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The Truth About Tattoos

Health Risks, Toxicity and More

Julie Genser, Planet Thrive founder



Teens with tattoos


A FRIGHTENINGLY GROWING NUMBER OF TEENS and young adults around the world are injecting dangerous chemicals under their skin in the name of art and self-expression. A trend that started growing in America and Europe in the early ‘90s, tattooing soon became so popular that 36% of Americans aged 25-29 had at least one body tattoo by 2003.1 The numbers have undoubtedly risen in the four years since; tattoos are now well-entrenched in the mainstream. Even the media regularly glorifies tattoo culture, as evidenced by reality TV shows like The Learning Channel’s Miami Ink and LA Ink, and Inked on A&E, as well as frequent magazine sightings of tattoo-sporting celebrities like Paris Hilton, David Beckham, and Angelina Jolie, and print ads featuring tattooed models and athletes, like Calvin Klein Underwear’s Fredrik Ljungberg (who, by the way, had a severe allergic reaction to his tattoos and had to have a lymph gland removed).2

What’s formaldehyde and antifreeze doing in your skin?
Tattooing is an art form that has been used for centuries by tribal societies in religious rites and as a natural part of life. At first banned and then appropriated by Western culture, tattoos have recently developed as a decorative art of self-expression; used by some to celebrate events, memorialize a departed loved one, or as a show of commitment to a life partner. There is one thing for sure: all tattoos have a story. What’s not so clear is exactly what we’re injecting into our skin for art’s sake.

A far cry from their tribal predecessors made with dyes from the natural environment, many of today’s tattoos contain an unknown conglomeration of metallic salts (oxides, sulphides, selenides), organic dyes or plastics suspended in a carrier solution for consistency of application.3 In the European Commission’s report on the health risks of tattooing, they note that close to 40% of organic colorants used in permanent tattoos in Europe are not even approved for use on the skin as a cosmetic ingredient and just under 20% of the colorants studied contained a carcinogenic aromatic amine. Many of the chemicals found were originally intended for use in writing and printer inks, as well as automobile paints.4 These inks are injected deep enough into the skin that often tattoos will not even be destroyed by severe burns.5

In America, the FDA regulates some of the ingredients in cosmetics worn on the skin, and vitamins, drugs and food additives ingested into the body, but it does not regulate these toxic inks we put under our skin. Their official stance:

Because of other public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety concerns, FDA has not traditionally regulated tattoo inks or the pigments used in them.6

The FDA also does not require ingredient disclosure on the inks—they are considered proprietary (trade secrets)—and so tattoo inks may contain any chemical, including those known to be mutagenic (capable of causing mutations), teratogenic (capable of causing birth defects), and carcinogenic (capable of causing cancer), or involved in other biochemical reactions in the body that might take decades to appear.3 Surprisingly, the FDA does not list cancer in their list of potential tattoo risks, citing only infection, removal problems, allergic reactions, granulomas, keloid formation, and MRI complications.6 The job of testing and legislating the use of tattoo pigments in permanent cosmetics is left to the state. In California, specific ingredients are prohibited and the state will even legally pursue companies who fail to disclose tattoo pigment ingredients to the consumer. They recently brought suit against nine pigment and ink manufacturers for inadequate labeling.5


Tattoo ink


What’s in a tattoo?
Without full disclosure of ingredients, it is impossible to know for sure what is in tattoo ink. Added to this, each color and each brand of ink has completely different ingredients, according to a 2005 study out of Northern Arizona University.7

The carrier solution itself might contain harmful substances such as denatured alcohols, methanol, rubbing alcohol, antifreeze, detergents, or formaldehyde and other highly toxic aldehydes.3

The oldest pigments came from using ground up minerals and carbon black. According to Wikipedia.org, a wide range of dyes and pigments are now used in tattoos “from inorganic materials like titanium dioxide and iron oxides to carbon black, azo dyes, and acridine, quinoline, phthalocyanine and naphthol derivates, dyes made from ash, and other mixtures.” Currently popular is Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS plastic), used in Intenze, Millenium and other ABS pigmented brands.5

