Dangers of Temporary Tattoos


I often go to events that have temporary tattoo stands. They look like fun and are “temporary,” so many people are lined up to get inked. These temporary tattoos are also known as black henna tattoos and vendors typically explain that they will wear off over several weeks. 

Interestingly, as a dermatologist, I have seen many reactions to these tattoos that range from mild itching to severe blisters. Those with the most severe reactions can actually heal with scarring. When I first saw these reactions, I was surprised because henna is a natural vegetable dye and has been used for centuries; however, the truth is that black henna tattoos also contain para-phenylenediamine (PPD) which is a black dye. 

Authentic natural henna tattoos are actually orange/brown in color and need to be left on for hours to stain the skin. They rarely cause any type of allergic reaction. Vendors often add PPD to the natural brown henna because it stains the skin more quickly (within ½ hour) and looks darker like a real black tattoo. This black dye is the same ingredient in black hair dye and is a common cause of contact dermatitis in people who are allergic. 

In hair dyes, the FDA requires that the concentration of PPD is less than 6% due the significant risk of allergic reactions to this ingredient. In some of the black henna pastes used for tattoos, the concentration of PPD can range from 10%-80%. 

So how can you know if a temporary tattoo has PPD? It is simple… if a paste stains skin black in less than ½ hour, it has PPD in it. Also, if the paste is mixed with peroxide, or if peroxide is wiped over the design to bring out the color, it has PPD in it. It is best to avoid these temporary tattoos unless you are 100% sure they do not contain PPD…otherwise, if you are allergic, these tattoos may not be so temporary after all.