Temporary tattoos can have lasting effects


As the weather warms, thoughts turn to vacationing, particularly at the beach. For some, getting a temporary tattoo has become a part of the experience.

According to the federal Food & Drug Administration, it can be a bad experience. Very bad.

The idea behind a temporary tattoo is that, for a short period, you can sport body art without permanently marking your skin. Rather than ink injected into the skin, temporary tattoos, known as hennas, are applied to the skin surface. But as the temporary tattoos have gained in popularity, attempts to come up with longer lasting, darker versions have led some adverse effects.

The FDA says that its reporting program for safety information, MedWatch, has been receiving numerous reports about serious reactions that consumers have had with temporary tattoos, particularly those made with substances that fall under the term “black henna.”

The agency says that reactions have been severe enough that some have had to seek medical help, including trips to the emergency room. The bad reactions can happen as soon as the ink is applied, or two to three weeks later. Problems, according to the FDA, include redness, blistering, weeping lesions, skin pigmentation loss, increased sensitivity to sunlight and, in some cases, permanent scarring.

“Just because a tattoo is temporary, it doesn’t mean that it is risk free,” Linda Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, said Monday.

The coloring in question doesn’t come from the traditional henna, a red-brown coloring made from a flowering plant in Africa and Asia that has been used since the Bronze Age, but from the “black henna” colors that have been developed much more recently.

Inks marked as black henna, the FDA says, are designed to create darker, longer-lasting skin art, which they do by introducing substances other than henna. Incorporated into the darker coloring can be a mixture that includes henna, or it can be plain hair dye.

If the dye includes — as it often does — a coal-tar hair dye that includes PPD (p-phenylenediamine), the consumer is at risk of a potentially serious — and dangerous — condition developing. Illegal as an ingredient in cosmetics because of its potential adverse side effects, PPD can show up in places like seasonal tattoo kiosks, especially if the state where you’re at is lax in regulating and checking up on establishments such as these.

The FDA says that if you have a reaction to or concern about a temporary tattoo or any other cosmetic, you should first contact a doctor. But the agency also asks for these incidents to be reported to its MedWatch program at 1 (800) FDA-1088.

Spring and summer are times to let your hair down, have fun and sometimes do “something crazy.” If that includes getting a temporary tattoo, make sure you go to a reputable artist. This is definitely a case of buyer beware.