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 the 56 tattoo ink samples they studied contained azo compounds that degrade into carcinogenic chemicals when exposed to UV rays from sunlight.
Many also contain particles smaller than 100 nanometers (nm) in size, which they say may enter the nucleus and cause cancer.
Although as many as three in 10 Americans have tattoos, the U.S. tattoo industry is largely unmonitored, researchers say. In Europe, blue and green pigments have now been banned due to fears of causing cancer.
People with tattoos are already at risk of contracting bacteria because of broken skin or, if the equipment isn’t cleaned properly, blood-borne diseases — like hepatitis B and C. Over time, the recipient may also develop nodules or granulomas around the tattoo or scar tissue.
Scientists at the State University of New York studied 56 inks used in tattoos. They found they contained chemicals that may cause cancer (file photo)
The chemist who led the study, Dr. John Swielke, warned that tattoos contain chemicals that could cause cancer
What are the health risks of tattoos?
Tattoos are permanent marks on the skin made using pigment inserted through thorns.
The procedure causes a small amount of bleeding and pain in most recipients. But the health agency has also warned people to be aware of the risks.
What are the risks of getting a tattoo?
- allergic reaction: Tattoo ink contains chemicals that may trigger allergic reactions such as rashes.
- Skin Infections: When a tattoo is pierced, bacteria can get under the skin and cause an infection.
- nodule or granuloma: In some cases, a lump can form on or around the body tattoo.
- blood borne disease: If the machine used to tattoo someone is not properly cleaned, it can spread diseases like hepatitis B and C.
- MRI complications: In rare cases, the tattoo can cause swelling or burning when someone has this type of scan. Pigment may also affect the quality of the image. MRIs can be used to diagnose diseases of the brain, spine, and abdomen, such as cancer.
resource: Mayo Clinic
About two-fifths of Americans already have a tattoo, and that number continues to rise as body art gains social acceptance.
The researchers say little is known about the inks that are actually used because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t pay close attention to the industry.
SUNY researchers investigated several popular tattoo inks and presented their findings Wednesday at the American Chemical Society’s fall meeting in Chicago, Illinois.
The tattoo consists of two parts. The main part is the pigment, which can be a molecular compound – such as a blue pigment – or a solid compound – such as titanium dioxide.
They also contain a carrier fluid—usually alcohol-based—that brings the pigment to the spot between the two layers of skin.
In the study, scientists tested 56 inks and found that several contained substances not listed on the label.
In one case, ethanol, which can help thin the blood, was found in tattoo ink. It’s not clear if this poses any health risks.
About 23 pigments – usually blue and green – were also found to contain azo compounds that can become “carcinogens” if they’re exposed to too much sunlight or lots of bacteria.
“We don’t necessarily know what the pigment breaks down into, so that’s the real question,” chemist Dr. John Swielke, who led the research, told DailyMail.com.
“It’s possible that your pigment itself is safe, but the light breaks down into something worrisome.”
In the second part of the study, the scientists also looked at the size of the particles in the 16 inks used in tattoos.
This shows that half of the particles – including the black pigment – are below 100 nanometers, which is “concerning” because they could “cross cell membranes and potentially cause harm”.
“When you get to that size, you start to worry that the nanoparticles will penetrate the cell, get into the nucleus, and cause damage in that way and cause problems like cancer,” Swierk said in a news release today.
He added: “Large companies produce various pigments, such as paints and textiles. These same pigments are used in tattoo inks.
Scientists now aim to create the first comprehensive database of the composition of different tattoo inks in the United States.
They haven’t investigated the effects of tattoo removal, which is usually done with a laser.
Two pigments in particular — blue 15:3 and green 7 — have been warned by some scientists that they could cause cancer in 2020. The European Union – which includes 27 European countries, but not the UK – banned their use in tattoos in January.
But some authorities, including Germany, warned the ban was “going too far”, saying more evidence was needed that they could be toxic. Tests by German regulators found both had “low levels” of toxicity.
The colors are still used in the United States, and there is no indication that authorities are moving to ban them.
U.S. health authorities have warned that tattoos already pose several other health risks because of skin piercing — increasing the risk of bacterial or blood-borne infections.
They also say that in rare cases, tattoos can cause problems with MRI scans, making it harder for doctors to diagnose conditions such as cancer.
Removing tattoos can also be problematic, and lasers can cause pain, blistering, and scabbing.
“We have the same concerns,” Swielk added. [of cancer risks] About laser tattoo removal because we don’t understand how lasers change pigment.