The harmful side effects of tattoos are known, but often overlooked. Many assume that tattooing is safe due to its popularity. Others fail to do their research before the molds, plastics and paints are injected. Many think that ink must be because tattoo parlors are regulated, but this is not true. There is also the potential for infection with life-altering infections. The greatest health risk comes from heavy metal poisoning due to tattoo ink. There are things that everyone should know before getting a tattoo. I will try to inform you about the major risks.
The risks associated with tattooing can be defined as skin related diseases, end organ diseases (liver, kidney, brain) and heavy metal poisoning. There are ways to get rid of these effects of tattooing and I will share them with you. But first, let’s look at some statistics.
According to Statistical Brain (2016),
• Americans spend 1.655 Billion dollars on tattoos each year.
• The total number of Americans with at least one tattoo is 45 Million.
• The rate of those who regret having a tattoo is 17%.
• The tattoo removal rate of Americans is 11%.
Why Do People Get Tattoos?
These statistics are surprising to me. It’s amazing that so many people want to risk their health for skin art. People are motivated to get tattoos for a variety of reasons, from wearing art on their skin to remembering a loved one, to looking sexy or dangerous. Motivation is not important for today’s topic, but I wanted to give you some background.
Dangers of Tattoo Ink Carriers
What are the dangers of tattoo ink carriers? Carriers are used to evenly distribute ink, plastic or paint during application and inhibit the growth of pathogens (bacteria/viruses). Please understand that these ingredients are not regulated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for use in tattoos in most states.
• Ethyl Alcohol – rubbing alcohol is used externally and should not be injected into the skin. It can dry out the skin, cause irritation and adversely affect the nerves.
• Glycerin – the sugar alcohol is glycerol and can cause urination and diarrhea.
• Listerine – an alcohol-based blend of menthol, methyl salicylate, thymol (from oregano oil) and eucalyptol (liquid from eucalyptus oil). May cause skin irritation and local allergic reactions.
• Propylene Glycol – the primary ingredient in antifreeze that can harm your liver and kidneys.
The Dangers of Tattoo Ink
It was just carriers. What color is in each ink? Most of these inks have ingredients that you shouldn’t even apply to the skin, let alone inject it into the lower layer of the skin. The epidermis is the outer layer of skin that consists of dead skin cells and acts as a whole body bandage. It protects us from bacteria and viruses. The dermis is the living skin under the epidermis. Things injected into the dermis can be transported to all parts of the body by blood circulation. That’s why we get an infection when we have a cut or scrape on our skin. The protective epidermis is damaged.
What’s in the ink? Most inks contain acrylic resin (plastic molecules), but they also contain other ingredients. Listed below by color according to Helmenstine (2017) and my own research.
• Black ink – Iron oxide (rust), charcoal or carbon – this is probably the least dangerous ink. The amount of iron oxide must be insufficient to cause iron toxicity. Ask the tattoo artist to use purified water as a carrier.
• Blue Ink – Copper, carbonite (azurite), sodium aluminum silicate (lapus lazuli), calcium copper silicate (Egyptian blue), cobalt aluminum oxides and chromium oxides. Copper can cause or contribute to heavy metal poisoning. Aluminum has been proven to be attributed to Alzheimer’s disease and gastrointestinal disorders.
• Brown ink – Iron oxide and iron mustard clay – this is probably as safe as black ink and for the same reasons.
• Green ink – Chromium oxide and Malachite, lead chromate and the synthetic compound Cu phthalocyanine are used and only the first two are considered moderately safe. Lead chromate is derived from lead, which is toxic even at low doses. Cu phthalocyanine is an unregulated copper compound and can cause skin irritation and respiratory irritation.
• Orange ink – Disazodiarylide and/or disazopyrazolone and cadmium sulfate form orange ink. The first two are considered safe, but cadmium sulfate is considered toxic and possibly cancer-causing.
• Purple – Manganese violet, quinacridone and dioxazine and the first of these is considered safe. Quinacridone is an FDA-approved food coloring, but it has caused localized skin reactions.
• Red – Cinnabar, cadmium red, iron oxide and the pigment naphthol-AS are various components of red ink. It is considered by many to be the most toxic color of tattoo ink. Cinnabar is derived from mercury sulfate and is damaging to the nervous system. Cadmium red is a known cancer-causing agent. Naftol-AS pigment is used in red paints.
• Yellow – Cadmium sulfate, Ocher,curcuma yellow, chrome yellow and some are safe, others are not. Cadmium sulfate is derived from lead and is toxic. Yellow from turmeric spice or turmeric yellow is considered safe. The problem with yellow is the volume that must be used to provide a vibrant yellow color, so local irritation often occurs on the skin.
• White – Titanium dioxide, lead white, barium sulphate, and zinc oxide (the stuff you sniff at the beach). Titanium dioxide has caused cancer in laboratory animals. Lead white is considered a cancer-causing agent in humans. Barium is derived from the metal barium and is used for gastrointestinal testing in barium swallows, but can cause skin irritation when injected.
• Glow in the dark ink – consists of compounds that are toxic and in some cases radioactive. This again is unregulated in most states.
Some of these compounds may be considered safe, but testing still needs to be done. Some of these compounds are toxic and can cause heavy metal poisoning as copper, lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic and aluminum leak into your bloodstream. Aluminum inks can also accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Some of these inks cause cancer and have known mutagenic properties (causing mutations and birth defects), according to Genser (2007). The FDA should regulate these inks, but most states do not. Most states have started to regulate tattoo parlors, and at least this is a start.
The regulation of tattoo parlors has greatly reduced the rate of serious infections. The use of disposable needles had a great impact. In the past, the risk of acquiring hepatitis B & C, HIV, tetanus, herpes, staph and syphilis in unregulated tattoo parlors was a real threat. Regulation and disposable needles have eliminated this risk (as long as regulations are followed).
Another major concern with tattoo art is the inability to perform life-saving MRI scans in some cases. Because the metals in the ink cause intense burning pain in the patient. This has caused many radiology departments to refuse to perform MRI scans on tattooed patients, according to Grenser (2007). This can result in misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose.
There are safe tattoo inks that are willing to disclose their tattoo formulas. There are many more that are unregulated, dangerous tattoo inks. Many manufacturers refuse to disclose the formula as confidential proprietary information. Carriers used to distribute the ink evenly may also be potentially unsafe. Both inks and carriers are not FDA regulated, and regulation of tattoo art is the responsibility of each state.
Tattoo at your own risk. Tattoos can be safe or dangerous, depending on your tattoo preparation. Talk to the tattoo artist. Ask them which carrier solution they use. Ask them about the composition of their ink. Choose colors where the colors are least toxic. Make sure the tattoo artist’s shop has an active Department of Health certification. Ask them for their Department of Health cleaning scores. If you think you should get a tattoo, please do your research and make an informed decision. I personally recommend not getting a tattoo. According to Mishra (2013) there is a lot of risk for minor irritations and permanent side effects such as cancer, startle, granulomas, infection, toxicity and infections. I don’t think it’s worth the risk, but it’s your body. Please do some research and make an informed decision.