Study Suggests Some Tattoo Inks Could Be Toxic

Hygiene isn't the only concern when it comes to tattoo safety — the ink itself can also be dangerous, studies find. (Photo: Getty Images)
Hygiene isn’t the only concern when it comes to tattoo safety — the ink itself can also be dangerous, studies find. (Photo: Getty Images)

You know the design will last forever, but it turns out you may be getting more than you bargain for when you get a tattoo. According to The Sun, long-lasting and even fatal skin problems could be part of the package.

The article references “a shocking new study” from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) that finds the dyes in tattoo inks can lead to cancer. Other adverse effects include reproductive toxicity and painful itching that can last for years when the ink literally gets under your skin — and red ink is the most dangerous, the ECHA says on its website. Green, black, and blue inks are also thought to be significantly harmful.

This report could have a major impact on the tattoo industry; it’s likely that certain inks will be banned by the European Union altogether. As of now, the inks are not regulated by the EU, which has been asked to “assess the risks, the relevant socio-economic impacts and the need for Union-wide action by preparing a dossier for restriction.” The ECHA emphasizes that restrictions would not be placed on hygienic practices that could lead to infection; this would be up to the individual tattoo artist and the client to determine.

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Rick Stevens, president of the Tattoo and Piercing Industry Union, in the U.K., blames the toxic compounds found in many tattoo inks currently used in the EU on the influx of cheap Chinese inks, which are not regulated or checked for safety. In addition, U.K. tattoo shops are not regulated by the government at all, though a record number of U.K. citizens are reportedly getting inked.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. also warns about the dangers of tattoo inks. On its website, the FDA says that allergic reactions to tattoo inks can happen “right after tattooing or even years later.” Like ECHA, the FDA cites itchy or inflamed skin at the tattoo site, and confirms that it does not currently regulate inks in the U.S. But, it says, “recent reports associated with permanent make-up inks have prompted FDA to study tattoo ink safety.”

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Currently, the FDA’s Arkansas-based National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) is conducting studies on the inks used in American tattoo parlors to examine chemical compositions, short- and long-term safety, and the reactions of pigments to light. The NCTR is also finding that tattoo removal procedures — in which lasers are used to break down ink — may be sending the pigment to the body’s lymph nodes, which “filter out disease-causing organisms.” Cancer cells that enter the lymph nodes have been found to then metastasize throughout the body.

According to the Truth About Cancer, about 10 percent of people who have gotten tattoos have suffered adverse reactions from the ink — reactions that include itching and infections that last for more than four months. The website also cites a study by Copenhagen University Hospital, which found carcinogenic chemicals in 13 out of 21 common tattoo inks in Europe, and the origins of the inks are unknown. Even the most common pigment — black — is known to contain poisonous chemicals that have been directly linked to cancer.

While the EU will likely put regulations in place soon, the FDA has not indicated that tattoo ink will be regulated in the near future and may not make any announcements until the results of its testing come through.

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