New Research Shows Some Tattoo Inks May Contain Potentially Dangerous Ingredients

But there's no need to panic, according to a dermatologist.

Woman Holding Tattoo Gun
Photo: Getty Images

New research suggests some tattoo inks may contain potentially dangerous ingredients. If you have tattoos, before you panic, here's what you need to know.

Researchers from Binghamton University analyzed nearly 100 kinds of tattoo inks to determine what's really in them. ICYDK, inks used for tattoos are unregulated in the U.S. Using a variety of techniques, a team led by John Swierk, Ph.D. discovered ingredients in inks that weren't listed on their labels as well as small particles that pose potential harm to cells.

"The idea for this project initially came about because I was interested in what happens when laser light is used to remove tattoos," said Swierk in a press release. "But then I realized that very little is actually known about the composition of tattoo inks, so we started analyzing popular brands."

Quick science lesson: Tattoo inks contain a pigment (such as the color blue) and a carrier solution, which transports the pigment to the middle layer of the skin, explains the press statement. For their research, Swierk and his team looked into the particle size and molecular composition of tattoo pigments. In doing so, they found some tattoo inks contained ingredients not listed on their label, including one that contained unlisted ethanol.

Additionally, their research suggests dye containing azo (a type of pigment) was present in 23 of 56 inks analyzed. This is concerning because although azo pigments don't cause health concerns when chemically intact, they can become a potential carcinogen (something capable of causing cancer) when exposed to bacteria or ultraviolet light (aka light from sun), according to the Joint Research Centre, notes the statement.

Finally, Swierk's team found about half of 16 inks analyzed contained particles smaller than 100 nanometers (that's one billionth of a meter). The small size raises flags because "particles of this size can get through the cell membrane and potentially cause harm," said Swierk in the press release.

News of this research comes after the European Union implemented a ban on thousands of hazardous chemicals found in tattoo inks and permanent makeup in January 2022. The ban is the result of a program called Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), which found chemicals in some colored tattoo inks, including pigments Blue 15:3 and Green 7, could cause cancer or genetic mutations. The U.S. doesn't have any such ban currently in place.

While new research suggests some pigments found in tattoo ink could be harmful, there's no evidence to support a direct link between cancer and tattoos, and the possible connection between the two has been studied for years. "Putting permanent ink in your skin comes with risks of course, but there is not enough research on this matter for people to be concerned," says board-certified dermatologist Arash Akhavan, M.D., F.A.A.D., founder and director of The Dermatology and Laser Group. "Out of the millions of people who have tattoos, only a small percentage experience a reaction which is usually from a specific color ink."

The most common risks of getting a tattoo are allergic reactions and skin infections. Still, if you have concerns, it's best to talk with your doctor. And if you do plan on getting a new tattoo, be sure to seek out a tattoo parlor that has good hygiene practices in place to avoid infections.

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