By Rivka Perlman

August 3, 2014

A Poisonous Tattoo


Hey Everyone, this post is long overdue. It’s about a freaky incident that happened a few months back. The first month or two we were frantically trying to deal with it. By the time I was ready to post, Neshama got burned and the feedback from that post was overwhelming. I didn’t want this vital info to get lost in the hustle so I waited a bit.

Headwwrapping Expo

Here goes-As you know a few months back Wrapunzel went to the Headwrapping Expo in Detroit (click here for pictures).  It was incredible and eye opening.

A woman  had a henna painting booth next to us. We thought she was as lovely as could be and we thought it was henna.

At the end of the show, Hadassa, my daughter decided to get a henna tattoo. We figured it would be off in a few weeks and it was beautiful art, why not enjoy?Hadassa's Henna Tattoo

The next day she went to school hoping to share this cool thing but the girls did not like it. “Ew! It looks like a bug!,”

She was pretty disappointed, but in retrospect, their reaction is part of what saved her. After school she washed it off. It was hard though. She had to scrub mightily and no matter how hard she tried black stains remained. Eventually they turned red.

Hadassa's Henna Tattoo Henna

In the meantime, I had posted the picture of Hadassa’s Henna on facebook along with the other Expo photos and I received a message in response from a message from a woman named Tamar.

Rivka Malka! I really debated messaging this to you, because it sounds slightly insane, but in the end I wanted to give you the heads up. I don’t know if you are aware, but I’m a professional temporary body artist, and I’ve worked with face paint and henna for the last ten years. In the expo you have a picture labelled “Hadassa gets some henna”. Unfortunately, the product being applied to your daughter is NOT henna. Real henna is a thick brown paste that takes 4-8 hours to leave a stain. Your daughter had something called PPD or Para-phenylenediamine…….

I didn’t know what to make of it. I mentioned it to my daughter the next day and she said

“Yeah, my hand has been itching like crazy and I’ve been getting these blisters. They’re tiny bumps but there keep on being more of them…

We looked on Google to find out more and we were shocked!!! This is a real thing! And this is illegal (no that the Expo organizers knew about this – I am not placing the blame on them.)

Not just that but this woman is wildly popular on Instagram and had showed us her page. Hundreds of hands with PPD tattoos’. Of course we contacted her. Of course she said its not PPD, she said it’s Khadib (read below about Khadib) but in the meantime my daughter’s hand was getting worse and her anxiety was through the roof. She was sure her hand would be scarred forever.

Thankfully, because she washed it off and because Tamar told us that it was dangerous we treated it aggressively with fresh aloe three times a day and about a month and half later the burn faded.fresh aloe

I’m so grateful to Tamar and to the time that she gave me on the phone helping us through this so we could help Hadassa. Tamar wrote the below article specifically for you. she was horrified at what happened and from the goodness of her heart put together this information so that no one else will get a chemical burn.


It’s Tamar, coming at you from Chicago!  Tamar

Most of you don’t know me, but I’m a professional face painter, and I’m also a henna artist.

I’m here today to talk to you really briefly about henna.  I’ve been in the temporary body art industry for the last ten years.  I’ve attended numerous face painting and henna conventions, and the contents of this post draw heavily on classes, seminars, lectures, and podcasts from world renown giants in the henna industry including: Kim Brennan, Noam Sienna, Jen Schafer, Kendra Williams, and Deborah Brommer.  Whenever possible, I’ve included a link or reference for more information.

Tamar face painting

OK, so WHAT is in henna?

Henna is another name for the Lawsonia Inermis plant which is grown in arid areas of countries like Pakistan and India (Chaudhary et al, 2010).   Henna is also the term used for the action: “I’m getting a henna” or an event where henna is applied “Like, my cousin’s henna is tonight.”  The leaves of the henna plant are dried and ground into a powder – that brownish green stuff that’s in the back left in the picture.

A drop of Henna

But the henna powder that you see here won’t actually dye your skin.  In order to stain your skin, the powder has to be mixed into a paste.  This process typically takes 12-36 hours, and there is no “rushing  it”.   Recipes to make the paste vary: mine includes henna powder, lemon juice, sugar, and a variety of my favorite henna essential oils.  The essential oils are full of monoterpenes, which help release the dye and create a better color.  Depending on my mood I like to use a blend of cajeput, lavender, niaouli, or tea tree, with some geranium, frankincense, or cardamom added in.

Once the paste is made, it is placed into cones or bottles.  In the picture above my henna cone is on the right.  The henna can now be applied to the skin in beautiful patterns to create a piece of body art (see the picture below).  Henna art is common on hands and feet, but many of you have likely seen the growing trend of creating intricate henna crowns for chemo patients.

Henna Art

The henna paste needs to be left on the skin for 4-8 hours in order to properly stain, and then you need to follow some important aftercare instructions, like avoiding water for the next 24 hours.