The price of ignorance.
Although allergic reactions to permanent tattoos are considered rare given the number of tattoos applied yearly—in the neighborhood of 5 million9—they can occur, along with scarring, phototoxic reactions (i.e., reactions from exposure to light, especially sunlight), and other adverse effects. Many people have reported reactions to the intensely colored plastic-based pigments. There are also pigments that glow in the dark or in response to black (ultraviolet) light. Some of these pigments may be safe, but others are toxic and even possibly radioactive.9 Plastic-based inks (e.g., glow-in-the-dark ink) have led to polymerization under the skin, where the tattoo pigment particles converged into one solid piece under the skin.9

Allergic reactions have occurred with some of the many metals put into tattoo inks, nickel being one of the most common metal allergies.8 Others have reacted to the mercury in red cinnabar, to cobalt blue, and to cadmium sulfite when used as a yellow pigment. Some inks were found to have high levels of lead, some contained lithium, and the blue inks were full of copper.7 Allergic reactions may occur infrequently with permanent tattoos, but the long-term health effects are still unknown due to the lack of regulation, testing, and long-term studies.

In contrast to the low incidence of reported allergic reactions to permanent tattoos, however, certain temporary Henna tattoos have been very problematic. Henna tattoos that contain the dark brown dye para-phenylenediamine (PPD) can cause a delayed allergic reaction and subsequent PPD hyper-sensitization that may permanently prohibit one from using sulfa drugs, PABA sunscreens, benzocaine and other anesthetics, and hair dyes. Fragrance sensitization may occur, and in some cases, the reaction will include skin necrosis, scarring, and hypo-pigmentation. Analysis of henna dye used on persons who reported allergic reactions has shown the presence of toxic chemicals from hair and textile dyes, in addition to PPD.

The question of toxicity is multifaceted; there are others factors that may exponentially increase the serious health risks associated with tattooing. When alcohol is used as part of the carrier base in tattoo ink or to disinfect the skin before application of the tattoo, it increases the skin’s permeability, helping to transport more chemicals into the bloodstream. Alcohol also works synergistically with mutagens, teratogens, and carcinogens to make them even more harmful, increasing the chance that they may cause mutation or disease, both at the site of the tattoo and systemically.3

Other health risks.
In addition to allergic reactions and the unknown long-term health effects from the metal salts and carrier solutions that make up tattoo inks, there are other health risks involved. Skin infections, psoriasis, dermatitis and other chronic skin conditions, and tumors (both benign, and malignant) have all been associated with tattoos. Due to the use of needles in tattoo application, there is also the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as tetanus, herpes simplex virus, staph, HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis B and C, and even Syphilis. And those with tattoos might not be able to get a life-saving MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) test if they need one—some hospitals and testing locations will refuse to do an MRI on people with body tattoos due to the metal particles in the tattoo, which may cause a burning pain during the test.10

If you plan on having your tattoo removed, you should be aware that some of the pigments used (especially Yellow #7) are phototoxic and may break down into toxic chemicals in the body when removed with UV light or laser, common techniques used in tattoo removal. The toxic end-products eventually wind up in the kidneys and liver, adding to your total body burden.5

Think for yourself.
In an ideal world, the ‘trade secrets’ clause that allows companies to put profit over public health would be disallowed for all products used topically, transdermally, or ingested into our bodies. However, in the absence of federal regulation to protect the consumer from unqualified tattoo artists, unhygienic tools and application methods, and highly toxic inks, the best advice for the youth of today is abstinence from tattoos. At the very least, one should find out if their state has any regulations on tattoo inks, and always ask to see the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for any pigment or carrier used to see basic health and safety information for the ingredients involved. Skin tests should be performed prior to tattoo application to see if you are allergic to any of the ingredients. Although certain tattoo ink ingredients may be plant-based or otherwise considered safe and non-toxic, the truth is that no long-term studies have been performed confirming that they are safe to inject as a permanent cosmetic. Bottom line: don’t trust the government, tattoo ink manufacturers, or tattoo artists to give you accurate and complete information on the toxicity of the pigments and dyes being used—at least not just yet.

