How Toxic Are Tattoos? And Four Other Frequently Asked Questions About Ink Toxicity

Tattoos have quickly gained mainstream popularity in the last few years. In fact, 45 million Americans, including 36 percent in their late twenties, have at least one tattoo. It’s becoming more and more rare to have no tattoos. Although tattoo inks are not something we are doing every day, like toothpaste or lotion, it is still important to be aware of what carcinogens may be lurking in them. As well as if those chemicals have long-term effects, and what we can do to get safer tattoos. So how toxic are they?

Does the FDA regulate tattoo ink?

Just like personal care products and other cosmetics, the FDA does not regulate or approve any tattoo pigments for injection into the skin. This includes UV and glow-in-the-dark tattoos. Even Henna isn’t approved for skin injection, just for hair dye.

State and local authorities are charged with regulating tattoos in their area, but the FDA does have the authority to investigate safety concerns if needed. Only recently, with the growing number of tattoos, have the FDA shown some interest in the safety of ink. Unfortunately, like fragrance, tattoo ink recipes may be proprietary, and therefore are not required to list their ingredients. So consumers are left to do their own investigations.

What chemicals are in tattoo ink?

Some recent studies have been done to see the possible long-term effects of tattoo inks. These studies are few and far between, but are the beginning of really getting to know the possible skin and health reactions to tattoos. Some fairly common reactions to tattoo ink include allergic rashes, infection, inflammation from sun exposure, & chronic skin reactions. These reactions could be linked to the presence of harmful chemicals in most mainstream tattoo inks. Phthalates and benzo(a)pyrene are two of the most harmful chemicals present, both having been linked to cancer and endocrine disruption. They can also be found on the EPA’s carcinogen list.

Black ink is often made of soot, containing products of combustion, called hydrocarbons. Black ink can also contain animal bones burned down into charcoal. That’s right, not all inks are vegan. Some ink also contains animal fat as the carrier, as well as gelatin and beetles.

Heavy metals are often present in colored inks. Colored inks can contain lead, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and titanium. These metals can trigger allergic reactions and potentially lead to disease. Scientists are unsure of the exact effects.

What are the long-term effects of tattoos?

Scientists have seen possible connections with tattoos to skin cancer, but the overwhelming conclusion is that they are unclear of the role of tattoos and cancer. There have been rare cases of skin cancer malignant tumors found in tattoos, but scientists say these could just be a coincidence. There are even theories that phthalates clear the body within hours and could be the case with tattoos since they are not continuous, like some phthalate exposures.

One question the FDA has tried to answer is, where does the pigment go when it is faded by sunlight or removed by laser light? Are they flushed out by the body? Or disbursed throughout our body somehow?  Some of the ink could be absorbed into the bloodstream. Making it possible that getting a tattoo removed can be even more dangerous than the original. These are questions that will hopefully start being answered and lead to more studies conducted about the toxicity of tattoo ink.

What can I do to lessen my exposure to toxins in tattoo inks?

The good news is that as the demand for tattoo has spread, so has the variety of inks offered. There are many tattoo ink brands that are willing and able to tell you what is in their products. And they are made with safer ingredients.

Another way to stay safer is to choose your artists wisely. Do your research and see what artists are conscious about their inks and willing to talk to you about it. The best non toxic carriers to look for in ink ingredients are vegetable glycerinwitch hazel, water, or ethanol.

You can also avoid certain ingredients in ink pigments that are seen to be “riskier” than others.

Red: Red pigment often causes the most skin reactions and is considered the most dangerous because it contains cadmium, mercury or iron oxide. Choose a red ink with naphthol instead.

Purple: Choose Carbazole or Dioxazine for this pigment, try to avoid manganese violet.

Yellow: Choose Arylide or Tumeric based pigments.

Blue and Green: Copper pthalocyanine pigments are the safest choice for both of these. Specifically Monoazo for green and sodium based for blue.

Brown: Just watch out for iron oxide.

Black: Avoid animal based inks that are often referred to as “India Inks.” It is better to use black ink derived from logwood and magnetite crystals.

Just like many things we put on our bodies, the effects of tattoo ink are unknown. Until more studies are conducted, scientists continue to be unsure about what long-term side effects tattoo inks can bring. The best way to avoid known carcinogens is to regulate the process yourself and know what you’re putting on your skin.