Henna Allergy Warning

As a part of her baby shower, a good friend of mine had her hands and feet painted with henna. The henna artist told us that it was traditional to paint the hands and feet of the expecting mother as a reminder that she shouldn’t be on her feet or working. She should be resting, and letting others take care of her.

Henna is a lovely, natural, and temporary alternative to more permanent body decorations (like piercings and tattoos). But the American Academy of Dermatology has issued a warning about certain types of henna used in temporary tattoos.

Natural (or true) henna is made from plants and is usually harmless. It is red when applied and dries to a dark brown on the skin. Black henna uses a chemical that helps make the tattoo dry faster and last longer… but that chemical (paraphenylenediamine or PPD) can cause a severe allergic reaction in some people.

Symptoms of a PPD allergy can include:

  • Skin reddening
  • Skin swelling
  • Skin blistering

The reaction occurs only in the place where the black henna has been applied — so you may find yourself with a reaction in the shape of whatever design you chose. Dermatologists are seeing patients come in with blisters in the shape of flowers, celestial figures, and abstract designs thanks to a black henna allergy.

A black henna allergy isn’t life threatening, but it can permanently darken or scar the skin. For most patients, the reaction goes away within a few weeks and the skin goes back to normal. Steroid creams can help reduce the swelling and redness.

If you have had a reaction to black henna, dermatologists warn that you may now have a lifelong sensitivity to PPD. That allergy can cause problems with related chemicals that are used in some hair dyes, anesthetics, and medications for diabetes, blood pressure, and heart disease.

You can stay safe by staying with true henna — the reddish brown stuff that fades within a few days. Avoid black henna, and wary of artists who claim that their art will last for more than a few days!