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Black Henna Tattoos Can Cause Serious Skin Reactions

Aug 11, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) warns that an additive in black henna ink used to apply the popular, and temporary, tattoos has been found to put its wearers at risk for a number of skin maladies including allergic dermatitis, eczema, scarring.  The black henna contains a chemical called para-phenylenediamine (PPD) that can cause serious skin reactions.

Black henna tattoos are available in a wide variety of venues included summer carnivals, open-air malls, vacation spots, and cruise ships.  PPD is generally found in black hair dye, and is also added to natural henna to increase its intensity and longevity.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits the direct application of PPD to the skin because of its known health risks, but because there is a lack of regulation in the tattoo industry, more and more consumers are getting black henna tattoos and putting themselves at risk for serious skin problems.

"Perhaps the most alarming issue we are seeing with black henna tattoos is the increase in the number of children--even children as young as four--who are getting them and experiencing skin reactions," Dr. Sharon E. Jacob, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics and medicine (dermatology) at the University of California, San Diego, said.  Jacob’s is presenting her findings an AAD summer meeting in Chicago this week.

"Kids make up a significant portion of the population that receives temporary tattoos, because parents mistakenly think they are safe, since they are not permanent and are available at so many popular venues catering to families.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth," Jacob said.

Jacob reports that, to date, “there have been hundreds of reports of black tattoos causing allergic contact dermatitis.”  Reactions range in severity from mild eczema to blistering and permanent scarring.  Signs of allergic reaction include “redness and itching, bumps, swelling, and blisters. Topical steroids can help with some of the allergy symptoms.

Jacob notes that in some people, the sensititvity to PPD can be more immediate, occurring from just one exposure and that it can further develop into a lifelong sensitivity.  Such reaction can also be accompanied with an allergy that can cause a “cross reaction to other compounds, including certain medications.”  Jacob also warns that "Each exposure to PPD re-challenges the immune system, so each time you get a black henna tattoo or use a hair dye that contains PPD, there is an increased risk of having a reaction." Jacob also warns that, "Many people are sensitized to PPD, but don't have a reaction to it; however, each time you are exposed to black henna, you increase your risk of developing a lifelong allergy to it."

Traditional henna tattoos are vegetable-based and reddish-brown in color.  If looking for a henna tattoo, it’s best to avoid those which are PPD-adulterated henna.  "Unless the artist can tell you exactly what's in the tattoo, don't get one," Jacob said.



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