Tattoo ink may contain toxic cancer-causing chemicals, a new study finds.
Scientists at the State University of New York (SUNY) found that nearly half of a 56 sample of tattoo inks they examined contained azo compounds, which under ultraviolet light — emitted in sunlight — degenerate into cancer-causing chemicals.
Many also contain particles less than 100 nanometers (nm) in size, which they said could enter the cell nucleus and cause cancerous mutations.
The tattoo industry in the United States is largely uncontrolled, researchers say, despite three in 10 Americans having one. In Europe, blue and green pigments are now banned due to concerns that they could cause cancer.
A person who gets a tattoo is already at risk for a bacterial infection because the skin is damaged or contracted a blood-borne disease — such as hepatitis B and C — if equipment is not properly cleaned. Over time, recipients may also develop nodules or granulomas around the tattoo or scar tissue.
Scientists at the State University of New York examined 56 inks used in tattoos. They found they contain chemicals that could cause cancer (file photo)
dr. John Swierk, the chemist who led the study, warned that 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 that is made with pigments that are injected through injections.
The process causes a small amount of bleeding and pain in most recipients. But health authorities 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 cause an allergic reaction, such as a rash.
- Skin infection: Bacteria can get under the skin as it is pierced to create a tattoo, causing an infection.
- Nodules or granulomas: In some cases, bumps can form over or around a tattoo on the body.
- Bloodborne diseases: If the machine that someone used to get a tattoo is not cleaned properly, they can transmit diseases such as hepatitis B and C.
- MRI complications: Tattoos can rarely cause swelling or burning when someone gets this type of scan. The pigments can also interfere with the quality of the image. 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’s actually in the inks used, researchers say, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t keep a close eye on the industry.
The SUNY researchers examined several popular tattoo inks and presented their findings Wednesday at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago, Illinois.
A tattoo consists of two parts. The most important part is the pigment, which can be a molecular compound – such as blue pigment – or a solid compound – such as titanium dioxide.
They also contain carrier fluids – usually alcohol-based – that set the pigment in place between two layers of skin.
In the study, the scientists tested 56 inks and found that several contained substances that were not listed on the label.
In one case, ethanol — which can help with thin blood — was spotted in the tattoo ink. It was unclear whether this posed any health risks.
Some 23 pigments – mostly blue and green – were also found to contain azo compounds, which can become ‘carcinogenic’ if exposed to too much sunlight or many bacteria.
dr. John Swierk, the chemist who led the study, told DailyMail.com: ‘We don’t necessarily know where the pigments break down into and that’s the real concern.
“It is possible that you have pigments that are safe in themselves, but that decompose through the photo into something of concern.”
For the second part of the study, the scientists also examined the size of particles in 16 inks used in tattoos.
It found that half — including black pigments — had particles below 100 nm, which were “worrying” because they “could penetrate the cell membrane and potentially cause damage.”
Speaking at a press conference today, Swierk said, “When you get such a big regimen, you start to worry about nanoparticles entering cells, entering the cell nucleus and doing damage that way and causing problems like cancer.”
He added: ‘Big companies make pigments for everything, such as paint and textiles. Those same pigments are used in tattoo inks.’
The scientists are now aiming to build the first comprehensive database of ingredients in various tattoo inks in the United States.
They have yet to investigate the impact of tattoo removal, which is usually done through a laser.
Specific concerns have been raised about two pigments — blue 15:3 and green 7 — potentially causing cancer in 2020, amid warnings from some scientists. The European Union — which includes 27 European countries but not the UK — banned its use in tattoos in January.
But some authorities, including those in Germany, warned the ban was “too far” and said more evidence was needed that they were potentially toxic. Tests by German regulators found that both had a ‘low level’ of toxicity.
These colors remain in use in the United States and there are no signs that the authorities are going to ban them.
US health authorities warn that getting a tattoo already poses several other health risks because it punctures the skin — putting a risk of bacterial or blood-borne infection.
They also say that in rare cases, the tattoo can cause problems with an MRI scan, making it more difficult for doctors to diagnose conditions such as cancer.
There can also be problems with tattoo removal, with the lasers potentially causing 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.’