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Black Henna: Temporary Tattoos that Scar

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Black Henna: Temporary Tattoos that Scar

December 13, 2011
Written for Scars1 by Michelle Alford

Dangerous chemicals added to henna tattoos to make them stain the skin a pure black can cause allergic reactions and permanent scarring in as much as 1.5% of the population, or 1 in every 75 people.

Natural henna tattoos are created from the Lawsonia Inermis shrub. They leave a brown, red, or orange stain on skin. Any other color of henna—including green, blue, purple, and black—has had chemicals added to it. Some of these chemicals are harmless, but black henna typically contains para-plenylenedemine (PPD), which can be extremely dangerous.

PPD is most commonly found in hair dye. In the US, over 99% of all hair dyes include a small percentage of PPD, but many European countries have banned any use of the dangerous chemical.  Because of PPD’s volatile attributes, no more than 6% of a hair dye product can be PPD and people handling hair dye containing PPD are cautioned to always use gloves and avoid exposure to skin.

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How to Know if a Henna Tattoo is Dangerous

  • If it contains para-phenylenediamine (PPD) or benzene.
  • If the henna paste is black.
  • If the henna tattoo stains the skin black, blue, purple, or green.
  • If you're directed to leave the paste on for less than two hours.
  • Black henna tattoos often consist of anywhere from 40 to 60% PPD and are applied directly to the skin. The black henna paste is left on the skin for up to two hours, giving the chemical time to seep into the blood stream. FDA regulations currently prohibit the use of PPD in henna tattoos, but black henna tattoos can still be found in small shops or while vacationing abroad.

    Those predisposed to PPD allergies don’t immediately react to the chemical, so even a 24-hour test is not guaranteed to protect from an allergic reaction. Often, no reaction to the tattoo is seen for days or even weeks. Five-year-old Emileigh Barry, who received a black henna tattoo from a shop on the Baltimore Boardwalk, didn’t develop a reaction until 10 days later, after her temporary tattoo had already faded.

    The effects of an allergic reaction start as a red mark, usually in the same shape as the original tattoo. The skin then swells and blisters as if burned. Luke Schofield, a UK teenager who received a black henna tattoo while vacationing in Spain, had such a severe reaction that he had to be admitted to a hospital and the tattooed areas of his arms required skin grafts.

    Past experience with black henna tattoos does not guarantee that getting additional black henna tattoos will be safe. The longer you are exposed to PPD, the more likely you are to develop an allergy to it. Also, once you’re developed an allergy to PPD, you will be sensitized to it and similar chemicals for the rest of your life, meaning that you could have negative reactions to hair dye, black clothing dye, food colorings and preservatives, sunscreen, and pen ink.  

    Before getting any henna tattoos, make sure that they contain only natural ingredients. Ask to see an ingredient list and beware of suspicious sounding compounds. Also, avoid henna tattoos if the henna paste is black; if the tattoo leaves a blue, purple, green, or black stain; or if you are directed to leave the henna paste on for less than an hour.

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