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Temporary tattoos can cause permanent damage

Teresa Tanoos's picture
FDA warns about temp tattoos

Many spring breakers hitting the beach for a little fun in the sun are also getting temporary tattoos to memorialize their vacation. So what’s wrong with getting a temporary tattoo you may ask? For starters, it may cause dramatic skin reactions and leave permanent scars, the FDA warns in a post published Monday.

"Just because a tattoo is temporary it doesn't mean that it is risk free," says Linda Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors. Some consumers report reactions that may be severe and long outlast the temporary tattoos themselves.

MedWatch, the FDA's reporting program for safety information and bad side effects, has received reports of serious and long-lasting reactions from consumers after they got temporary tattoos, including severe redness, blisters, raised red weeping lesions, loss of pigmentation, increased sensitivity to sunlight – and, in some cases, permanent scarring.

Some people have had reactions so severe after getting temporary tattoos that they had to go to hospital emergency rooms for medical care.

Temporary tattoos usually last from three days to several weeks, depending on the product and condition of the skin. Unlike permanent tattoos, which are injected into the skin, temporary tattoos marketed as "henna" are applied to the skin's surface. The use of henna in temporary tattoos has not been approved by FDA. Henna is approved only for use as a hair dye.

Worse yet is that some shops promoting “henna” tattoos actually use black henna, a chemical used in hair dye that can cause some dramatic skin reactions, according to the FDA. However, black henna is not the same as traditional “henna”, which is made from a flowering plant.

Black henna contains other ingredients, which are combined with henna, and then applied to the skin to darken the color of a temporary tattoo. It’s the other ingredients in black henna that can put people at risk for dangerous skin reactions.

For example, one ingredient frequently mixed with henna is a coal-tar hair dye that contains p-phenylenediamine (PPD) to make it darker, but PPD can cause some people to have dangerous skin reactions. Indeed, some tattoo artists use nothing but PPD-containing hair dye – even though, by law, PPD is not permitted in cosmetics intended to be applied to the skin.

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According to the FDA, "black henna" is used in places such as temporary tattoo kiosks at beaches, boardwalks, and other holiday destinations, as well as in some ethnic or specialty shops. Although states have jurisdiction over professional practices, such as tattooing and cosmetology, that oversight differs from state to state. Some states have laws and regulations for temporary tattooing, while others don't. Depending on where the tattoo artist is located, therefore, it may not be possible to know if they’re following safe practices or not.

What can you do to avoid an artist using black henna for temporary tattoos?

Here’s a tip: Avoid any artist that promotes their temporary tattoos as lasting longer than just a few days. A traditional henna tattoo, as opposed to those containing PPD, fades to brown as it dries on the skin, whereas those with PPD will be darker and longer-lasting.

On its website, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cites the following examples of consumers who have learned the risks of black henna temporary tattoos the hard way:

• The parents of a 5-year-old girl reported that she developed severe reddening on her forearm about two weeks after receiving a black henna temporary tattoo. "What we thought would be a little harmless fun ended up becoming more like a nightmare for us," the father says. "My hope is that by telling people about our experience, I can help prevent this from happening to some other unsuspecting kids and parents."

• The mother of a 17-year-old girl agrees. "At first I was a little upset she got the tattoo without telling me," she says. "But when it became red and itchy and later began to blister and the blisters filled with fluid, I was beside myself." She explains that as a nurse, she's used to seeing all manner of injuries, "but when it's your own child, it's pretty scary," she says.

• And another mother, whose teenager had no reaction to red henna tattoos, describes the skin on her daughter's back as looking "the way a burn victim looks, all blistered and raw" after a black henna tattoo was applied there. She says that according to her daughter's doctor, the teenager will have scarring for life.

The FDA advises any consumer who has a reaction to or concern about a temporary tattoo or any other cosmetic to contact their health care professional, as well as MedWatch, the agency's problem-reporting program. You can also call 1-800-FDA-1088 to report by telephone, or contact the nearest FDA consumer complaint coordinator in your area.

SOURCE: U.S. Food and Drug Administration Consumer Updates, March 25, 2013