FDA warns against temporary tattoos


A snap-on butterfly tattoo may seem like an easy alternative to the pain and permanence of actual ink, but the Food and Drug Administration warns consumers that temporary tattoos aren’t without risk.

FDA officials warned that temporary tattoos can cause allergic reactions, during a May 13 seminar on the agency’s website.

The FDA wants users of temporary tattoos to report their reactions to the government, said Katherine Hollinger, an epidemiologist in the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. The agency cannot currently provide any information on the number of side effects reported each year.

“If you had a reaction to a temporary tattoo or cosmetic product, the FDA wants to know about it,” she said. [8 Weird Signs of an Allergic Reaction]

FDA Authority

Unlike drugs, cosmetics (including temporary tattoos) don’t need FDA approval before they hit the market. However, color additives in cosmetics must be FDA approved.

There are no data on how many people use temporary tattoos each year, Hollinger said. The agency receives voluntary reports of problems, Hollinger said in response to a question from Live Science, but would only release those numbers through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The FDA can take action against harmful products, but in the case of temporary tattoos, it can only determine if a problem exists if consumers voluntarily report the damage.

Types of tattoos

There are a number of temporary tattoos on the market, said Bhakti Petigara Harp, a chemist in the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. Beyond the wet and pressed tattoos found in gumball machines, there are several types of temporary tattoos that use herbal and synthetic dyes.

One type uses henna, a paste made from the dried leaves of the Lawsonia plant, which is frequently used to paint intricate designs on the hands and feet of Indian and Pakistani brides. Some henna products are mixed with a hair dye ingredient, p-phenylenediamine (PPD), which gives the remaining patterns a black or blue-black color. Although frequently used for skin design, neither henna nor PPD are FDA approved for use on the skin.

Another dye, jagua, derives from the unripened fruit of the American genipa, a tree from South America. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon have long used jagua for body decorations, but the dye is newer to the United States.

Allergic reactions to these dyes can involve skin rashes and blisters. Long-term effects could include scarring, skin changes and increased sensitivity to the sun, Hollinger said.

Of course, real tattoos come with their own risks, including contaminated ink that has caused outbreaks of infection.

Some people are also allergic to tattoo ink, especially if it is red. In February, doctors reported the case of a man who developed an allergic reaction to his tattoo 20 years after getting a tattoo, as a side effect of a bone marrow transplant.

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