sources:
1 The Harris Poll® #58, Harris Interactive, 2003 http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=407
2Sam Coates, How Arsenal footballer was brought down by tattoo, Times Online, 2005 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article524829.ece
3Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., Tattoo Ink Carrier Chemistry, About.com http://chemistry.about.com/od/medicalhealth/a/tattoocarrier.htm
4Workshop on “Technical/scientific and regulatory issues on the safety of tattoos, body piercing and of regulated practices”, European Commission, 2003 http://www.europa.eu.int/comm/consumers/cons_safe/news/eis_tattoo_proc_052003_en.pdf
5Tattoo, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tattoo
6Tattoos and Permanent Makeup, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2006 http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-204.html
7Emma Marris, Is tattoo ink safe?, BioEd Online http://www.bioedonline.org/news/news.cfm?art=1657
8Tattoo Allergies, TattooInfo.net http://www.tattooinfo.net/Scripts/prodView.asp?idproduct=34
9Tattoo Ink, BMEZINE.com Encyclopedia http://wiki.bmezine.com/index.php/Tattoo_ink
10Kassidy Emmerson, The Deadly Dangers of Body Tattoos, Associated Content http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/139496/the_deadly_dangers_of_body_tattoos.html

photo credits: Tattoo Girls © Kevin Russ / iStockphoto | Tattoo Inks © Terry J. Alcorn / iStockphoto


Julie GenserJulie Genser is the founder of PlanetThrive.com and MCSsafehomes.com.
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Comments

  • Patty

    August 15, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Thank you Julie for this very informative article about tatoos. I have always thought they were unattractive and could cause health problems for those who sought them, I did not realize the extent of the problem with the dyes used and with them not being regulated. I am also very concerned about the health aspects in terms of HIV, Hepatitis, etc. which can be spread through the needles used. Can you do an article about Botox, Collagen injections, breast implants, etc.?
    Women (and men) are really putting their health in danger using these things all in the name of beauty!
    Thanks again for a great website!

  • earthwalker

    August 24, 2010 at 2:25 am

    Thanks for your comment Patty, and your great article suggestion! I will think about doing one on breast implants (which can contribute to becoming chemically sensitive for some women), botox and collagen injections. It can take me many months to do an article but I will put this on the list, it’s a great idea. Glad you are enjoying the site! Best, Julie

  • Bob

    August 26, 2010 at 2:38 am

    In theory this article makes sense. Except for that fact that bad reactions to tattoos are so uncommon that its not even worth mentioning, along with the fact that most of those reactions vary widely from person to person depending on what that person is allergic too. You might as well write an article about how dangerous it is to drink soda and eat fast food, because I’m pretty sure obesity kills more people in America than tattoos. And the issue of contracting HIV from needles used in tattooing is practically irrelevant due to the fact that reputable tattoo parlors DON’T reuse needles. Ever.

  • earthwalker

    September 5, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Hi Bob,
    You obviously missed the main point of the article, which was that injecting dyes containing undisclosed ingredients and chemicals that are potentially carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic is a risky move. The other health risks (allergic reactions, risk of contracting HIV and other viral and bacterial infections) were mentioned because I would have been remiss to not at least mention them even though I do state allergic reactions occur relatively infrequently.

    Is there something wrong with advising young adults to research the inks and tattoo artists they plan to use before proceeding with a permanent cosmetic alteration to their body? You sound like you own a tattoo parlor and have something to lose from my article. I have heard of many people die from or get cancer who have tattoos. No one is studying the link. There might not be one. There might be one. The point is, there is no safety testing being done and no regulation.

    I wrote this because I care about the youth of our culture. As a teenager I smoked cigarettes and no one told me about the myriad risks, only that I might get lung cancer 40 years down the line. Now I have reactive airway disease and my life is severely limited. I don’t see how educating oneself before proceeding with a risky procedure is a bad thing.

    You wrote, “You might as well write an article about how dangerous it is to drink soda and eat fast food, because I’m pretty sure obesity kills more people in America than tattoos.” Well I’m in agreement with you there. In fact, this whole website is pretty much geared toward encouraging people to eat a healthy diet and live a chemical free lifestyle. Maybe you thought you were visiting a different kind of website?

  • Tony

    September 14, 2010 at 7:58 am

    Nice website.

    So, in your opinion, what are the safest colors for tats? I want to get a little more art done, thank you.

