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 Why put sugar in henna paste?

Is there actually a reason? Or is it just a thing that you do because other people do it?  There's a lot of things that people put into henna paste that doesn't actually do any good.

Yes it most definitely serves a purpose! Several important ones. Understanding WHY we use sugar in henna will help you to do it well. But first, lets understand some things about sugar.

Sugar comes in many forms. It is not just the white table sugar. The most commonly available types of sugar that are suitable for henna are monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides are the most simple sugars. There is only one molecule. Mono - one. Disaccharides are two molecues joined together.  Di - two. Good examples of these are cane sugar (table sugar-disaccharide), dextrose (gluten-free grain sugar - monosaccharide), fructose (fruit sugar, but also in most plants to varying amounts - monosaccharide). Henna itself has a certain amount of polysaccharide that varies depending on the growing conditions. I'm sure you can guess, but poly - many. So that's lots of sugar molecules joined together. 
The type of sugar used makes a difference to the texture of your paste. In our experience, monosaccharides like dextrose and fructose give the best texture. Stringy and stretchy with minimum breakage when you are draping long lines. Table sugar will work fine too. We don't recommend using honey or molasses as the longer chain sugars in these do weird things when frozen (which is how you should store your unused henna paste). The BEST sugars of all for texture are the naturally occuring polysaccharides that are already in the henna itself. But they're sometimes not enough. 

Sugar is sticky. This seems obvious, but it's a handy trait. It is caused by its ability to hang on to oxygen in water. This stickiness also makes it flexible when it is dry.

Sugar is hydrophillic. Hydro - water phillic - lover. This means it attracts water. Sugar is also a humectant. This means it is good at keeping things moist. These together are important properties for use in henna, and one that you really need to take into consideration. More on this later.

All in all, sugar has a special, once-in-a-lifetime, passionate relationship with water. And like crazy control freaks, we henna artists come along and take advantage of that to our own ends. Poor sugar. Poor water. Lets all take a moment to reflect on that.......


So these properties are important to us as artists. Henna plants already have their own sugars. We discussed that already. So why isn't it enough? 

Well it all depends on where they grow, and what their growing and harvest season was like. Drier conditions lead to more polysaccharides, which means a naturally more stretchy, sticky, moist paste. This is usually predictable by region of growth.

Jamila, which is grown in Pakistan, is a good example of a henna that typically has a very low amount of polysaccharides. It has hardy any stretch, and will dry very quicky, and crumble off the skin very easily.

Henna grown in Rajasthan, on the other hand, has a lot of naturally occuring polysaccharides because of conditions where it grows. It is very stretchy, takes longer to dry, and adheres to the skin well.  This difference is because of the properties of sugars that you read earlier.

Jamila needs a lot of sugar added to it, or you need to use another means to stick the henna to the skin as soon as it is dry so it doesn't fall off too quicky before it has done its job. Traditionally this problem was solved by dabbing sugar syrup (often lemon juice and sugar) on the dried paste. This was sticky enough to make the paste stay put, and it's water attracting properties kept the paste a little moist so the dye could keep migrating into the skin. This solves the problem of the paste falling off, but it doesn't help the texture of the paste itself. And it's also sticky and messy. The solution? Put the sugar INTO the paste! Jamila likes a lot of sugar. See that lovely lady on the box?  Imagine she has a caramel tart in one hand and baclava in the other. She's got a very sweet tooth.


Rajasthani doesn't strictly need sugar added for texture. It is already very stretchy and stringy. It takes longer than Jamila to crumble off the skin, but it still will fall off by itself. Adding sugar to Rajasthani henna powder will make it stick to the skin better and longer, and keep it a tiny wee bit moist so that dye can keep doing it's thing. But Rajastani is more of a savory character and would prefer a prezel thank you very much. 


So how much sugar to add? That's a tricky question, and depends largely on where you live.

If you are in a very dry climate, you are going to need a LOT of sugar. Remember what we said about sugar attracting water and keeping it? If there's hardly any water (low humidity) in the air around you, it's going to take more sugar to do the same job. We suggest mixing your henna paste with your chosen liquid until it's thick and dough-like, then adding your sugar. Start with 2 tablespoons per 100g powder, mix it well, then leave uncovered for 15 minutes. Stir again, and see how much the texture has changed. If it is not soft and stretchy (see previous post on the cues to look for in your paste texture while mixing) then add more sugar a tablespoon or less at a time. Repeat this process until the paste is lovely and stretchy and ribbony.


perfectly sugared henna paste
The perfect amount of sugar for your climate won't melt or lose shape

If you're in a humid climate, there's a lot of water for the sugar to grab a hold of, and we know it does this very well. Add sugar with caution. You may only need a couple of teaspoons of sugar per 100g powder for an already stretchy henna like Rajasthani. Remember it's already packed with its own rockin' sugars. Sweet toothed Jamila will still want more sugar than Rajasthani, but you still need to be careful. Adding too much sugar to any henna powder in a humid environment is going to result in a melted mess instead of a sweet design (see what I did there!). In this case I recommend mixing your henna more to a soft mashed-potato consistency before adding any sugar to it. Again, add your sugar, mix well, wait, then see how the texture has changed and decide if you need to add more. Keep extra powder on hand to thicken it up if you add too much sugar. An over-sugared paste for your humid climate will be a disaster. Not pretty!



An ideally sugared paste will stick well to your skin. You can sleep with it on all night, totally unprotected and only lose a few bits! 


henna paste sugar
henna that stayed put all night uncovered

The only danger is getting a lovely mirror image on your face so I wouldn't ever recommend a bride sleep with uncovered henna, or anyone else for that matter unless you know you can keep it away from your face! Henna is pretty. Splotchy-half-transferred henna on your cheekbone and nose isn't so pretty. 


Test your henna paste if you are unsure.
Put a small amount in a cone and do a small test design with thick heavy parts and fine lines and especially lines that are close together, for example a grid. This will show very quickly if your paste is too sugared as the lines will lose definition and melt together. If you feel you haven't added too much sugar, but it is still melting, you may have simply made the paste with too much liquid. Always keep some extra powder on hand to thicken up a runny paste. You won't need to wait for dye release a second time. 

Why Sugar is Important

  • it's sticky and helps the henna to stay stuck to your skin longer
  • it makes your paste texture more stretchy and flexible. Important for working with, and not popping off the skin too fast.
  • it keeps your henna paste moist (but still will be touch dry). 
  • dry climates need LOTS of sugar
  • humid climates need a little bit of sugar

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