What do I mean by properly stain?  Henna is a strong dye – it’ll start to stain the skin orange within a few minutes.  In the picture below, I wiped off the henna that I had on my hand after 5 minutes.


See that orange stain?  Yep, that’s after 5 minutes.  But it didn’t last long; that stain was gone within two days. In order to create a stain that lasts for longer then a few days, the lawsone molecule needs to penetrate the layers of the skin, and doing so takes us back to my earlier comment about leaving the paste on the skin for 4-8 hours.

After the paste is scraped off, the area where the henna paste sat will be bright, pumpkin orange.  Over the next 72 hours the stain will then oxidize and turn dark brown (a similar reaction to the black gunk that forms on your candlesticks and requires elbow grease and silver polish to remove, but I digress).  The dark brown design will then last anywhere from 4 days to 8 weeks depending on the person, how well it’s taken care of, and the part of the body where the paste was applied.  In areas where you have a thicker layer of skin cells (ex: the palms of the hands), the stain will be stronger than areas where your skin is thinner (ex: foreheads).

Conned henna paste that is leftover after you apply henna needs to be stored in the freezer.  Once in the freezer, henna paste will continue to stain the skin if reapplied even a full year later!  However, henna paste has a very short shelf life at room temperature.  While the henna won’t immediately grow mold and bacteria if left out for one day, its staining capabilities will demise.  Even in the refrigerator, henna paste loses its potency after a few days.


Is henna safe?
Real henna is safe for almost everyone.   The exception to this is if you have a condition called G6PD (you’d know if you had it!), or if you are allergic to fava beans and aspirin.  Infants and newborns should also avoid henna.

What do I mean by real henna? Well, in most places worldwide there is no licensing, insurance or even a criminal background check of street and festival artists.  So when it comes to the application of henna, it’s up to you to be a savvy consumer.  Unfortunately, there are people who are slinging “henna” at salons, festivals and street corners who aren’t really using lawsonia inermis.  They may tell you that it’s “henna”, but the artist is either confused, uneducated, or being deliberately misleading.   Because henna paste takes time to create, time to leave a stain, and it has a short shelf life, a robust industry has developed overseas around commercially created “henna” products that can be purchased from a grocery shelf and leave a stain in 15 minutes.   These products claim to be henna, but these commercially imported cones often contains little or no lawsonia Inermis whatsoever.

The most dangerous of the pseudo-henna that is currently available for the unsuspecting consumer is black henna.  Black Henna, also known as Paraphenylenediamine, p-Phenylenediamine, or PPD is a black chemical dye that is an active ingredient in dark chemical hair dyes.  Hair dye boxes are labeled with warning that the dye should not come into contact with skin, and that it is intended only for use on hair, and needs to be washed off within a short time frame.  Well, PPD is sometimes added in small amounts to henna paste or used in place of henna paste to make designs that are darker faster.  While hair dye can contain 6% ppd (and I’m sure you know at least one person that has a reaction from hair dye), black henna can contain up to a whopping 70% PPD!

PPD is illegal for use on skin in many countries, and for a good reason: PPD can cause blisters, scars, and internal organ damage when it comes in contact with skin cells!  PPD is a sensitizing chemical, meaning that every exposure carries a greater risk of causing a reaction, even if there was none in previous exposures.  To make matters even worse (because you weren’t already thinking that this stuff was toxic) PPD can have cross reactivity to permanent hair dyes, rubber chemicals, inks, clothing dyes, sunscreen and some diabetic and blood pressure medications (sulfonamides and hydrochlorothiazides) (Jacob & Brod, 2011). Once a reaction has happened, subsequent exposures can be life threatening.

Some traditional henna applying cultures use black henna because the practitioners are under the fraudulent belief that PPD is safe and natural (more on this later!).  Compounding the problem is the fact that PPD is often used on beaches, amusement parks, malls or vacation areas where a dark, quick product is desired, and vendors are transient (which means by the time you’ve had a reaction, the artist can be long gone!)

In the event that you do receive a black “henna” tattoo and it starts to itch or blister, you need to see a doctor ASAP.  An itchy black “henna” tattoo is really a chemical burn, and depending on the severity of the reaction, you may need prescription medication.  There are loads of truly gross photos of PPD burns – the following 2 photos are less gruesome.



One final word of caution as this post heads off to press.  Sometimes, black henna artists will tell you that they know that black henna is bad, but they are using natural “Khidab” henna ink.  Well, they’ve got it somewhat accurate…but it’s still not a good idea to got khidab body art.  Khidab is a gall-ink, charcoal, and metal oxide compound, and it does have a history of body art use.  However, there are a few things to keep in mind.  Number one, Khidab is NOT henna.  There is no lawsonia inermis in it, and so therefore, by definition, it isn’t henna.  Number two, the metal oxides can give some people a nasty skin reaction, and you won’t know if you are included in that population until after you are left with a miserable rash for a week or two (not fun!).  Number three; most of the khidab available today is simply a euphemism for varying amounts of PPD.   Number four, “traditional” and “all-natural” are feel good words that make you want to believe that something is safe.  But natural does not always mean safe.  Arsenic is “all natural” – but I wouldn’t want to ingest it!  As for traditional…well, for years it was traditional for hat makers to use mercury in their hats, and in Elizabethan England women used arsenic as white face powder…it was traditional! But it was also incredibly deadly.  And as my parting topic on black henna, the rule of “feel good” words and marketing ploys can be extended to a lot of situations in life; it is your job to be a savvy client!