  • earthwalker

    September 15, 2010 at 3:14 am

    Hi Tony, thanks for the compliment. I wrote this article several years ago so I don’t remember all the details of my research other than what is published above. Things change as well, so it’s always best to get the most up to date information. I would recommend doing research online for that information, and also asking a few different reputable tattoo artists before deciding on the inks and colors you want to use. You can also request to see the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for each ink used, although they don’t always list all ingredients due to a ‘trade secrets’ clause. Good luck! Julie

  • Sharon Wachsler

    November 30, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Oh, sigh….
    This is a very good article, Julie. I wish it weren’t! (Although the issue of HIV and Hep is not so much an issue if you go to a place with any kind of rep; they use a device — forgetting the name, want to say “clavicle” but know that’s not right! lol — that sterilizes the needles and you watch them open it in front of you.)
    However, I have always wondered about the components in the inks. I got a tattoo (which I LOVE) right as I was developing MCS. I was already getting MCS (rather, I had mild MCS and didn’t know it), and the tat was not the major trigger for full-blown MCS (CO poisoning was), but I have always wondered if the tat played a role, and if so, what it was. I would dearly love to get another one, had always planned to get more, but didn’t, due to fears around MCS. Lately, I had started considering it again more seriously as a tribute to my deceased service dog.
    However, this article is terrifying — ABS plastics! Car paint! The thing about the plastics hardening under the skin, good god.
    I was hoping that by now there would be some form of truly nontoxic tattoo ink. Maybe there will be, one day.

  • Amy

    December 29, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    A non-toxic tattoo for people who don’t suffer from MCS is henna (the real one not the rebuilt chemical). It is more than beautiful and (google it) has lots of history and culture behind, henna drawings are beautiful.
    They’ll fade in a few month, so you can do any motive you like without thinking about “How will I explain the mermaid with the naked boobs to my children and the anarchy symbol to my boss later” xD.
    Traditional henna painting is not embarassing motives (which you can also do of course^^) but extremely beautiful ornaments, though a normal tribal could be done with it.
    I don’t tolerate henna anymore, but I loved it for hair colour when I was young. Is really great, and has style. Another fact is, you just draw henna on your skin, leave it on and wash away after a while, then skin is coloured for some month. It is not painful at all.

    Another way is scarification, the original form of a tatoo. It’s nothing but motives cut in the skin with a clean tool. The scar is the tattoo. You can get this done professional. I have two scarifications, not professional but symbols for special persons. HIV risk isn’t there if you use something clean. Well, and the third one, is the embarassing anarchy symbol. But, why not ;-). It’s just freedom of opinion.
    Think of the fact that scarifications are permanent as normal tattoos. They won’t go away after a while.

    I would recommend henna tattoos to teenagers who want a tattoo. They’re not toxic, not painful, and you will never regret them cause they go away again. They’re lots of fun to do.

  • earthwalker

    December 29, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Just want to note in response to your comment Amy that certain henna tattoos can cause chemical sensitivity so make sure you do your research and due diligence. I also just want to say, that I spent 7 weeks in Morocco (and got a henna tattoo myself while there…) and it seemed to me all the women had weird skin texture where they had their hands henna’d – so I don’t know, but maybe over time it affects the skin’s elasticity? Something to ask about before getting multiple temporary henna tattoos. I like the idea of scarification as an alternative, thanks for mentioning it!

  • Amy

    December 30, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Dear Earthwalker,

    you’re completely right, there’s fake-henna which is toxic. I had henna only for hair, but I researched so I could take certified biological one.

    I suppose having henna tattoos on sensitive skin parts like hands can make skin dry. I think painting the body with things is always a little bit of stress for the skin. With biological, natural henna and not doing it too often or too big tattoos, it could be an alternative for teenagers who want to have a tattoo.

    Scarification is beautiful, but permanent. This is why I would think twice about doing one ;-). Some youth want motives they won’t like later on.

  • Optimistic

    February 15, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Good. Lord. People.

    Here. Why don’t you do the SAFEST THING POSSIBLE:

    Never get out of bed.

    Seriously. That’s the only way you can be 100% safe in this world.

    Live a little, yeah?

  • earthwalker

    February 15, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    It’s great that you have such a carefree attitude Optimistic, but most readers of our site are recovering from serious chronic illnesses that might be negatively impacted if they chose to inject carcinogenic dyes under their skin. We all have to make decisions for ourselves based on our own circumstances. Try not to be judgmental of others. We are just trying to help educate on a variety of lifestyle issues.

