources. Any business decision has the potential to have a massive impact on people, places and ecosystems, and it is important that profits trickle down to the people at the start of the chain: the farmers and communities who are the real experts.

Because of that, 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. “The most important people are those who make the products,” Mark says, “but they are often the least well paid. We don’t want companies to fight against each other. We want them to give us a price that is acceptable to them so they can prosper.”

This article is edited extract from an upcoming Lush publication on herbal and synthetic hair dye.

Learn about Lush's history of using henna hair dye, find the right colour for you, or head over to our henna FAQ for more information.

Images (taken by Jo Bridger) in order: Mr Ibrahim inspects the henna crop in the Hormozgan Province, quality controller Masooma in the lab at Kashmar, the henna mill in Yazd and mill owner Mr Turk inspecting henna samples from different sources.

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