But, as I mentioned before, black henna isn’t the only pseudo-henna on grocery shelves and at festivals.  I mentioned before that there are red and brown colored commercially imported cones that don’t require refrigeration and promise to leave a stain in as little as fifteen minutes on the skin. These cones often claim to be “henna” or even “natural henna”, but natural henna can NEVER accomplish those claims!  So what is in the commercially imported cones?  Well, unfortunately they are created in countries where labeling laws are incredibly suspect, and so there is no way to know for certain what is truly in that product. Do you remember my earlier comment on monoterpenes?  Essential oils like lavender and tea tree have high levels of monoterpenes and are great henna paste additions.  Unfortunately, gasoline, kerosene, camphor, and turpentine also have high levels of monoterpenes, and they have been known to be added to “henna paste” in order to up the ante on the stain power.  Just in case you weren’t scared enough, coffee, black walnut powder, and black kattam powder is sometimes also added in the hopes of boosting a henna stain, but these items range from causing allergic reactions to major skin irritation.

Ok Tamar, now you are scaring me! I just want to be able to get a henna! But how can I know if I have the “natural” stuff, or the faux henna?

The good news is that it’s incredibly easy to spot the fake “henna” from the real stuff!  Let’s use this photo as an example.  Is it real, or is the artist using fake henna?


If you said that this wasn’t henna, you were right!  How can you tell?

  1. It’s black! Automatically that means that this is NOT unadulterated lawsonia inermis.

  2. See how that “henna” is being painted on from that mixture in a cup?  Henna is a thick paste that gets squeezed out of cones or bottles.  In comparison, ppd based mixtures are often more liquid-y, and they need to be mixed in tiny shot-glass amounts.

Here’s an easy checklist to keep in mind:

  1. Look at the henna.  A slogan to remember is, “If it’s black – it’s whack!” If you see black paste, you know it’s not henna and you should RUN away!  If it’s brown or brownish-olive, go and have a chat with the artist, and take a closer look at that cone.  If you see a brand name and logo stamped onto the cone that means you are dealing with an artist that has commercial paste.  If you see a clear or patterned cone, that’s a good sign!  Natural henna paste does not come in cones with corporate labels.  But that still doesn’t mean that the paste is safe….proceed to step two and –

  2. Ask the artist what’s in the henna paste.  If the artist says “I bought it”, that can be another red flag for commercially made, preservative-and-chemical-laden paste.  If the artist claims that there is “mehndi oil”, or “henna stone”, walk away! Mehndi oil can be code for anything from eucalyptus to gasoline! Henna stone, or black rocks are usually code names for ppd.  If the artist doesn’t know what’s in the paste that should also be incredibly suspicious and a sign that you should pass on getting a henna from that artist.  If everything sounds kosher, you should –

  3. Ask how long the henna should remain on your skin.  If the answer is 15 minutes then the product being used isn’t henna!  Walk away! If the answer is 4 hours –

  4. Do a quick “sniff test” of the henna. Natural henna smells like essential oils.  Fake henna can smell like ammonia, hair dye, gasoline, or kerosene.  If it doesn’t smell “yummy” and “flower-y”, walk away!  If it smells ok –

  5. Ask the henna artist if he/she has liability insurance.  The general rule for body art (and this applies to face painting too!) is if the artist says “no”, it’s a bad idea for you or your child to sit down in that chair!

  6. And lastly, look at the henna artist’s hands.  Someone that has been doing henna designs on others all morning should have blotchy hands with varying shades of orange and brown.  If the artist has black, red, or purple splotches, they aren’t using a pure lawsone product.

If you have any more questions, feel free to contact me! I can be reached through my website: or email: Tamarielpaints AT yahoo DOT com.

I’m happy to chat more about henna safety, how henna works, and I am on friendly terms with henna artists all over the world!  If you are interested in getting some henna, but don’t know who in your neighborhood uses quality paste, I can help you out!





Chaudhary, G, Goyal, S. & Priyanka P.  (2010) Lawsonia inermis Linnaeus: A Phytopharmacological Review. International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Drug Research; 2(2): 91-98

Henna Caravan –

Jacob, S & Brod, B. (2011). Paraphenylenediamine in Black Henna Tattoos.  The Journal of Clinical and Aesthethic Dermatology.  4(12): 46–47.


Do you want to contact Rivka Malka about coaching school?