This Artist Creates “Henna Crowns” for Women with Cancer

“People in public approach them to talk about the art they’re wearing, not just the cancer they’re dealing with.”

Despite the fact that chemotherapy provides life-saving treatment against cancer cells, the side effect of hair loss can be devastating for many women. A 2010 study found that 47 percent of women undergoing chemotherapy called their hair loss the “most traumatic aspect” of the treatment.

Most women facing hair loss from chemotherapy turn to wigs, scarves, or turbans to hide their scalps. While “going bare” may not initially be an appealing option to some women during their chemotherapy, one recent trend may make that option a little more empowering and enticing: henna crowns.

What Are Henna Crowns?

Henna is a dye that comes from the plant Lawsonia inermis, and it’s been used for religious and cultural purposes in many countries, such as India and Morocco. While a tattoo uses a needle to put ink in the deeper layers of the skin for a permanent design, henna stains the top layer of skin, lasting up to three weeks.

Essentially, henna crowns take the art and style of traditional henna and apply them to the scalp. “A henna crown is using henna to decorate the bald head of a person, [such as] women who have lost their hair as a result of chemotherapy,” says Leah Reddell, who has been providing henna services for a little over 12 years in Denver and Boulder, CO, at Face Fiesta. 

While they are typically associated with women undergoing chemotherapy, Reddell notes that men can also get them, and they are also a good option for people with alopecia areata (an autoimmune disease that causes complete hair loss).

Reddell was not the first to create henna crowns, and it's a bit of a mystery as to who was the original henna crown artist. Either way, today you can find artists who specialize in henna crowns around the world. In fact, Reddell began making henna crowns because women with cancer began specifically requesting them.

“Sometimes I can’t believe I get to do this,” says Reddell. “I’m always amazed at the adventures my art gets to have out there in the world once it leaves me, and the fact that my art gets to be on these women, to embody and to change the experience they’re having in a positive way, is one of the best things I get to do.”

How Henna Crowns Help Women Cope with Hair Loss

For many women, the hair loss from chemotherapy is a visible marker of having cancer, which can make their entire public identity center around their illness. Henna crowns change the focus to something positive, according to Reddell.

“People in public approach them to talk about the art they’re wearing, not just the cancer they’re dealing with,” says Reddell. “Also, many women simply don’t like wearing wigs and scarves—the crowns help them embrace their baldness in a beautiful way.”

Reddell shares that some women are so eager for their henna crowns that they shave their scalps and make their appointments before they’ve even begun their first chemotherapy session. “They wanted to feel good in that moment (not sick with chemo) and confront [and] embrace baldness on their own terms,” she says. The crowns give them back a sense of control.

Other women use their henna crowns as a celebration, such as after their final chemotherapy session. They may bring their friends and family members with them and treat the henna appointment like a small party.

Either way, Reddell notes that she witnesses the women go through “a huge range of emotions” during the appointment, from nervousness at the beginning to “the joy of looking in the mirror at the end.” By the end of the session, Reddell says, “They feel excited and empowered, out there in the world, owning the art they’re wearing.”

The designs are all unique, incorporating symbols and ideas from the client. While some designs are more abstract and geometric, others include symbols like trees, flowers, animals, and even words. The artwork represents the woman's individuality and style, reminding both her and the world that she is not simply "a person with cancer."

One client of Reddell’s said her henna crown succeeded in making her feel more beautiful and confident during that difficult time in her life. She recalls, “When I was going through cancer, I hated how the medicine made me look. This was one of the best moments of my cancer journey.”

What to Know If You're Considering a Henna Crown

If you’re considering a henna crown for yourself, be sure to do research on your artist. “I can’t say enough about the importance of using real, handmade, natural henna for henna crowns,” says Reddell.

The American Academy of Dermatology warns against henna ink adulterated with p-Phenylenediamine (PPD). This additive is meant to help the henna last longer on the skin, but unfortunately, it is a dangerous chemical for the skin that can cause itching, blistering, and scarring. While it’s banned by the Food and Drug Administration, some still use it in their henna ink illegally.

Reddell also cautions against pre-made “henna cones” sold online. These also contain harmful chemicals—even if they say “natural” or “organic” on the packaging. “Real henna paste is handmade with very simple ingredients and must be kept frozen,” says Reddell.

Once you find your henna artist, be sure to ask how to prepare for your appointment. For example, it’s common for your artist to ask you to shave prior to coming in for your henna session.

If you’re on the fence about getting a henna crown, Reddell offers two simple words: “Do it!” She adds, “Seriously, I’ve never had a client regret getting a crown—I’ve only had clients regret that they didn’t do it earlier in their treatments.”