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The Informed Parent

Temporary Henna Tattoos

by Shanna R. Cox, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jan. 11, 2010

During a kindergarten examination the other day, I proceeded to do the abdominal exam and was confronted by…a tattoo! This particular cartoon character tattoo was of the normal cereal box, party favor, or grocery store variety. These “tattoos” usually are harmless, and come off after several days to a week, depending on the level of scrub applied. This may not be true of particular henna tattoos. While reading the American Academy of  Pediatrics News health alerts section this week there was a strong reminder that just because a dye or product is ”natural” does not mean it cannot be dangerous.

The AAP News article pointed out that purely natural henna may be safe for the traditional hand and arm designs that we frequently see. However, henna may often be mixed with a chemical known as para-phenylenediamine. This chemical, referred to in brief as PPD, is used to enhance the henna making it appear black. Natural henna usually varies from a green to khaki color while wet and dries to an orange that may darken to a reddish brown color. PPD may also allow the drawing to dry faster. Natural henna paste usually takes several hours to dry. By adding PPD to henna paste, some may feel they are enhancing their “tattoo” likeness by making the color a bold black and having it quickly applied and dried to their hand or arm.

Although the PPD and henna mix may not cause a problem for all, it can be an issue for some. It is known as a contact sensitizer. This means that contact with the PPD may cause skin itching, rash, blisters, and potential scarring. It is not uncommon that this reaction might not occur on the first exposure. But it can show itself once a person is sensitized or exposed more than once, even with a small amount of the chemical. Interestingly the person then may develop a cross reaction sensitivity to similar chemicals. Sulfa based antibiotics are one example of a potential medication  that a person could have a sensitization reaction toward after having trouble with contact with PPD.

Parents can use this information to help them decide which tattoos are okay and which are not, realizing that the natural component may not be all they are getting. For a quick reference, parents can remember that henna paste typically looks khaki or green. It is a wet paste that may take hours to dry to a red or brown color. If the henna paste is black or is promised to dry quickly it may contain PPD and may cause unexpected reactions and long term sensitivities. Check it out!

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