Temporary tattoos can cause long-lasting allergic reaction, FDA warns

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Temporary tattoos are a great way to get some ink without having to make a major commitment. But, even this fleeting style of body art can cause serious health issues.

“Just because a tattoo is temporary doesn’t mean it’s safe,” said Dr. Linda Katz, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. Press release.

MedWatch, which oversees the FDA’s safety information and adverse event reporting program, has received reports of long-lasting negative reactions to temporary tattoos. Now that spring break is right around the corner, the organization is concerned that people are considering getting the art “no risk” without realizing there could be consequences.

Unlike permanent tattoos which are injected into the skin, temporary tattoos sit on the surface of the skin. They are often made with henna, a reddish-brown coloring from a flowering plant in the subtropics of Africa and Asia. The practice of using dried henna to dye skin, hair, nails, and other materials has existed since the Bronze Age.

Today, however, people use “black henna”, which is mixed with other ingredients or is simply made up of hair dye. The darker color is attractive and lasts longer, but it could contain a coal tar-based hair dye ingredient called p-phenylenediamine (PPD). PPD can cause skin reactions in some people and is not approved for cosmetics applied to the skin. There is no way to tell what type of dye is used at many temporary tattoo shops.

Several side effects include a 5-year-old girl who had red marks on her forearm for two weeks after the temporary tattoo. Another 17 year old girl had water blisters. In one particular case, a girl reportedly has scars on her back from having a black henna tattoo applied to it despite having had red henna tattoos before and never had a negative reaction. A New England Journal case study in August 2008 showed a girl’s hands covered in blisters after she had a temporary henna tattoo applied to her hands at a wedding, the New York Times reported. The marks had to remain for at least six months.

“What we thought was a harmless bit of fun ended up being a nightmare for us,” the 5-year-old’s father said. “I hope that by telling people about our experience, I can help prevent this from happening to other unsuspecting children and parents.”

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