HomeSafety of cosmetics - your safety matters to usWhat's wrong with black henna?

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While on holiday, many people opt to have a fun temporary henna tattoo applied on the beach or by the pool. Henna extract is orange-red in colour. Parents hoping to treat their children to a temporary tattoo this summer on holiday or at the funfair and party-goers at festivals, may not realise the dangers of 'black henna' temporary tattoos (BHTTs). There is no such thing as 'black henna' and so-called 'black henna' temporary tattoos can cause painful short and long-term damage to skin and may cause you to develop an allergy which means you can never colour your hair again.

So what is in 'black henna'?

The truth is that so-called 'black henna' temporary tattoos are not likely to be henna at all, but may contain a substance called PPD (paraphenylenediamine). This use of PPD is illegal in the EU, and it can be very harmful if applied direct to your skin, in these type of temporary tattoos, often at high concentrations.

PPD - what does it do?

PPD is used safely and legally as an ingredient in hair colorants, but when applied directly to the skin in a temporary tattoo it can cause blistering, painful skin burns and may even lead to scarring. It can also sensitise you to PPD, triggering a painful allergic reaction called 'contact dermatitis.'

Dr Anjali Mahto, Consultant Dermatologist & British Skin Foundation Spokesperson reinforced the findings saying, "Black henna is well known to cause skin reactions and should be treated with caution, particularly in children."

If you have been sensitised to PPD through a 'black henna' temporary tattoo, you are very likely to react to PPD elsewhere in future, such as when you use hair colorants. Hair colorants themselves are regulated under the stringent EU cosmetic safety regulations and are perfectly safe to use when the instructions are followed carefully, which includes doing an Allergy Alert Test 48 hours in advance every time you colour your hair. But because an allergy is for life, you may never be able to use permanent hair colours in future without risking a bad reaction.

Dr Christopher Flower, Former Director-General CTPA says "The message is clear: having a 'black henna' temporary tattoo presents a significant risk of a very nasty adverse reaction to the tattoo itself. It also increases the risk of either not being able to use most hair dyes in the future or having a bad reaction to them if the warnings are ignored. Most importantly, parents will want to safeguard their children this summer by steering clear of so-called 'black henna' temporary tattoos."

Black henna reactions are on the rise

Dermatologists who took part in the Skin Health Alliance 2017 Dermatologist Survey agree that incidences of black henna reactions are on the rise. Out of the 288 dermatologists who took part in the survey 72% thought the incidence of patients with a reaction to black henna temporary tattoos is increasing year on year.

What should I do if I react to a 'black henna' temporary tattoo?

If you do suffer a reaction from a temporary tattoo, consult your doctor who may refer you to a dermatologist to carry out a patch test. This will identify what ingredient has caused the problem so you can steer clear of it in future. It is also very likely that you will not be able to colour your hair with a permanent (oxidative) hair colorant following a reaction to a 'black henna' tattoo. It is absolutely essential to do an allergy alert test 48 hours before colouring the hair, if you are considering colouring your hair. Having a reaction to a temporary tattoo may mean you'll have to avoid colouring your hair altogether in the future - so steer clear of 'black henna' tattoos!

To find out more about black henna, see our factsheet here.

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