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Are Temporary Tattoos Safe?

Friday, December 29, 2017By Nina Shapirshteyn

You’ve been planning a beach vacation with your kids for months. You’ve finally arrived and lounge on the sand breathing in the salty, refreshing air. Your kids point out a beach vendor down the way applying temporary tattoos and beg you for one. You shrug and hand them some cash. You’re on vacation and what’s the harm in having a little fun?

Unfortunately, temporary tattoos can cause harm that outlasts your vacation. While not injected into the skin like a permanent tattoo, temporary tattoos are marketed as “henna” to draw tinted designs on the skin that are supposed to fade within a few days.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning that serious long-term side effects can result from those temporary tattoos. The agency has received reports through its MedWatch program that the tattoos can cause loss of skin pigmentation, increased sensitivity to light, redness, blisters, raised red weeping lesions and even permanent scarring. Some of these reactions occur up to two or three weeks after the tattoo is applied and have required emergency medical care.

Traditional henna is made from a flowering plant and is not dangerous to the skin. Traditional henna is reddish-brown and has been used in many cultures to decorate skin for celebrations. “Black Henna” is a new form of henna that is often used for temporary tattoos. Unlike traditional henna, black henna is mixed with other ingredients to create a darker and longer lasting tattoo. These additional ingredients could be anything, but often is a coal-tar hair dye which contains p-phenylenediamine (PPD). PPD is not legally allowed to be used in cosmetics as it can cause a dangerous skin reaction in some people.

Not all states have laws governing temporary tattoos so it’s hard to say whether those temporary tattoos you are considering are regulated. But there is a good chance that they aren’t and the black henna being used by the artist could contain PPD and cause a severe skin reaction. Better to err on the side of caution and stay away from unregulated temporary tattoos and find other ways to have fun on your vacation.

If you have concerns about temporary tattoos or any other cosmetics, you can contact the FDA’s MedWatch online or by calling 1-800-FDA-1088.  

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