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Temporary Henna Tattoos Can Leave Permanent Scars, FDA Warns

If you've spent an afternoon on the South Beach shoreline, you've seen vendors wandering through the beach towels and chairs hawking henna tattoos. They typically target spring breakers and other tourists, promising a safe, temporary alternative to having your drunken, debauched weekend etched on your skin for a lifetime.

But for some people, the damage done by temporary tattoos is anything but temporary. The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning this week against black henna, a product commonly used in place of traditional henna that can leave users with burn-like symptoms and, in severe cases, permanent scars.

The FDA announced it has received reports of adverse reactions to black henna tattoos, including redness, blisters, raised red weeping lesions, loss of pigmentation, increased sensitivity to sunlight, and even permanent scarring. Some instances have left users in the hospital, the FDA reports, and effects can surface as late as three weeks after the tattoo was given.

"Just because a tattoo is temporary it doesn't mean that it is risk free," said Linda Katz, M.D., MPH, director of FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, in a statement.

The problem is not with traditional, red-pigmented henna but with black henna, which uses an added ingredient called phenylenediamine (PPD) to create a darker and longer-lasting design. PPD is used in hair dye, but in some people, it can have scary side-effects.

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The FDA report includes accounts from users young and old. "What we thought would be a little harmless fun ended up becoming more like a nightmare for us," said one father of a 5-year-old who experienced "severe reddening" on her arm after receiving a henna tattoo. "My hope is that by telling people about our experience, I can help prevent this from happening to some other unsuspecting kids and parents."

Experts warn that henna paste that is jet black is likely to have PPD in it; orange-looking paste is the traditional stuff. If your artist promises that it'll take about an hour for the design to stick, they're probably using PPD; traditional henna takes several hours, or even overnight.

Follow Ciara LaVelle on Twitter @ciaralavelle.

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