Caution: Black Henna Temporary Tattoos Could Leave Permanent Scars

If you want to show off some cool body art over spring break, but you're not willing to have it permanently etched onto your arm, realistic-looking temporary tattoos seem like a healthy compromise. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday warned people to watch out. Apparently, certain temporary tattoos can still cause permanent damage.

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"Just because a tattoo is temporary it doesn't mean that it is risk free," Dr. Linda Katz, director of FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, said in a statement.

The FDA's warning has to do with temporary tattoos made with "black henna" ink containing para-phenylenediamine (PPD), a coal-tar product that is approved for use in hair dye but is known to cause skin reactions in some people. Traditional, reddish-brown henna and stick-on temporary tattoos (the ones that look like stickers and are applied with water) are not part of the warning.

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Unlike permanent tattoos, in which ink is injected under the skin, "black henna" tattoos are drawn or stenciled onto the skin's surface. They're popular with vendors at beaches, boardwalks, resorts, and fairs because they're easy to apply quickly and make for long-lasting, dark, realistic-looking temporary body art.

But PPD can also have horrible side effects. The FDA has received reports of "redness, blisters, raised red weeping lesions, loss of pigmentation, increased sensitivity to sunlight, and even permanent scarring" in adults and children who have had "black henna" applied to their skin. Reactions can occur right away, a few days after exposure, or even as long as two or three weeks after the temporary tattoo was applied.

One mother, whose teenager had gotten a black henna tattoo on her back, told the FDA that her daughter's skin looked "the way a burn victim looks, all blistered and raw" and that doctors have said she will have permanent scars. Another mother reported that her 17-year-old daughter's "black henna" tattoo began to blister soon after it was applied.

"At first I was a little upset she got the tattoo without telling me," the mom, who works as a nurse, told the FDA. "But when it became red and itchy and later began to blister and the blisters filled with fluid, I was beside myself."

There are several ways to tell whether a temporary tattoo artist is using PPD instead of actual henna. According to Catherine Cartwright-Jones, who runs The Henna Page, "If the stuff they're using is jet black and stains your skin quickly, it's probably PPD-based black hair dye."

Traditional henna paste needs to stay on your skin for several hours or even overnight in order to create a long-lasting design (and, even then, the design will be orange before it darkens to red-brown and finally fades back to orange after a few days). If the artist says to leave the paste on your skin for less than an hour and promises that the stain will be black (and will stay black) once the paste is removed, then they're probably using PPD.

"You will not get a straight answer just by asking," Cartwright-Jones warns on her website. "You'll have to look at the paste itself."

Traditional henna comes from a flowering plant that is native to Asia and Africa, and has been used in skin decoration for centuries. The paste is greenish brown or khaki colored and smells like vegetable matter or pine, Tea Tree, or other essential oils. PPD, on the other hand, may have no odor or, if they're using straight hair dye, may smell like bleach or ammonia.

The FDA cautions that even traditional henna is only approved for use in the United States as a hair dye, in spite of the fact that it has been used in skin decoration (like mehndi in India), for centuries.

"By law, all color additives used in cosmetics must be approved by FDA for their intended uses, with the exception of coal tar colors intended for use in hair dyes," the agency says on its website. "Some states have laws and regulations for temporary tattooing, while others don't. So, depending on where you are, it's possible no one is checking to make sure the artist is following safe practices or even knows what may be harmful to consumers."

People who have had bad reactions to temporary tattoos should notify the FDA by calling 800-FDA-1088 or via its website.

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