Rethink Your Ink: Why Tattoos Can Be Dangerous

Sure, they look cool. But here is why tattoos can be dangerous to your health

By Diane Small

Tattooing has been a popular practice ever since the days of ancient Egypt and Rome. And why not? Tattoo designs can be so beautiful, people not only want them on their bodies, but on tattoo inspired clothing and even on wall art!

In fact, today, it seems like everyone and their aunt Selma has a tattoo somewhere. And despite (or because of?) the fact that getting inked is now anything but rebellious, this trend is far from slowing down.

But did you know tattoos can be dangerous to your health? 

Anyone with half a brain knows   you need to get tattooed by a professional who uses clean, new needles. Otherwise you risk hepatitis, HIV and other serious infections. While most people are very careful about the needles, who ever considers the ink?

Why Tattoos Can Be Dangerous

What Doctors See May Surprise You

Inks themselves may harbour infectious microbes. Studies show that despite 42% of products claiming sterility on their labels, 10% of unopened and 17% of previously used stock bottles of tattoo ink were contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. In addition, almost 30% of products had leaking seals.

Those inks marketed as ‘nontoxic’ actually pose a greater risk of having microbial contaminants. For example, this was the case with the Starbrite Colors tattoo inks. This brand was removed from the market due to the presence of  Pseudomonas aeruginosa and acremonium mold.

You might not think it, but tattoos can be dangerous due to allergies. Many people have to visit their doctor after getting tattoos – not only for infections, but for allergic reactions, too. But that’s not all! Some experience lichenoid and other skin reactions, as well as autoimmune disorders  like lichen planus, psoriasis, and eczema.

Chronic problems including burning, itching, erythema, papules, and nodules can occur. It’s even estimated that five million people in the United States have persistent skin problems due to tattoos. Injecting any foreign material into the skin will provoke an inflammatory response that normally dies down fast. But fibrosis (i.e. thickening and scarring) of collagen can be one long term result, as can significant fibroplasia, or the growth of fibrous tissue, creating nodules known as dermatofibroma and keratoses. (I personally have suffered this!)

Even scarier is a kind of nasty pathological skin pigmentation called cutaneous dyschromia. This is the result of heavy metals like bismuth and mercury building up in sebaceous glands and sweat ducts. And it’s those heavy metals we need to focus on next.

why tattoos can be dangerous

What Is Tattoo Ink Made From?

One of the biggest reasons why tattoos can be dangerous is the ink.

Although some contemporary inks can contain organic pigments, most coloured ink contains metals. Some of which are highly toxic! And according to a British study, most also contain significant amounts of nanoparticles. These can cause a great number of serious health problems.

To illustrate, a recent study in the  Journal of Hazardous Materials shows that chemicals in tattoo ink caused:

  • cytotoxicity (cell death)
  • genotoxicity (DNA mutation)
  • adaptive stress response pathways (which basically means that tattoo ink interferes with the integrity of your cells).

But what’s more, tattoo ink may not be vegan-friendly! Some inks are actually made with animal products such as bone char, glycerin from animal fat, gelatin from hooves, or shellac from beetles.

why tattoos can be dangerous

Red Flags For Coloured Inks

Perhaps shockingly, tattoos can be dangerous due to a lack of regulation. In fact, NO tattoo pigments are approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And get this: ink used for tats IS approved – for use as car paint or printer ink!

Coloured inks have the potential to be pretty darn damaging. They can be disseminated throughout the body and wind up in your lymphatic system. This has an impact on your immune system, potentially leading to DNA damage and oxidative stress on your cell walls.

More specifically, azo pigments in red and yellow inks have proven to contain the probable human carcinogen 3,3-dichlorobenzidine, and studies show a link between red ink, skin irritation, and tumours.

why tattoos can be dangerous

Safety Hazards Of Black Inks

Coloured inks are pretty bad, but black inks are even worse. The carbon most black ink contains is packed with pollutants with toxic effects on the body. Think of how inhaling burning wood, petrol, oil and coal hurts your health. Well, it’s even worse when those burnt organic compounds are actually injected under your skin.

Black tattoos also attract more sun. And should you get a melanoma, it’s very difficult to see on a black tattoo. Of course, late detection makes skin cancer all the deadlier.

When tested, most black tattoo ink contained hexachloro-1,3-butadiene (HCBD). This is a byproduct of manufacturing processes for chlorinated solvents that are used in pesticides. It has been shown to cause skin, kidney, and liver damage in rodent studies.

Black ink also has:

Keep this in mind not only if you’re getting tattooed, but microblading your brows, too.

Nasty Nanoparticles

We’ve banged on before in Eluxe about the potential dangers of nanoparticles in cosmetics – but what of products that go directly under your skin? Even worse!

Using an atomic force microscope, University of Bradford researchers found another reason why tattoos can be dangerous.

They presented evidence to show the tattoo process remodels collagen, and nanoparticles from tattoo ink were found in both the collagenous network of the skin and around blood vessels.

This means the ink particles are leaving the surface of your skin and travelling around your body. Even possibly getting into your organs and other tissues. Keep in mind that nanoparticle technology is new and has not been proven to be safe to human health over the long term. These particles are ultramicroscopic, so they can easily penetrate past the skin barrier and go all over your body. Even into your brain tissue!

In 2011, a study in The British Journal of Dermatology  revealed that nanoparticles are indeed in tattoo inks. Apparently, black pigments contain the smallest particles. With the exception of the white pigments, the researchers stated that “the vast majority of the tested tattoo inks contained significant amounts” of nanoparticles. And black inks are almost entirely made up of nanoparticles!

How To Ensure Tattoo Safety

Despite all the studies pointing to the reasons why tattoos can be dangerous, as of now there have been no specific studies to look at the safety of injecting such inks into the body. (Although the National Center for Toxicological Research is currently conducting some initial research).

Tattoo lovers may want to seek out vegetable-based inks, such as yellow pigments derived from turmeric. These present a safer alternative, although the tattoo artist may have to order them specially.

Just be fully aware that because the term non-toxic is not legally regulated. Products could still be full of toxic ingredients like pigments from nanoparticles, which can cause immunogenicity, inflammation, genotoxicity, and problems with cell integrity. (Keep this in mind when you find a sunscreen containing nanoparticles of titanium dioxide – stay well away)!

Some NGOs like The Friends of the Earth are recognising why tattoos can be dangerous. They’re now demanding proper regulation of tattoo inks amidst the new findings that they may contribute to cancer.

In the meantime, until we know more about the safety of tattoos, it may be wise to think before you ink.

Diane Small

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