Tattoo Safety

Henna Tattoo Image

You may know that tattoos aren't completely risk free, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that the ink used in tattoos can sometimes cause infections. But did you also know that even temporary tattoos carry some risk? According to the FDA, there have been several complaints about serious reactions - many requiring medical attention - from temporary tattoos.

Widespread studies about tattoo safety have not been conducted. Inks and ink colorings (pigments) used in tattoos are regulated by the FDA as cosmetics and color additives, but they are not approved by the FDA for injection into the skin. Henna, which is commonly used in temporary tattoos, is approved for use in hair dye, but not for skin application.

Tattoo Risks

Permanent tattoos may pose the following risks and safety concerns:

  • Infection - Hepatitis, HIV and other infections can be passed from person-to-person through needles that are re-used without being properly cleaned and disinfected and in some cases, through contaminated ink.
  • Allergies - Ink pigments in both permanent and temporary tattoos may cause allergic reactions.
  • Scarring - Getting or removing a permanent tattoo can cause scar tissue to form.
  • Granulomas - The immune system may form small collections of tissue around material - such as, particles of tattoo pigment - that the body perceives as foreign.
  • MRI complications - In rare cases, temporary swelling or burning in the area of a tattoo may occur during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scan).
  • Migration of pigment - Research indicates that some of tattoo pigments may enter the lymph nodes. Whether this causes adverse health effects is not yet known.

How Safe Are Temporary Tattoos?

Temporary tattoos, which typically last from about 3 days to several weeks, also can cause severe, sometimes long-lasting reactions. Often marketed as "henna tattoos," this common type of body art involves applying dye to the surface of the skin. Reactions can occur immediately, or weeks later, and include the following:

  • Redness
  • Blisters (fluid-filled lesions that may be painful)
  • Raised, red, weeping lesions
  • Loss of skin pigmentation (resulting in changes in skin color)
  • Increased sensitivity to the sun
  • Permanent scars

Henna is a reddish-brown dye made from a flowering plant that grows in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. It has been used for thousands of years to color leather and cloth, hair, fingernails and skin. In some cases, a product called "black henna" is used instead of traditional henna to create temporary tattoos.

Black henna tattoos are darker and last longer, but the ingredients used—often a coal-tar hair dye containing a substance called p-phenylenediamine (PPD)—are potentially harmful. PPD causes dangerous skin reactions in some people. In the United States, this substance is banned by law from cosmetics that are intended for use on the skin.

Laws and regulations for temporary tattooing vary from state to state. The FDA warns that some temporary tattoo kiosks—often found at festivals, beaches and boardwalks, amusement parks, and ethnic or specialty shops—may not be closely regulated and should be avoided.

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 27 Mar 2013

Last Modified: 03 Nov 2014