A recent study published in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology found that tattoos can leak dangerous metals into the lymph nodes and trigger an allergic reaction. The culprit is an abrasive chemical called titanium dioxide that erodes the ink needle and sheds the metals.
The European researchers initially attributed the presence of metal nanoparticles in tattooed people’s lymph nodes to the coloring of the ink. After looking at tissue samples, they realized that there must another metal source and examined the ink needle.
Abrasive substance causes the ink needle to erode
Titanium dioxide is a chemical that is used as a color additive in food, drugs and cosmetics among many others. It is particularly used in sunscreens as an active ultraviolet light absorber. However, authorities caution that it might potentially be carcinogenic to humans.
In the study, the researchers looked at 12 steel tattoo needles and found that they all contained chromium and nickel. They looked at the needles with an electron microscope before and after they were used.
The team found that tattoo inks that contain titanium dioxide cause the needle to erode. After a tattooing session, the needles were abraded, sending shredded nickel and chromium into the body. The size of the metals ranged from 50 nanometers long, as small as a DNA molecule, to two micrometers long, the size of a bacterial cell. The worn-off nickel and chromium could be potential sensitizers, added the researchers, and a potential source in allergy development. (Related: How toxic is tattoo ink, exactly?)
“We cannot quantify the risk that comes with these particles,” explained lead author Ines Schreiver, a research scientist at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. “But in general, be aware that there might be risks with tattooing, a lot of impurities that might be allergenic or carcinogenic. People should be aware and make informed decisions about whether they want to take the risk.”
The perils of tattoos
A tattoo is made by pricking the top layer of the skin with inked needles. Every puncture leaves tiny ink droplets, but not without leaving the skin bleeding. This process of puncturing poses several dangers. (h/t to MayoClinic.org)
- It can cause allergic reactions. Tattoo dyes – in particular, red, green, yellow and blue – can trigger allergic skin reactions. The allergies can flare up, even years after getting the tattoo.
- It leaves marks on the skin. Adverse reactions to tattoos can lead to granuloma, an inflamed area of the skin, and keloids, an overgrowth of scar tissue.
- It can increase the risk of bloodborne diseases. Getting a tattoo using infected blood can introduce harmful microorganisms into the bloodstream. This includes Staphylococcus aureus, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
- It may react during MRI exams. In some cases, tattoos can cause swelling or burning during magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, exams.
Medical experts advise people to only go to reputable tattoo parlors. It is important to know whether proper sanitary measures are observed to avoid infections and other health risks.
Learn more about toxic ingredients and where they are used at Chemicals in tattoo.