Temporary Tattoos May Cause Dangerous Allergic Reactions: FDA

Although temporary tattoos may seem like safe alternatives to the real thing, federal health officials are warning consumers that chemicals and ingredients used in many temporary tattooing methods may pose a risk of dangerous allergic reactions or other problems. 

The FDA has issued a safety alert about the risks associated with temporary tattoos, indicating that the agency has received multiple reports of severe side effects experienced by users, including rashes, hives, sneezing, face swelling, airway constriction, open sores, burning and scarring.

An Import Alert was also issued by the FDA to cover any foreign made temporary tattoos, which include henna, black henna, and Jagua tattoos.

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Many of the ingredients used in the tattoo formulations may cause skin irritation and reaction. The Import Alert was initiated in response to trade complaints from manufacturers and distributors.

Henna is made from the dried leaves of the lawsonia plant which gives the dye a brown, orange, red tint. It is then mixed with other substances to create a semi-permanent ink. Some of the components of the dye are also used in hair dye. Henna tattoos can last for several days or weeks.

Henna is often applied to the skin in intricate patterns, like the Hindu tradition of mendhi, and is also used as a temporary alternative to real tattoos and is applied during parties and special events.

Black henna is manufactured in a similar way, but also contains coal tar, or p-Phenylenediamine (PPD). This formulation is used to offer a darker stain and lasts longer than traditional henna.

Jagua is made from unripened fruit from South America. It was traditionally used by indigenous Amazonian tribes but has also gained popularity in the temporary tattoo process.

PPD Concerns

PPD is a known skin allergen and causes skin reactions in many users. It is not permitted by the FDA to be used on the skin. PPD is also used in hair dye, a product which is regulated by the FDA and requires a label listing the ingredients.

While henna is regulated similarly to cosmetics under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) it is not required to have an ingredient list.

The FPLA states products which are used exclusively by professionals, such as at a salon or booth at a fair, are not required to have an ingredient declaration. The exemption places consumers at risk since the vendor is unaware of what ingredients, including harmful ones, may be in the product.

Because PPD use on the skin is prohibited, henna products containing PPD are considered adulterated and illegal in interstate commerce. These products are subject to the import alert issued by the FDA.

Temporary tattoos are regulated similar to cosmetics, but they cannot contain color additives approved for use in many cosmetics.

The FDA also indicated they have no authority to require premarket testing on any products, cosmetics or temporary tattoos.

The agency warns that henna and other temporary tattoos are often applied by vendors, not trained or certified cosmetic professionals. The applications are often conducted with little or no oversight from regulatory authorities.

Vendors who apply temporary tattoos may place users at risk if they are unaware of the harmful ingredients in the product or the side effects often caused by chemicals used in the dye formulations. Reactions may occur 1 to 3 days after application, long after the vendor has applied the tattoo and left the area, the FDA warned.

Photo Courtesy of Koshyk / C.C. by 2.0


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