There’s a deeply rooted need inside all of us to personalize the everyday items with which we surround ourselves. These personal touches of course vary considerably from one person to the next, but on some level, it’s something each and every one of us does.
For some, it’s as simple as the clothing they wear or the way they choose to style their hair. For others it goes a step further, and includes little things like customized cell phone cases, monographed neckties, or bumper stickers on the car. For a growing number of young people however, the canvas of choice is literally the skin they were born in.
Recent surveys show that upwards of 40% of American 20-somethings have at least one tattoo. Many people have quite a few more. New research shows that these self-identifiers may come at a high cost beyond the initial pain and financial investment.
Are The Ingredients in Tattoo Ink Safe?
A series of investigative studies spearheaded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (PDF)  suggest that many of the inks commonly used in tattoos may have a serious negative long term impact on human health.
Questionable pigment sources of particular interest to the FDA researchers include a variety of dangerous heavy metals, phthalates, and hydrocarbons – all of which are known to act as cancer causing agents. Much of the concern surrounding the possible connection between modern tattoo inks and cancer has been centered on a small number of documented cases in which malignant melonoma and skin tumors were observed in tattooed skin  .
That said however, the findings of this recent series of investigations have, so far, proven inconclusive at best.
Tina Alster, Cosmetic Dermatologist & Laser Surgeon, told NPR:
“There are some chemicals that have been shown to be injected along with the tattoo inks to make them brighter or even psychedelic. There are some that actually glow in black light… nobody knows for sure what’s really in them. There are some, like cadmium, that are carcinogenic. Others cause granulomas, which is an allergic reaction in the skin.” 
Additionally, a 2010 study from the University of Regensburg in Germany found that some of the black tattoo inks are actually made from soot . These black tattoo inks commonly contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs may contain benzo(a)pyrene, a Group 1 carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The EPA also classifies it among “the most potent and well-documented skin carcinogens.”
Researchers from the Department of Dermatology, University of Regensburg:
“Tattooing with black inks entails an injection of substantial amounts of phenol and PAHs into skin. Most of these PAHs are carcinogenic and may additionally generate deleterious singlet oxygen inside the dermis when skin is exposed to UVA (e.g. solar radiation)”
California and a handful of other states currently require that tattoo shop patrons sign a waver informing them of their pending exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals before going under the needle. This appears to be doing very little to dissuade customers.
Health Risks of Tattoos
Tattoos have always come with a certain amount of risk. Arguably, this air of danger may contribute to part of the appeal.
The oldest known tattoos date back to at least the neolithic era, roughly 5,000 years B.C., and are believed by many experts to have been created by rubbing ash into accidentally or intentionally created wounds.
The word “tattoo” is taken from the Samoan word “Tatau,” which was originally used to describe a slow, and reportedly very painful variation of the process which relied of barbed sticks to embed pigment under the skin. Severe infection, and even death, were not uncommon.
Despite the added safety and reduced pain offered by modern tattoo machines, the threat of being exposed to tetanus, hepatitis, syphilis and HIV remains very real in some places. And these are just the most serious risks of tattooing. You also have to factor in the risk of infections, allergies, scarring, granulomas and future MRI complications.
In most cases these risks can be avoided simply by choosing a reputable, well-kept tattoo parlor staffed by a quality artist. This is just common sense. Think before you ink!
- United States Food & Drug Administration. Think before you ink, are tattoos safe? (PDF). FDA Consumer Health Information. 2009 October.
- Paradisi A, Capizzi R, De Simone C, Fossati B, Proietti I, Amerio PL. Malignant melanoma in a tattoo: case report and review of the literature. Melanoma Res. 2006 Aug;16(4):375-6.
- Baker PA, O’Dowd GJ, Khan IU. Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans arising in a decorative tattoo. Sarcoma. 2005;9(1-2):37-41. doi: 10.1080/13577140500094289.
- Parri Neighmond. Tattoo ink stained by safety concerns. NPR news. 2011 May 9.
- Regensburger J, Lehner K, Maisch T, Vasold R, Santarelli F, Engel E, Gollmer A, König B, Landthaler M, Bäumler W. Tattoo inks contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that additionally generate deleterious singlet oxygen. Exp Dermatol. 2010 Aug;19(8):e275-81. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0625.2010.01068.x.