For all you pros out there, this information may be old hat; but lots of folks still don’t know what jagua is and how it works. So I thought I would reprint this chapter titled Frequently Asked Questions about Jagua from my book Jagua: A Journey into Body Art from the Amazon.
Is jagua the same as black henna?
No. Black henna does not even exist, although there are some who insist on arguing the point. For example, on the Venice Beach boardwalk in Los Angeles, many artists openly offer “black henna tattoos,” even though the natural color of the stain obtained from the henna plant has always been and will always be reddish brown. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I believe they’ve bought some shady supplier’s story when they swear that there is a brown henna plant and a black henna plant, even though at this point in time, they should know better.
So-called “black henna” doesn’t even necessarily contain henna. Mostly, the concoctions used are made from black hair dye containing a potentially dangerous chemical called para-phenylenediamine (PPD), which seems to be safe on the scalp but not on the skin. This substance can be found in photographic developer, printing inks, lithography plates, black rubber, oils, and gasoline. Lucky people don’t suffer any physical reactions from it. Many people, however, do sustain serious rashes, permanent scarring, and long-term health problems when exposed to PPD.
Finally, henna is a plant. Jagua is a fruit.
How does jagua work to stain the skin?
Indigenous people in the Amazon squeeze the pulp of the fruit to obtain the juice. At first it looks clear like water, but 30 minutes after being exposed to air, the oxidation process turns it black. In some cases, they mix it with charcoal, then apply it to their skin, either with their fingers or with fine sticks.
Transporting the fruit, juice or extract to the United States and packaging it so that it can be applied to the skin (with easy applicators, as opposed to sticks) is a little more complicated. The jagua fruit extract is used as a base, with other natural ingredients added to it to keep it fresh and safe from bacteria while in transit or stored for sale. Once it is applied on the skin, the gel takes 30 to 45 minutes to dry. Two hours later, the dried gel is peeled off, leaving a gray stain, which grows darker over 48 hours to a dark blue-black stain. This stain lasts approximately two weeks.
Does the stain disappear completely?
Yes. It gets lighter and lighter as the skin exfoliates, and eventually disappears completely.
Does it hurt to get a jagua tattoo?
No. The skin is never pierced and it does not hurt. The gel is applied, like henna, on top of the skin, and it only penetrates the uppermost layer of the skin. The application of jagua gel to the skin is 100% pain-free.
If I keep the gel on my skin longer than two hours, will I get a darker stain?
Two hours is sufficient to obtain the darkest color. Leaving it on longer will not yield a darker or longer-lasting stain. Leaving it on overnight is not recommended.
Are there any side effects to using jagua?
No. As with anything else in the natural world, however, allergic reactions are always possible, depending on the individual (think peanuts or strawberries). After selling the product to thousands of people, my impression is that it is safe. The only time we heard of someone having a reaction, it turned out the person was on serious medications of various sorts. It is known that certain drugs can sensitize the skin to things such as sunlight and certain topical preparations. Therefore, we recommend that people taking medication check first with their doctor before applying jagua (or anything else, for that matter) on their skin. In addition, it is always prudent to do a small patch test first before attempting a full-size tattoo. As with all products, it is important that people read instructions, as well as all warning labels before using.
Something else to consider: jagua is a fruit. Anyone with sensitivities to fruit should definitely do a patch test first.
Aside from the color it produces, does jagua differ from henna in any way?
Yes. Unlike henna, which is best mixed into a paste just before use, the jagua gel is sold pre-mixed and ready to go; no other preparation is required. In addition, the jagua gel does not need to stay on the skin as long as henna; as previously mentioned, two hours is sufficient. Jagua takes a little longer to dry than henna, depending on the size of the design.
Henna has a very distinctive, earthy scent; jagua is virtually odorless. Finally, henna grows in hot, dry desert climates; jagua prefers it hot, moist, and tropical.
Note: In the similarities department, henna and jagua are both organic substances, which means they are, by nature, somewhat unpredictable. They refuse to be pigeonholed! For example, different people may obtain different results, because henna and jagua interact with each individual’s body temperature, skin type, lifestyle, “time of the month,” or even state of mind when the products are applied. Occasionally we’ll get calls from people saying something like, “My husband got great color, but I didn’t!” Since it’s obviously not the fault of the henna or jagua, all we can say is, “Try re-applying it over the initial design.” Sometimes a double application is all that it takes.
How long does the jagua gel stay fresh once you open the bottle?
The sooner you use it up, the better. If it is refrigerated, however, it should stay fresh and maintain its potency for up to two months.
Why is the jagua gel sometimes black, sometimes gray, and sometimes brown?
The juice may change color, depending on the season. Regardless of the gel’s color, it still stains the skin blue-black.
Why does the gel sometimes look marbled as it dries?
Again, it depends on the season; but regardless of how the gel dries, the end result is still the same: a blue-black stain on the skin.
Do jagua tattoos show up on dark skin?
Can I use it anywhere on my body?
Yes—just make sure to keep it out of your eyes.
Are there certain areas of the body that stain better than others?
As with henna, the stain is darkest on the hands and feet. Biceps seem to stain a little lighter, but not by much.
Once my jagua tattoo starts to fade, is there any way to restore it to its original color?
Yes. Simply retrace over the design with more gel once the design has disappeared.
Does jagua permanently stain fabric, wood, and other porous surfaces the way henna does?
No. With fabric, if you wash it right away with soap, the gel will come off without leaving a stain. We have gotten jagua gel on our blond wood table and concrete counters, and it washes off with a damp cloth, even after several hours. However, it does stain the skin, and quickly! If you get jagua on your hands as you apply it, wash it off immediately, if not sooner!
If I want to remove a jagua tattoo, what should I do?
There is no quick fix. You can rub it gently with soap and a washcloth to lessen the staining effect. Gently rubbing mineral oil (baby oil) on the area several times a day will make it fade more quickly, but it will still take a few days to disappear completely.
What can I do to help my tattoo last longer?
Avoid chlorinated pools and soaking in hot tubs. It may be useful to apply a layer of petroleum jelly to the tattoo before swimming or showering.
Is it safe for pregnant women and children to use jagua?
Do I have to be an artist to work with jagua?
To make beautiful designs on the skin, it helps to be an artist or to know how to draw. However, if you are like me and can’t draw even a crooked line, there is help. Our kits come with stencil transfers that make it easy enough for a 10-year-old to make beautiful tattoos. Various types of stencils can also be found in art stores and on the internet.
Which do you prefer, henna or jagua?
What I like is irrelevant, of course. Different strokes for different folks. But since I get this question a lot, I thought I would include it here, and answer it too! Since I have never been interested in getting a permanent tattoo, I am more drawn to henna because it is so obviously not a real tattoo. Plus, I love its earthy, reddish brown color, which reminds me of that beautiful red dirt in Hawaii. I think henna is fabulous and jagua is cool. Or is it that jagua is fabulous and henna is cool? Gulp…I can’t decide.