Tattoo ink may contain carcinogenic toxic chemicals, according to a new study.
Scientists from the State University of New York (SUNY) found that nearly half of the 56 tattoo ink samples they studied contained azo compounds, which degenerate under ultraviolet light – emitted by the sunlight – into carcinogenic chemicals.
Many also contained particles smaller than 100 nanometers (nm), which they believe could enter a cell’s nucleus and trigger cancerous mutations.
The tattoo industry is largely unpoliced in the United States, researchers say, although as many as three in ten Americans have one. In Europe, blue and green pigments are now banned for fear that they cause cancer.
Someone who gets a tattoo is already at risk of getting a bacterial infection from the skin being punctured, or of contracting a blood-borne disease — like hepatitis B and C — if the equipment isn’t cleaned properly. Over time, recipients may also develop nodules or granulomas around the tattoo or scar tissue.
Scientists from the State University of New York studied 56 inks used in tattoos. They found they contained chemicals that can cause cancer (file photo)
Dr John Swierk, the chemist who led the study, has warned that the tattoos contain chemicals that can cause cancer
What are the health risks of getting a tattoo?
A tattoo is a permanent mark on the skin made using pigment inserted through punctures.
The process causes a small amount of bleeding and pain in most recipients. But health bodies are also warning people to be aware of the risks.
What are the risks of getting a tattoo?
- Allergic reaction: Tattoo inks contain chemicals that can trigger an allergic reaction, such as a rash.
- Skin infection: Bacteria can get under the skin while it is being pierced to make a tattoo, triggering an infection.
- Nodules or granulomas: In some cases, bumps may form on or around a tattoo on the body.
- Blood-borne diseases: If the machine used to give someone a tattoo is not properly cleaned, it can transmit diseases such as hepatitis B and C.
- MRI Complications: Tattoos can cause swelling or burning in rare cases when a person undergoes this type of scan. Pigments can also interfere with image quality. MRIs can be used to diagnose diseases of the brain, spine and abdomen such as cancer.
Source: Mayo Clinic
About two in five Americans already have a tattoo, and the number continues to rise as body art gains social acceptance.
Little is known about what is actually in the inks used, the researchers say, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor the industry closely.
SUNY researchers studied several popular tattoo inks and presented their findings Wednesday at the American Chemical Society’s fall meeting in Chicago, Illinois.
A tattoo is made up of two parts. The main piece is the pigment, which can be a molecular compound – like blue pigment – or a solid compound – like titanium dioxide.
They also contain carrier fluids – usually alcohol-based – which bring the pigment into position between two layers of skin.
In the study, scientists tested 56 inks and found that several contained substances not listed on the label.
In one case, ethanol – which can help thin the blood – was spotted in the tattoo ink. It was not clear if this posed any health risks.
Some 23 pigments – usually blues and greens – were also found to contain azo compounds, which can become ‘carcinogenic’ if exposed to too much sun or lots of bacteria.
Dr John Swierk, the chemist who led the study, told DailyMail.com: ‘We don’t necessarily know what the pigments break down into and so that’s the real concern.
“It’s possible you have pigments that on their own are safe, but photodecompose into something of concern.”
For the second part of the study, the scientists also looked at the particle size in 16 inks used in tattoos.
This showed that half – including the black pigments – had particles smaller than 100nm, which was “concerning” as they could “cross the cell membrane and potentially cause damage”.
Speaking at a press conference today, Swierk said: “When you get to that size regime, you start worrying about the nanoparticles getting into the cells, getting into the nucleus of the cells, cause harm and cause problems like cancer that way.”
He added: “Big companies make pigments for everything, like paint and textiles. These same pigments are used in tattoo inks.
Scientists are now aiming to create the first comprehensive database of ingredients in different tattoo inks in the United States.
They have not yet studied the impact of tattoo removal, which is usually done with a laser.
Specific concerns have been raised about two pigments – blue 15:3 and green 7 – which potentially caused cancer in 2020 amid warnings from some scientists. The European Union – which includes 27 European countries but not the UK – banned their use in tattoos in January.
But some authorities, including those in Germany, warned the ban was “too far”, saying more evidence was needed that they were potentially toxic. Tests by German regulators found both to have a “low level” of toxicity.
These colors are still used in the United States and there is no indication that the authorities plan to ban them.
US health authorities warn that getting a tattoo already poses several other health risks because the skin is pierced, which opens up the risk of bacterial or blood-borne infection.
They also say that in rare cases, the tattoo can cause problems with an MRI, making it harder for doctors to diagnose conditions like cancer.
There can also be issues with tattoo removal, as the lasers can cause pain, blistering and crusting.
Swierck added: “We have the same concerns [of cancer risks] about laser tattoo removal, because we don’t understand how the laser transforms the pigments.
Tattoo ink may contain cancer-causing chemicals, experts warn