Consumers Association of Penang

Giving voice to the little people...since 1970

Toxic black henna dyes

Henna, a 9,000 year-old South Asian and Middle Eastern tradition of painting the body, has found its way to the  mainstream. Henna tattoos have been spotted on everyone from singing divas to movie stars to spring breakers. Henna is also used to dye hair.

Though the popularity of the body art rises, information surrounding it does not. Few realise that a form of henna, called "black henna," can poison us.
Henna, a paste made from the Arabic bush for which it is named, is a temporary ink used to decorate the body that fades after about 2 weeks. It's also used regularly to colour hair.

Henna should be brown, brick, or cinnamon in color. This is the natural color of henna, which experts and dermatologists say is safe for the skin.

However, many people want their body art black, and very often it's that colour that is unsafe.

Black henna is usually made by mixing the toxin p-phenylenediamine (PPD), commonly used as black hair dye, with henna to change the henna to black.

The allure of black henna is that it satisfies a demand for temporary tattoos to look real. It also decreases the drying time from up to 2 hours to just minutes. But it's the risks that come with black henna that caused the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) to ban its use for body art.

The FDA has also posted an import alert on henna. The alert states that any temporary tattoos that include unsafe additives or do not list ingredients cannot enter the country.

Black henna can cause allergic reactions to the skin ranging from a poison-oak-like rash to blistering, oozing sores, intense itching and scarring to acute breathing problems, said Stefani R. Takahashi, a dermatologist in California who has seen first-hand the repercussions of black henna.

The reaction can happen up to 3 weeks after the henna tattoo was applied.

PPD can pass through the skin into the bloodstream and cause harm to internal organs such as the kidneys and liver. Even those administering black henna are at risk of health problems from inhaling PPD.