Rethink Your Ink: Why Tattooing Can Be Dangerous & Non-Vegan

By Diane Small

Tattooing has been a popular practice ever since the days of ancient Egypt and Rome. 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 tattooing 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?

What Doctors See May Surprise You

Inks themselves may harbor infectious microbes, and studies showed 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, and almost 30% of products had leaking seals. Those inks marketed as nontoxic actually pose a greater risk of having microbial contaminants, as was the case with the Starbrite Colors tattoo inks which were removed from the market due to the presence of  Pseudomonas aeruginosa  and Acremonium mold.

You might not think it, but many people have to visit their doctor after getting tattoos – not only for infections, but for allergic reactions, lichenoid reactions and other skin reactions, as well as autoimmune disorders  like lichen planus and psoriasis, as well as eczema and morphea.

Chronic problems including burning, itching, erythema, papules, and nodules can occur, and it’s  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.

Even scarier is a kind of nasty pathological skin pigmentation called cutaneous dyschromia, which 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.

Tattooing Can Be Dangerous To Your Health

What IS Tattoo Ink Made Of?

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 which can cause a great number of serious health problems.

A recent study in the  Journal of Hazardous Materials shows  that chemicals in tattoo ink caused  cytotoxicity  (cell death), genotoxicity (DNA mutation), and 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.

Red Flags for Coloured Inks

Perhaps shockingly, NO tattoo pigments are approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though ink used for tats IS approved – for use as car paint or printer ink!

Coloured inks have the potential to be pretty dangerous. They can be disseminated throughout the body and wind up in your lymphatic system, which 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 tumors.

Safety Hazards of Black Inks

Coloured inks are pretty bad, but black inks are even worse. The carbon used in most black ink is packed with pollutants with toxic effects on the body – think of how inhaling burning wood, petrol, oil and coal hurts your health; it’s even worse when those burnt organic compounds are 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, late detection makes skin cancer all the deadlier.

When tested, black tattoo ink has been found to contain hexachloro-1,3-butadiene (HCBD), a byproduct of manufacturing processes for chlorinated solvents that’s normally used as a  pesticide. It has been known to cause skin, kidney, and liver damage in rodent studies. Black ink also has 9-fluorenone, taken from coal tar; hexamethylenetetramine, a preservative used in the manufacture of coatings, resins, rubber, and cosmetics, which releases formaldehyde, which is associated with autoimmune diseases, respiratory allergies and contact dermatitis.

Dibenzofuran (DBF) is another ingredient in black ink and it comes from the incomplete combustion of coal, diesel, rubbish, oil, and cigarette smoke. When polychlorinated, or attached to chlorine atoms, it turns into a dioxin-like chemical that can cause serious digestive, liver and skin issues.

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 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, 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 found in tattoo inks,  with black pigments containing 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, with black inks being almost entirely made up  of nanoparticles.


How To Ensure Tattoo Safety

Despite all the studies pointing to potential harm from tattoo inks, 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, which may represent a safer alternative, although they may need to be special-ordered by the tattoo artist. Just be fully aware that because the term non-toxic is not legally regulated, this could still contain toxic ingredients like blue pigments derived from the neurotoxin aluminum and white pigments derived from titanium dioxide 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 now demanding proper regulation of tattoo inks amidst the new findings that they may contribute to cancer.  In the meantime, until better research is done and safety regulations are finally put in place, it may be wise to think before you ink.

Diane Small

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