  • gene harris

    February 22, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    I am trying to help my wife get some extra credit in her english as a second language class. She has been tasked with trying to find out how many people had tattoo removal in any yr from 2008,2009,or 2010.
    I noticed you had done research on tattoos and was hoping that you might be able to assist us. Thank you Gene Harris

  • Appreciative

    April 1, 2011 at 3:58 am

    Hi Julie.

    Thank you very much for a very informative article. I do have several tattoos myself and I’m planning to cover myself (well.. more than 50% of my body). Over the last few years I’ve started building up my own little set up so that I can do my own tattoos as much as possible (obviously I can’t tattoo my own back). I have been thinking about starting to work on some friends and family as well as I’ve had a lot of requests already. As I’ve been reading up and learning about tattooing, the tools used and safe hygiene, I too have come to realize how extremely poorly the actual ink that’s put into the body is regulated. I very much want to continue my tattoos, but it is quite worrying that it’s so hard to get hold of solid information. The only thing I can do is to research and choose to the best of my ability what seems to be the safest and most reputable ink brand. As for friends and family (I’m already aware that it’s quite frowned upon to do tattoos without a license), I am not sure if I’ll be able to get hold of enough trustworthy information regarding long term effects that I can risk tattooing anyone apart from myself. But then again if it’s not my judgement it’ll be someone else’s. And there are a lot (I mean a lot) of bad tattoo “artists” out there, licensed and none.

    At least you’ve done your part and enlightened the rest of us. It certainly is odd when having numbers like 36% of the population and so on, that this isn’t taken more seriously. I do suppose self expression through body art is considered voluntary and more “self-inflicted” than other health problems and diseases and therefore less of a priority (which to an extend it should be). If this is the case however, one would have to discriminate so many other things as well (drugs, extreme sports and sex are a few things that come to mind). I’m sure the situation will improve in not too long seeing as tattoos are growing so much in popularity. Maybe when the current “inked” generation becomes the new generation of doctors we will see this happening more. In the meantime (being a great fan of the art form), I’m leaning towards “innocent until proven guilty”. Thanks again.

    -Levi-

  • maggi

    April 9, 2011 at 10:37 am

    http://27.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lilr4wqOYp1qgg9tco1_500.jpg

    this is definitely not a trend that began in the early nineties. it dates back even farther than this picture illustrates (we’re talking feudal times in europe).

    As for the issue with the ink: any good, experienced tattoo artist mixes their own inks which they obtain from local/regional sources. it is well known that unregulated ink is an issue, and only novice tattoo artists buy ink from a huge vendor that would be likely to have faulty ink.

  • KS

    May 17, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    If people could think for themselves, they wouldn’t have tattoos in the first place.

  • bren

    July 14, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    above comment is utterly retarded.
    People think for themselves; some people just think in the same ways/of the same things as a lot of others.

  • Amelia

    January 13, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    I started getting tattooed when I was 14 years old, and I am not doubting this research but being an adult when you start getting inked doesn’t make any of these chemicals less harmful.

  • TIMELESS

    March 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Everything gives Cancer anyway… I don’t plan to live over 60 years old cuz of all the diseases…
    Live Today, Die Tomorrow…

  • earthwalker

    September 2, 2012 at 2:33 am

    Hi Amelia,
    Just seeing your comment. I certainly did not mean to imply that tattoos are only risky for youth. Yes, the chemicals are potentially harmful to both youth and adults. But those still developing and not yet fully matured may be more vulnerable. Although my article focused on this trend for youth, it certainly applies to adults as well.

  • Christine

    November 18, 2013 at 4:21 am

    This article panders to the fears and insecurities fostered by so many people these days. YES, tattoos come with a tiny risk; so does stepping out your door every morning. The solution to this is NOT “abstinence from tattoos” as you so naively put it. The solution is for everyone who wants a tattoo and is of age to do their own research on what is good for THEM. If you’re a little delicate pansy who gets sick every time the wind blows, you probably shouldn’t get a tattoo or else you’ll die from the chemicals. Others who are a little more hardy will be just fine.

    Quit it with the fearmongering, will ya? It comes off as a little…high-strung.

  • earthwalker

    November 18, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Hi Christine,
    Thanks for your opinion. No need to be rude. This website caters to people whose lives have been derailed by severe environmental illness. Most of us have genetic impairments that affect our ability to detoxify chemicals, heavy metals, and other substances found in tattoo inks. Calling us “little delicate pansies” only reflects your own ignorance.

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