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Got the Itch for a Temporary Tattoo?

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Annie Finnegan

Aug. 17, 2000 -- The boom in body art may leave some people scratching their heads. But if you're one who goes for the look, but only temporarily, be forewarned: Some of those two-week tattoos may cause you to do a bit of scratching yourself.

According to a recent report in Archives of Dermatology, the application of some temporary tattoos often involves the use of certain chemicals that can irritate the skin. Fortunately, doctors say the allergic reactions are easy to treat and can even be prevented.

Unlike permanent tattoos, no needles are required for mehndi, the ancient art made famous by pop icon Madonna two years ago. Now applied by street artists around the world, the intricate Indian designs cost between $5 and $30 and fade within two to three weeks. Their distinctive reddish-brown tint comes from the Middle Eastern henna plant, whose powdered leaves are mixed with water or tea.

Most people aren't allergic to henna, but some have allergies to the hair dye that's added for black tattoos, says co-author James Shaw, MD, an associate professor and chief of dermatology at University of Chicago Hospital. "So the best way to prevent a skin reaction is to insist on pure henna."

Allergy to hair dye causes red, itchy blisters in two to 10 days, but only around the tattoo. "Cortisone cream takes care of it, but you can also just wait it out," Shaw tells WebMD. "Like poison ivy, the chemical remains in the skin, so there's no risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction like the kind caused by bee stings."

But the tattoos can cause long-term skin changes, even if you're not allergic to hair dye. Bruce Nadler, MD, a New York City plastic surgeon, tells WebMD: "Some people are allergic to solvents that are used to prepare the skin, like acetone or lighter fluid. If you scratch the resulting bumps and blisters, your skin can heal with light or dark areas, especially with repeated tattooing."

After having one such experience, a South Carolina woman says she'd do it all over again. "I got a black tattoo on a trip to New York City," says Andrea Creighton, a 32-year-old office manager. "My arm got red, itchy, and swollen after a few days, but I still got lots of compliments. And even though I'm married now and about to have a baby, I'd get another one for the right occasion."

Perhaps that's because she works for a dermatologist. "I've treated several patients for mild skin reactions, but mehndi are still a whole lot safer than permanent tattoos," says Jon Morgan, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. "There aren't any needles, so there's no risk of HIV or hepatitis, [and] you can reduce the risk of an allergic skin reaction."

He tells WebMD that whether you're getting the tattoo at home or on the street, some of the following suggestions should be taken to heart:

On the street:

  • Insist on pure henna
  • Refuse "black henna"
  • Allow only rubbing alcohol for skin preparation

At home:

  • Avoid kits that contain paraphenylenediamine or pyrogallol
  • Patch test a small area for several days before application


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