How a Temporary Tattoo Left a Scar on Hanna

What started as a fun show of support for the Boston College Eagles became a big regret for Hanna. As a college senior, she put a maroon and black eagle tattoo on her face during a football game in 2012. But now, more than a year later, she is still trying to repair the temporary tattoo skin reaction.

Hanna knew she had a problem when she tried to take off the tattoo. “It probably took me 20 minutes or more to scrub off, and it was pretty painful,” recalled the 22-year-old public relations representative from Boston. Her skin was red, inflamed, and blistery. “The blisters and inflammation subsided after a week or two, but then the scarring set in,” she said.

Hanna isn't alone in her negative temporary tattoo experience. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received several complaints about allergic reactions to decal-style tattoos. Some made overseas contain colors not approved by the FDA and are now banned from entering the United States.

Temporary Tattoo Warning: Black Henna

Decal tattoos aren’t the only kind of temporary tattoo that can cause reactions. Tattoos applied at kiosks in malls or along boardwalks or other tourist destinations also can be dangerous. After receiving reports of serious temporary tattoo skin reactions, the FDA issued an alert about them. Reported reactions included redness, blisters, raised red weeping marks, loss of skin pigmentation, increased sensitivity to sunlight, and permanent scarring.

In permanent tattoos, ink is injected into the skin. However, temporary tattoos sit on the skin’s surface. Many are marketed as henna tattoos. Natural henna, which is made from a tropical and subtropical plant, is reddish-brown in color, said Joel Schlessinger, MD, a dermatologist in Omaha, Neb., and chief executive of, a beauty site. “It has traditionally been used to dye hair, skin, and fingernails for centuries,” he said.

Many temporary tattoos today are sold as "black henna" tattoos, which are darker and supposed to be longer-lasting than traditional henna tattoos. But according to the FDA, so-called black henna tattoos often contain a coal-tar hair dye that includes p-phenylenediamine (PPD), an ingredient that can cause allergic reactions in some people. PPD is not approved for use in cosmetics that are applied directly to the skin.

Hanna does not know whether the tattoo she put on her face contained PPD or any other dangerous ingredient.

Temporary Tattoo Skin Reaction: Scar Treatment

Heather Woolery-Lloyd, MD, director of ethnic skin care for the University of Miami department of dermatology and cutaneous surgery and co-founder of Specific Beauty skin care products, said she has seen about 10 cases of allergic skin reactions from black henna tattoos.

“When the inflammation is severe, and especially in darker-skinned patients, the patient can develop post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation in the shape of the tattoo," Dr. Woolery-Lloyd said. "This usually fades with time ... ranging from six months to several years. Fade creams may help, but usually the pigment is very deep. In the most severe cases, scarring — textural changes in the skin — can occur. Fractional lasers may help to soften the look of this type of scarring.”

Hanna said her doctor recommended using Mederma, an over-the-counter topical, to help minimize the scar, but so far it hasn’t helped. It’s likely the scar is now permanent, she said. To hide it, she uses makeup thick enough to cover a tattoo, but "even with makeup, it's still noticeable,” she said.

3 Ways to Prevent a Bad Temporary Tattoo Reaction

State health departments “regulate parlors that provide permanent tattoos, but many states don’t have formal standards for temporary tattoos,” Dr. Schlessinger said. That means it's buyer beware in many locales. Here’s how to avoid temporary tattoo danger:

  • Know what you’re putting on your skin. Ask the tattoo artist whether he or she is using natural brown henna, which typically fades in a few days and is safe. “When kiosks promise darker, longer-lasting temporary tattoos, this is a sign they could be using black henna,” Schlessinger said.
  • Proceed with caution. As Hanna said: "If you're going to put on a temporary tattoo, don’t put it somewhere your skin is sensitive. And be very, very careful when taking it off. Use some kind of makeup remover and don’t scrub too hard.”
  • Think before you ink. A temporary tattoo may seem fun in the moment, but it could cause you to have permanent problems later. “The best way to stay safe is to completely avoid temporary tattoos of any kind,” said Schlessinger.
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