Dangerous Designs | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Dangerous Designs

With spring break upon us, the beach has erupted with sunburned collegiates walking around in a daze. Naturally, vendors along A1A want a piece of them.

And besides the bikinis and T-shirts with witticisms like "I Support Single Moms," there are the skin artists. Nothing sets off a day-old tan like a Celtic knot circling a biceps or a lower-back tat positioned just above a bikini bottom, so plenty of operators tempt the crowds. And for those not ready for real commitment (at least, not one lasting beyond a return to classes), there's the temporary henna tattoo, which fades in three to four weeks.

But as with so many of spring break's attractions, henna tattoos are not all they seem. Some even have the potential to scar for life.

Local health regulators and business watchdogs have known for years that some hucksters routinely substitute industrial dyes for a natural extract of the henna plant, even though some people can develop violent allergic reactions to the stuff.

P-pheylenediamine (PPD), sometimes called "black henna," is used in commercial hair dyes. Completely different from authentic henna — a plant paste used to make ritual Indian skin designs called mehndi — PPD is cheaper, easier to apply to skin, and blacker than real henna, which takes days to "develop" from a light orange to a final deep brown. And unlike authentic henna, which is widely considered safe for skin application, so-called black henna can make delicate skin erupt into blistering redness that can lead to permanent scarring. The reaction can also spread, causing grotesque full-body swelling, itching, and skin sloughing. Catherine Cartwright-Jones, who operates a comprehensive website, the Henna Page, claims that thousands of people have been injured by PPD-based tattoos.

"If they're an ethical facility, they're not going to mix the PPD inside the henna," says Michael Spindell, biomedical-waste coordinator for the Broward County Department of Health. "It's almost the same amount of dye that you'd be using if you had a printing press. I've seen some severe scars."

Spindell and Cartwright-Jones say Florida tourists have complained about allergic reactions to black henna sold in places like Key West, Fort Myers, and Daytona Beach, and three years ago, the state Department of Health issued a warning about the tattoos.

And it's no secret that vendors sell black henna in Fort Lauderdale. Local henna artist Yasamin Hanna warns her customers about shops on the Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood strips. "There were a couple of T-shirt shops where they had a little board set up in front with the designs that you could get," she says. "They were marketing as black henna, marketing to tourists." Palm Beach-based henna artist Nazha Ahmed says she regularly gets questions about black henna.

Cartwright-Jones says she's received several complaints from victims in the Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach area. But the only official local complaint New Times could locate was from Steven Roberts, who contacted the Broward County Consumer Affairs Division, the Florida Department of Health, and the State Attorney General in 2001.

Roberts was vacationing in Fort Lauderdale with his wife when they bought a henna tattoo from New Edition, a beachfront shop on A1A.

Roberts describes it as "a pattern around her left thigh, a playful vacation thing that we would not normally do, but it was promised to wear off in two to three weeks."

Within a day, Roberts' wife had an allergic reaction. "The tattoo began swelling, blistering, and becoming exceedingly painful," he says. "Within three days, it looked like someone had cinched barbed wire around her thigh and dragged her around for a while."

Three months later, Roberts' wife still had a scar. Roberts was livid and wrote to various Florida state agencies from his home in Washington state, and he posted an account of the incident on his website. He says only the Broward County Consumer Affairs office responded.

Larry Kaplan of the BCCA launched an investigation. "What we discovered is that it was unregulated," he says.

Kaplan inspected several stores on the Fort Lauderdale strip, though he didn't test any of their wares for PPD. "We just walked up the block, and they all had it," he says. "We spoke with them, and they said, 'We've been using this stuff; it's not harmful. '"

Kaplan forwarded his concerns to the Florida Department of Health. But except for making a public warning about PPD in 2003, the DOH has left no evidence that it ever investigated Fort Lauderdale stores in the wake of Kaplan's request.

Mixing a toxic chemical into a skin product appears to be a clear violation of federal law. But when New Times called the DOH, the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and the Department of Agriculture, each agency referred calls to the others.

Meanwhile, back on the beach, the henna tattoo business is good. New Times counted six stores advertising henna tattoos on Fort Lauderdale Beach. While one artist appeared to use real henna and warned against black henna, she was in the minority. One proprietor of a store on NE Ninth Street that had neither a name nor a visible address touted the advantages of his black henna, which he applied from a small black squeeze bottle for $30 to $50 a design.

"This is the real stuff — real black henna," he told a New Times reporter. "Not like that yellow shit. This doesn't look fake. That's why it costs so much."

When asked about his product's effect on sensitive skin, he said: "Don't be a chicken. It doesn't hurt. How's this — if it hurts, it's free."

Kaplan, of the Broward County Consumer Affairs Division, is frustrated to learn that black henna is still in Fort Lauderdale, four years after he first investigated it. "If this information has been out there so long, why hasn't some agency or the legislature decided to regulate it?" he says. "Clearly, at the very least, I would say ban the product or at least disclose that there have been incidents of people having allergic reactions to this product."

The good news is that New Edition, near the Elbo Room on A1A, where Steven Roberts encountered black henna four years ago, no longer offers henna tattoos. A staffer said they did sell them up until a year ago, until it "just wasn't worth it anymore."

Apparently, market forces are better public health regulators than, well, public health regulators.