Dear EarthTalk: My daughter loves those press-on tattoos, and they’re frequently given out at birthday parties and other events. But I’ve noticed the labels say they’re only for ages three and up. Are they safe? If not, are there alternatives?
— Debra Jones, Lansing, MI
For the most part, so-called temporary tattoos are safe for kids and grown-ups alike, even if they do contain a long list of scary sounding ingredients including resins, polymers, varnishes and dyes. But if they are sold legitimately in the U.S., their ingredients have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FSA) as cosmetics, meaning the agency has found them to be safe for “direct dermal contact.” The FDA has received reports of minor skin irritation including redness and swelling, but such cases have been deemed “child specific” and were not widespread enough to warrant general warnings to the public.
Those who are concerned anyway but still want a temporary tattoo might consider an airbrush tattoo—they are sprayed on over a stencil using FDA-approved cosmetic inks. The rub on these in the past was that they didn’t last very long, but new varieties are reported to last two weeks, and can be easily removed prior to that with isopropyl alcohol, just like their “press-on” cousins.
Another alternative way to go is henna-based tattoos, which typically do not contain any additives whatsoever. Henna is a flowering plant used since the days of our earliest civilizations to dye skin, fingernails, hair, leather, and wool—and it makes for a relatively natural—although monotone—temporary tattoo.
But the FDA warns consumers to steer clear of any temporary tattoos labeled as “black henna” or “pre-mixed henna,” as these have been known to contain potentially harmful adulterants including silver nitrate, carmine, pyrogallol, disperse orange dye and chromium. Researchers have linked such ingredients to a range of health problems including allergic reactions, chronic inflammatory reactions, and late-onset allergic reactions to related clothing and hairdressing dyes. Neither black henna nor pre-mixed henna are approved for cosmetic use by the FDA and should be avoided even if they are for sale in a reputable store.
Something else to watch out for are the micro-injection machines used by some professional temporary tattoo artists such as might be hired for a corporate event or a festival While getting a microinjection-based temporary tattoo may not hurt, it does puncture the skin. The United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive recently issued a warning that improperly cleaned machines could facilitate the spread of infectious diseases including HIV and hepatitis. As a result, several types of micro-injection machines with internal parts that could carry contamination from one customer to another have been banned there. Such machines aren’t as popular in the U.S., but if you aren’t sure, it’s best to avoid it. The more familiar press-on temporary tattoos are a safer bet regardless.
Just in case you’re worried that the FDA isn’t checking, the agency has in the recent past issued import blocks on temporary tattoos that do not comply with federal labeling regulations; buyers beware that the ones you get should clearly list their ingredients on the packaging per FDA requirements.