Temporary tattoos can be fun for both children and adults on holiday, at funfairs and music festivals. However, it’s important to remember that so-called ‘black henna’ temporary tattoos (BHTTs) can be dangerous, sometimes causing severe skin reactions.

Real henna is orange/brown in colour, but the majority of BHTTs are not based on henna at all, but a substance called para-phenylenediamine (PPD) which is found in hair dyes. PPD is allowed for use in hair dye, but its use for skin contact products such as temporary tattoos is illegal in the European Union.

When PPD is used on the skin in this way it can cause blistering, painful skin burns and may even lead to scarring. It can also leave the person with a lifelong sensitivity to PPD, which increases the risk of a severe allergic reaction when using hair dye in the future.

Increase in reactions seen in dermatology clinics

Research among dermatologists in 2015 revealed that they were seeing an increase in reactions at their clinics across the UK.

  • 4 out of 10 dermatologists asked had seen patients with skin reactions to BHTTs.
  • 1 in 20 dermatologists approached said that over 80% of the BHTT reactions they had seen were in children aged under 16.
  • Dermatologists asked confirmed that around half of the patients got a BHTT outside of the EU, where the legal status of PPD is not always clear; however the other half got a BHTT within the EU, with 27% of these in the UK.
  • About two-thirds of dermatologists approached have seen an increase in patients with reactions to hair dyes, many of whom have previously had a BHTT.

People don’t realise the dangers

In 2018, a British Skin Foundation survey found that 20% of children could be in danger of having serious reactions to ‘black henna’ temporary tattoos.

20% of adults have also put themselves at risk by having the temporary fashion accessory which is popular at overseas holiday destinations, festivals, funfairs and the British seaside during the summer months.

Three quarters of people surveyed were not aware that ‘black henna’ tattoos contain PPD and that when it’s used on the skin it can be dangerous. They were also unaware that having a ‘black henna’ tattoo can drastically increase the risk of allergic reaction when using a hair dye in the future.

What should you do if you experience a reaction to ‘black henna?’

The most important thing to do is seek medical advice from a doctor or dermatologist immediately. In the event of a severe allergic reaction call the emergency services.  

What the experts say

Dr Anjali Mahto, Consultant Dermatologist & British Skin Foundation spokesperson says, “It’s worrying to see that the public just don’t realise the danger PPD can pose when it is used on the skin. We really want to get the message out there that so-called black henna tattoos are not safe for the skin and should be avoided at all costs. Parents, teens and even adults should stay well away from ‘black henna’ tattoos this summer on holidays abroad, at festivals, funfairs or the British seaside – it’s simply not worth the risk.”

Dr Emma Meredith, Director-General of CTPA and a pharmacist by profession, agrees, “There is no such thing as ‘black henna’.   A large number of people are not aware that so-called black henna temporary tattoos may contain the hair dye PPD.  In the UK and EU, this use of PPD is illegal.  ‘Black henna’ temporary tattoos can cause serious issues.  Not only can they trigger extremely painful damage to skin, they may also result in life-long allergy to hair dyes.  We want to warn of these dangers, and what may seem to be harmless fun for children could have serious long-term consequences.”

Real life

James Colley

Student James Colley, 20, got a so-called black henna tattoo on holiday in Zante in 2017. What was meant to be a bit of holiday fun left him with a scar on his face.

James says, “Had I known the dangers of ‘black henna’ tattoos I would have stayed away. It never crossed my mind that it might cause such a severe reaction. There was a lot of pain involved in the aftermath which is still fresh in my memory. My advice to people this summer is to stay away from black henna tattoos– no matter how much fun it seems at the time, you will regret it.”

More information can be found on the CTPA website here.

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