Tattoos seen as safe but could pose risks

Whenever people ask me if I would ever get a tattoo, My answer is no for two main reasons. One, I am the most indecisive person you might ever meet and would most likely regret whatever it is that I would tattoo onto my body. Two, I’m scared. Yes, I am scared of being probed with a needle and the pain that may bring, but I am even more afraid of what that needle would inject into my skin.

Let me ask you, I ask all my friends who raise questions about my lack of wanting a tattoo: what exactly is in tattoo ink? It is at this point that I usually get a blank stare and an, “uhhh. I don’t know.” Truth is, I don’t know either, and that is where a large part of my fear comes from.

At this time, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any tattoo pigments. A notable educator, Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., points out that manufacturers of inks and pigments don’t have to reveal the contents of the ink they produce and that many professionals mix his or her own inks/pigments. Therefore, all inks have slightly different compositions, for there is no “ink standard” (, “Tattoo Inks-What You Don’t Know Could Hurt You”, 11.15.13).

These homemade inks consist of pigment and a carrier. The carrier keeps the pigment evenly distributed and prevents clumping. Many carriers have proven to be toxic, such as denatured alcohols, ethylene glycol and aldehydes. These harmful carriers burn the skin and cause mutagens/carcinogens, which create reactions in the body that may accelerate or even create detrimental health issues ( “Tattoo Inks-What You Don’t Know Could Hurt You”, 11.15.13).

Main risks include infection (since you’re probably sharing pigments with whoever got a tattoo before you—even a clean needle may pick up residue from the person beforehand!), allergies (unless it is revealed exactly what is in every pigment being used in your tattoo, there may be chemicals you are unaware of and have a negative reaction to), granulomas (small bumps that form around the tattoo since some of the contents of the ink the body perceives as a foreign threat and tries to eliminate the threat), and MRI complications (metal salts are sometimes used in ink and you may see swelling or feel light burning when you get an MRI… this is pretty rare though!). (Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?, FDA, 2.23.2009; (, “Tattoo Ink Contains Known Toxins”, 10.8.2012).

Recent studies have exposed another concern, finding that the toxins from nanoparticles of tattoo ink can be absorbed into the bloodstream and cause cancer. The toxins collect in the spleen and kidney which impair the body’s ability to fight the toxins (DailyMail “Could Your Tattoo Give You Cancer?”, 9.22.2013).

With all the harm that can be caused, the FDA is currently conducting research on tattoo ink at their Arkansas-based National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR). Chemist Paul Howard, Ph.D., is leading this research and his team is investigating the chemical composition of the inks and how they break down (metabolize) in the body, the short-term and long-term safety of pigments used in tattoo inks and how the body responds to the interaction of light with the inks (, “Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?”, 2.23.2009).

However, there is a major setback for the research Dr. Howard is leading. Simply, there are too many types of ink to test. Results from any investigation can only be conclusive for that exact ink that was tested. Therefore, this research will hopefully find one type (or even a few types) of ink that appears to not be harmful to the body and be able to create a standard. But most likely, this won’t happen any time soon. Research has been ongoing for three or more years and still no standard has been set.

Most appear not to be too concerned with the lack of knowledge regarding pigments and ink as more than 45 million Americans (36 percent of 30-year-olds) have tattoos (, “Tattoo Ink Contains Known Toxins”, 10.8.2012). Many people tag themselves with significant sayings, dates or images that represent who they are or something that is important to them. I know many people who have tattoos and, honestly, none have had any real issues with them, at least to my knowledge.

So what does that mean? Is all this stuff about tattoo ink just trying to scare us? Eh. Many people doubt there are as high risks if they do investigation on the tattoo parlor of choice and choose a highly qualified artist, but the long-term effects of tattoos are not clear because everyone’s body reacts differently to different substances.

I for one, even knowing everything in the tattoo ink that would be used, would still opt not to get one. Injecting foreign objects into my skin forever just does not seem ideal to me—plus let’s not forget—TOO INDECISIVE. So while I am not willing to inject what are most likely foreign metal salts into my skin, I don’t expect that everyone is going to magically stop getting tattoos.

The bottom line about getting a tattoo is to not be afraid to ask your tattoo artist what is in the ink he or she is about to inject you with—honestly, it might save your life.


—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.

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