Art may not be the cure for cancer but it’s certainly a cure for a lot of things, including the sadness and depression that often visit people while they are battling the horrible disease. In many ways, cancer’s treatments are as terrifying and damaging as the disease itself – things such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, while necessary, have their own set of harmful side effects.
One such effect of chemotherapy is losing your hair. It’s one of the more innocuous problems of this treatment but it’s one of the most obvious and depressive ones. And it’s exactly what Leah Reddell from Denver, Colorado is trying to help with. The 47-year-old body artist draws gorgeous Henna crowns for cancer chemotherapy patients to help them reclaim their bodies and feel better about their new look.
Leah says that her Henna crowns work by switching the initial conversation most people have with cancer patients from “are you sick?” and “why don’t you have any hair?” to commenting on the beautiful art instead.
“The conversation starts with something about the art they’re wearing,” she told The Huffington Post UK (1). “Having art on your head is immediately empowering.”
Leah Reddel is a full-time body artist and runs Face Fiesta (2) where she specializes in both face and body paintings. She’s been painting henna crowns for cancer patients for the past eight years.
“I had seen them done by other henna artists and then I had a lady contact me about doing one for her sister,” Leah said. “I loved the idea of being part of this lady’s healing ritual. I realized immediately how important it is to incorporate any patterns or symbols that are meaningful and important to the client.”
What are Henna crowns exactly?
Henna is a 5,000-old multicultural art form that excels at drawing the inner beauty of the skin. Henna is a paste created from the Lawsonia plants that grow in Northern Africa, India, and the Middle East. It’s also used in Ayurvedic medicine but in this story’s context, we’re talking about the classic Henna tattoos.
Henna tattoos are different from standard ink tattoos in that they are completely natural and are applied over the skin and not underneath it – like a frosting that dries off after ~30 minutes. Once the henna is completely dry it crumbles off of the skin and leaves a darker “painting” on the client’s skin that can last between a week and a month.
Henna crowns are simply gorgeous henna head tattoos, usually with floral or animalistic motifs.
Are Henna crowns safe?
Typically, yes. Real henna is organic and very safe. There are “henna” products that aren’t made with real henna and you’d do well to avoid them, especially if you are a cancer victim with a weakened immune system.
Even real and organic henna can be somewhat risky for a patient on chemotherapy as it can cause an allergic reaction but that’s a rare occurrence. Still, if you’re looking into henna crowns for yourself you’d do well to consult with your physician first. A spokesperson for the Royal Marsden Hospital in London (3) also emphasized that when asked about Henna crowns.
Also, keep in mind that a lot of henna products are often mixed with essential oils so you should ask the artist for that as well.
Leah Reddell says that she’s fully aware that her clients have health issues and need to be treated with extra care.
“Safety is always important, but it is particularly important when working with someone with a compromised immune system,” Leah explains. “I make all of my own henna paste. It is 100% natural, fresh, organic henna powder (the powdered leaves of the henna plant) mixed with black tea, sugar, and essential oils.”
She typically uses organic lavender oil in her henna as it is “the most gentle and calming essential oil”.
Not all of Leah’s henna crown patients are undergoing chemotherapy – some have lost their hair from alopecia and a few are just willingly bald. Leah says that she always uses a 100% natural henna for her crowns and she puts her patients’ safety first. She also agrees that consulting with your doctor first is always the smart thing to do.
“It is always a good idea to check with your doctor first,” Leah said and then added that “If anyone is seeking an artist to do a henna crown for them, they need to make sure that the artist makes their own henna paste and can tell them the exact ingredients — this is the only way to ensure that it is safe. There are many very toxic, chemical-based products out there being sold as ‘natural henna’, which is what people should avoid.”
How long does a Henna crown take?
Leah Reddell says that one henna crown usually takes her two hours to paint, depending on how complex the design is. That’s not including the time the henna paste needs to stay on afterward.
“The person leaves the paste on for several hours, ideally, and then the henna stain lasts on their head for anywhere from one to three weeks.”
Despite the slow painting process, Leah has a lot of clients.
“Many of my clients come back to see me multiple times as they’re undergoing chemotherapy,” Reddell said. “I think henna crowns are a perfect option for someone who simply doesn’t like wearing a wig or a scarf.”
According to Reddell, the different conversation starter and the unique feeling henna crowns give her clients are just worth the time investment.
“The henna gives them an element of confidence that is wonderful. It really makes me feel like my art takes on this life of its own when a person wears it. It gives them a different and beautiful way of being in the world that isn’t just about being sick.”