Tattoo inks are mixtures of chemicals injected into the skin to create a colored pattern. Humans have been tattooing themselves for millennia, motivated by reasons as diverse as the designs decorating their skin.
Crusaders tattooed crosses on their bodies to ensure they’d go to heaven, while for centuries, sailors inked their bodies to boast about where they’d traveled. The 61 tattoos on Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in the Alps, were all located near his joints, leaving researchers to speculate that the tattoos may have been part of an ancient arthritis treatment.
Most of the 120 million tattooed people worldwide have inked themselves for fashion. This trend is on the upswing among young adults. In today’s generation, tattoos are commonplace, but knowing the ingredients and provenance of the colorful cocktail more injected beneath the skin are not. It’s not widely known by the general public that the chemicals found in tattoo inks can be repurposed from the textile, plastics, or car paint industries, said McGarry, who works at Joint Research Centre (JRC) that provides independent scientific advice to the European Commission.
A 2016 JRC report analyzed a wide variety of tattoo pigments for the chemicals within them and listed as the ones of most concern. The most dangerous are known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a chemical group found mostly in black inks that contain carcinogens and can migrate from the skin to the lymph nodes. There are also Azo pigments, which make up about 60% of the color ingredients in tattoo inks. Though Azo pigments are safe when they first enter the skin, they can degrade over time into potentially cancer-causing compounds.
According to the JRC report, from 2005 to 2015, chemical ingredients were the primary concern in 95% of the 126 tattoo ink cases reported to the EU’s rapid alert system for dangerous products. The bulk of tattoo health complications involves allergic reactions and hypersensitivity, mostly in red or black areas of tattoos, as per the JRC report.
Tattoo inks imported from the U.S. were responsible for two-thirds of the tattoo-related alerts sent to European authorities, the JRC report says. A further one-quarter of these problematic ink came from China, Japan, and some European countries, while the provenance of 9% of products was unknown.
Tattoo inks can contain a cornucopia of compounds: Some 100 pigments and 100 additives have been found in these products, Maria Pilar Aguar Fernandez told ESOF attendees. She is responsible for the Chemicals Assessment & Testing Unit at the JRC and was involved in writing the organization’s tattoo report.
A Swiss survey of 229 tattoo inks also found problematic preservatives. A quarter of the tattoo inks contained the skin irritant benzo-isothiazolinone. Also, 7% of the ink in the study contained the preservative formaldehyde, which is classified as a carcinogen by the IARC. Tattoo inks can also contain harmful metals such as nickel, chromium, and cobalt.
The JRC report highlights the need to fund research on the toxicity of tattoo ingredients and how they degrade in the body as well as to fund the development of analytical techniques to detect and monitor impurities. “Prospective epidemiological studies would be needed to ascertain the risk of carcinogenicity from tattoo inks constituents, including their degradation products,” says the report, which also lists this as a research priority.
To avoid potentially risky pigments, tattoo customers should get to know their artist and ask about where their ink is sourced before they go under the needle.
Do you like tattoos? Have you ever thought about getting a tattoo? Well, the above information might quite be helpful if you’re thinking to get inked.