Henna Tattooing: Cultural Tradition Meets Regulation

November 2007

62 Food and Drug Law Journal 779-804 (2007).

As options for personal body art increase, individuals may choose to permanently decorate their bodies with permanent or temporary tattoos. Tattooing of both kinds has become a more mainstream practice, prompting FDA to increase its involvement in the industry. Through the case study of henna tattoos, or mehndi, this article explores the history of that form of temporary tattoo, its use in minority communities and the complications of regulating the practice. Currently, FDA does not approve the use of henna or mehndi for direct application to the skin. Under the cosmetics and color additives regulations, henna has only been approved for use on the hair. Building on sociocultural and scientific data, the article draws a distinction between henna tattoo products that contain pure henna powder, and those products that have been adulterated with PPD, lead, or other dangerous diluents. These products are often referred to as “black” or “blue henna” because of the characteristically dark images they produce. The author recommends that FDA permit pure henna to be sold in tattoo kits and other forms specifically for application to the skin. Then FDA could direct its energies on the adulterated products and more dangerous practices, such as permanent tattooing, to avoid excessive interference with relatively safe cultural practices.


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