When a local boy got a $5 temporary tattoo in April, he never dreamed he'd end up at the doctor's office with what might end up bring a permanent scar. Now he and his mother want other families to know that henna tattoos are not necessarily risk free.
Ten-year-old Jack Whitehead was excited to get his tattoo during spring break with his family in Mexico. His excitement faded once he got home.
"It didn't show a reaction until about a week and a half later when it started getting little lumps on it," Jack said.
Over time, the lumps got bigger, and redder, and itchy.
"And then it started getting worse and I'd become kinda frantic," he said.
He learned he had an allergic reaction to a chemical commonly added to henna dye to make it black.
"Paraphenylenediamine," explained Jack's doctor, Dermatologist Erica Linnell.
Linnell and other dermatology specialists say a lot of people who get black henna tattoos have no idea they're allergic.
"It's estimated that about 5 percent of people are allergic to paraphenylenediamine, however it may be more, because I think a lot of these allergies go unreported," Linnell said.
Graphic photos posted on YouTube show severe, painful blisters caused by what the FDA calls adulterated henna dyes that are actually illegal in the United States and not approved for use on your skin. Dr. Linnell says the severity of reactions can range from a mild discoloration to large, unsightly and very painful scars.
Jack's mother, Amy Stackhouse, says had she and her husband known about the safety concerns they would never have allowed Jack and his sister to get the tattoos. Jack's sister, as it turns out, is not allergic and had no adverse reaction.
"If anything good came out of it, we know now that he's allergic to this ingredient," said Stackhouse.
It's been more than a month since getting his henna tattoo and Jack still needs a topical steroid to counteract the allergens. He and his mother want other families to know that just because it's billed as temporary, doesn't mean a henna tattoo is harmless and safe.
While some brown or red hennas can also cause allergic reactions in some people, black henna's are a special concern because of the chemical additives that are not always disclosed. The Food and Drug Administration is stepping up warnings as we get into summer- when more people are likely to try the henna alternative to permanent ink.
The FDA has also issued an import alert for foreign-made henna products intended for the skin. Regulators emphasize that henna dyes are only approved for use as a hair dye. Under federal regulation no henna dye of any kind is approved for legal use on your skin.