A temporary tattooing technique that started as a traditional art has turned into something popular on beaches and at resorts where many people go for spring break. But if you get the wrong kind, you could end up with an unwanted souvenir that will follow you all your life.
Bennett Molitor-Kirsch learned the hard way. The Leawood 7-year-old was at an all-inclusive resort with his family in January and begged his moms for a temporary tattoo in the shape of a turtle.
"It seems like a very innocent thing to do," said his mother, Erica-Molitor-Kirsch. "He developed a red blistering reaction and a hypo-pigmented arm."
"I will probably not forget it for the rest of my life," said the 7-year-old, "because it really hurt."
Shawnee dermatologist Meena Singh says natural henna, like the kind the doctor got for her own wedding, is fine. But not all henna tattoos are alike.
"The temporary tattoos are a fun way to adorn yourself with body art, but often they can be adulterated with certain dyes that can cause severe allergic reactions or permanent scarring," said Singh.
Natural henna comes from a flowering plant that's native to Asia and Africa and has been used for special celebrations and ceremonies in those regions for centuries.
The plant-based product is made into a paste with natural oils like eucalyptus and lavender. It is painted on, much like the way decorative icing is squeezed onto a cake, left on for several hours, then scraped off to reveal a stain that wears off in about a week.
Natural henna stain starts out a bright orange progressing to a deep brown over a period of 48 hours. Leaving the paste on as long as the natural stain requires is inconvenient for tourists looking for some fun, and the resulting color looks nothing like a typical western tattoo.
That's where the dangerous dyes comes in.
"One of them is called PPD or paraphenylenediamine," said Singh. "That makes the tattoos blacker, and so it's more desired because they stain very quickly and they stay longer."
PPD is the most common dye. It's made from coal-tar and petroleum. Some of the black colored temporary tattoos add this dye to natural henna. Some contain no henna at all.
Reactions vary. Some people get itching and swelling in the immediate area. Some get hives elsewhere. Some get weeping blisters.
"It's not everyone that's going to get this reaction," said Singh. "But the reaction can be severe. That's why the FDA no longer approves using it."
Even if the reaction does not cause a permanent scar, it can lead to lifelong effects that can be life-threatening.
If the reaction is due to a PPD allergy, it could spell more serious outcomes later in life if you're exposed to something that cross-reacts with PPD.
Substances in that category include hair dye, local anesthetics and sulfa drugs, which are not uncommon. Sulfa is a base for some antibiotics and medicines for high blood pressure and diabetes.
Essentially, a rash from a "black henna" tattoo at age 7 can predispose you to an allergic reaction to a medication prescribed at age 57.
"If you do have a reaction to the black henna tattoo," said Singh. "You can do patch testing, where patches are applied to the back and that can tell you if you are truly allergic."
That's something she strongly suggests, considering later reactions can be life-threatening ones, like anaphylaxis, a swelling that stops breathing.
Erica Molitor-Kirsch is glad Bennett's reaction was minor. All it did was spoil his vacation.
"It was kind of hard to have it on the beach," said Bennett. "Because whenever something touched it, it would really hurt, so I didn't want to go in the ocean, sadly, because I love water."
"He didn't have big scarring so that's good," said his mother.
Still, she wants others to be informed about the risk and warns that some artists are willing to lie to make a dime. She was familiar with the risks of PPD, but simply asking about the color and ingredients wasn't enough to protect her son.
"We questioned the employee fairly thoroughly," she said. "And he insisted that he used only natural henna."
Haneia Roohi, the owner of Henna Shimmer in Olathe, says there are other questions you can ask besides what the ingredients are and what color it will be after removing the paste.
Two key questions are, "how long should I leave it on?" and "how do I take it off?"
"If the artist says, ‘Leave it for an hour and wash it off,' stay away, because it most likely contains dyes and additives to stain the skin," said Roohi.
Traditionally, she says, henna should be kept on the skin for a minimum of four hours, preferably overnight.
She advises clients to scrape off the henna and rub olive oil on it afterwards. She also tells them to stay away from water, hardly an ideal limitation at a beach resort.
"If the artist says it'll be really dark after leaving the paste on for only an hour, chances are there are additives and dyes in the henna," said Roohi.
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