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FDA warns against temporary tattoos

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An artist demonstrates her skills with henna at a showcase of tattoo art during the Singapore Art Show 2007. (REUTERS/Rob Dawson)

A press-on butterfly tattoo may seem like an easy alternative to the pain and permanency of real ink, but the Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers that temporary tattoos aren't risk free.

FDA officials cautioned that temporary tattoos can cause allergic reactions, in a May 13 seminar on the agency's website.

The FDA would like temporary tattoo users to report reactions to the government, said Katherine Hollinger, an epidemiologist with the FDA Office of Cosmetics and Colors. The agency cannot currently provide any information on the number of adverse reactions reported each year.

"If you had a reaction to a temporary tattoo or any cosmetic product, the FDA wants to know," she said. [8 Weird Signs of an Allergic Reaction]

FDA authority

Cosmetics (including temporary tattoos) do not have to receive FDA approval before they go on the market, while medicines do. However, the color additives in cosmetics do have to go through FDA approval.

There is no data on the number of people who use temporary tattoos each year, said Hollinger. The agency does receive voluntary reports of problems, Hollinger said in response to a question from Live Science, but would release those numbers only through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The FDA can take action against harmful products, but in the case of temporary tattoos, can only determine the existence of a problem if consumers provide voluntary reports of harm.

Types of tattoos

There are a number of temporary tattoos on the market, said Bhakti Petigara Harp, a chemist in the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors. Beyond the wet-and-press tattoos found in bubble gum machines, there are several types of temporary tattoos that use plant-based and synthetic dyes.

One type uses henna, a paste made from the dried leaves of the lawsonia plant, which is frequently used to paint intricate designs on the hands and feet of Indian and Pakistani brides. Some henna products are mixed with a hair-dye ingredient, p-phenylenediamine (PPD), which gives the remaining designs a black or blue-black color. Although they are frequently used for skin designs, neither henna nor PPD are approved by the FDA for use on the skin.

Another dye, jagua, derives from the unripened fruit of the Genipa americana, a South American tree. Indigenous people in the Amazon have long used jagua for body decorations, but the dye is newer to the United States.

Allergic reactions to these dyes can involve rashes and blisters. Long-term effects might include scarring, skin changes and increased sensitivity to sun, Hollinger said.

Of course, real tattoos come with their own set of risks, including contaminated ink that has caused infection outbreaks.

Some people also have allergies to tattoo ink, particularly if it's red. In February, doctors reported the case of a man who developed an allergic reaction to his tattoo 20 years after getting inked, as a side effect of a bone marrow transplant.

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