CBC MARKETPLACE: HEALTH » BLACK
could lead to permanent problems
Broadcast: December 2, 2003
They're making a comeback. Tattoos are
decorating the bodies of celebrities kids love to copy.
But many of them are drawn on — no painful
needles etching permanent markings on the body. The artists
use ink they call "black henna." They say it's
from a plant.
A simple henna tattoo
A simple design takes about 30 seconds and
costs about $15. It's cheap and, the
artists say, harmless.
But Evan Kirk discovered otherwise while on
vacation in Florida. He got a Chinese design painted on his
back. A day later, he was in agony.
"I couldn’t really see because it
was on my back but you could feel it dripping and I had to
put a cloth on it because there was so much puss."
Kirk was told the tattoo was applied using
In its paste form, natural henna is green. Once
on the skin, it shows up red, orange or brown — never
Painting henna on the body is a thousand year
old tradition called Mehndi art. Shams Surani has been doing
it for 30 years.
"It’s the powder of the henna plant.
The plant goes back almost 1,500 years when they used it for
different purposes. They used it for self-tanning, dying clothes,
and for sunstrokes."
Later, it was used to decorate brides. With
the help of movies and magazines, henna art has gone mainstream.
But Evan Kirk did not get pure henna. His black
henna tattoo was doctored with a chemical known to irritate
the skin. It's called PPD — or paraphenylenediamine.
It makes henna tattoos black and longer lasting. But it can
also cause serious allergic reactions in some people.
Health Canada warning
Like any allergy, not everyone will react. But
the risk is severe enough that Health Canada has banned PPD
in cosmetics. In August 2003, Health Canada sent out a warning
about black henna tattoos containing PPD. The problem is,
most people still don't know that black henna can be harmful
and many of the artists underplay the risk.
With a hidden camera, Marketplace visited
two black henna booths. At the first one, the artist mentioned
possible allergic reactions only after our researcher specifically
asked. But at the second booth, a surprising admission:
Artist: Your skin might bubble. You might
have a scar there?
Researcher : It might leave a scar?
Artist: You might have a scar.
Researcher: How often does that happen?
Artist: Not that often.
One company makes kids sign a waiver saying
they are aware of possible irritations to the skin. Kids sign
but generally ignore it. Meantime the message is that it’s
Krystal Craig trust that black henna was harmless,
but she learned something different when she got a tattoo
at a Toronto exhibition last year.
"I noticed there was like little bumps
on it and they were red and itching. And it just kept getting
Krystal's mother, Deborah, did some research
and found warnings about black henna tattoos on the internet.
"We started up a little web page of Krystal’s
story and started to circulate it through the e-mails to see
if we could get anybody coming forward to share their stories
With testimonials like Krystal's and Evan's,
Marketplace decided to test some black henna commonly
used in Canada.
Steel agreed to let Marketplace test her henna
First stop — Body X, a division of Picasso
Painters, set up at the Canadian National
Exhibition. Owner/operator Georgia Steel says she would
do hundreds of
a day at the summer
fair. She also said there was no PPD in her black henna.
"What I do know is that now we’re
making sure that we’re not using anything unless we
have a guarantee from the manufacturer. Gradually as we
get rid of the remnants from past suppliers, we bring in
the product from the new suppliers."
We asked Steel for a sample, so we could test
it. She gave us one.
Next stop was "Little Miss Henna,"
operating out of large theme parks and shopping malls. When
we reached the owner, Melanie Marcus by phone, she was not
keen to speak with us.
"You can go and talk to my competitor all
you want. I’m not available to be honest with you. I
don’t want you talking about me and my company."
Marcus said her product contained no henna,
but she would not give us a sample to test.
We got a better reception with aesthetician
Surani. She said she sometimes uses black henna. She gave
us a sample to test.
And we went to the internet, where you can
easily buy black henna for home use.
We spoke to a dermatologist in Toronto —
Dr. Paul Cohen — who had this warning about black henna.
'Might cause a problem
later on,' says Dr. Paul Cohen
"I think people
have to be cautious and be aware that these seemingly innocuous
tattoos might potentially cause a problem later on."
That rings true for Evan Kirk. He dyed his
hair black, along with the rest of the players on his
He suffered a severe reaction and was in bed for a few days.
What the Kirks did not know was that the same
chemical in Evan's tattoo is found in many black hair dyes:
"What you’ve done by having this
tattoo done is you’ve sensitized yourself so you set
up your body to make an immune response to this PPD and then
when you dye your hair you might develop an allergic reaction
later on," Cohen said.
You could potentially set yourself up for trouble
down the road with just one or two tattoos.
Our lab tests on black henna showed some PPD.
The sample we bought off the internet scored the highest
with 10 per cent PPD. Sham Surant's sample showed 1 per
cent PPD. As for the sample from Body X — as the owner
told us, there was no detectable PPD.
The best advice? Ask if there is PPD in the
black henna you're about to try — and ask for proof.
Otherwise, you may be one of the few whose flirt with a tattoo
with PPD »