Can Tattoo Ink Lead to Cancer?
It has been said that “tattoo ink is remarkably nonreactive histologically, despite the frequent use of different pigments of unknown purity and identity by tattoo artists.” 1
However, University of Bradford researchers using an atomic force microscope (AFM) that allows them to examine skin with tattoos at the nano-level have found evidence that suggests otherwise. In a preliminary study (the first to use an AFM to examine tattoos), the researchers found that the tattoo process remodels collagen (your body’s main connective tissue).2
Further, nanoparticles from tattoo ink were found to exist in both the collagenous network of the skin as well as around blood vessels. This suggests that the ink particles are leaving the surface of your skin and traveling elsewhere in your body, where they could potentially enter organs and other tissues.
This is problematic because tattoo inks are largely unregulated and known to contain cancer-causing compounds. The researchers believe the issue could become a significant public health concern given the rise in tattooing in the last decade, noting:
“We need to do more work, but there is no question that these substances can be toxic. It takes a long time for the multi-step nature of cancer to show its face and I don’t think we should wait to see if there is anything wrong with these ingredients.”
Nanoparticles in Tattoo Ink May be Carcinogenic
Nanoparticles are ultramicroscopic in size, making them able to readily penetrate your skin and travel to underlying blood vessels and your bloodstream. Evidence suggests that some nanoparticles may induce toxic effects in your brain and cause nerve damage, and some may also be carcinogenic.
In 2011, a study in The British Journal of Dermatology revealed that nanoparticles are indeed found in tattoo inks,3 with black pigments containing the smallest particles (white pigments had the largest particles and colored pigments were in between).
With the exception of the white pigments, the researchers noted that “the vast majority of the tested tattoo inks contained significant amounts” of nanoparticles. “The black pigments were almost pure NPs [nanoparticles], i.e. particles with at least one dimension <100 nm,” they said.
Black-Ink Tattoos May be the Riskiest
The black ink is the color most often linked to potential adverse health effects, although all tattoo inks have toxic potential, including:
Since black ink may contain a significant amount of nanoparticles, it is likely that such toxins could find easy entrance into your bloodstream, perhaps worsening their effects. Writing in Experimental Dermatology, researchers highlighted the dangerous potential of tattoo inks (particularly black) even beyond nanoparticles:6
- Potentially carcinogenic4
- May cause inflammation and DNA damage5
- May contain carcinogenic Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) like benzo(a)pyrene (a Class 1 carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer)
“Black tattoo inks are usually based on soot, are not regulated and may contain hazardous polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Part of PAHs possibly stay lifelong in skin, absorb UV radiation and generate singlet oxygen, which may affect skin integrity.… Tattooing with black inks entails an injection of substantial amounts of phenol and PAHs into skin. Most of these PAHs are carcinogenic and may additionally generate deleterious singlet oxygen inside the dermis when skin is exposed to UVA (e.g. solar radiation).”While so far incidences of skin cancer appearing on tattooed skin has been deemed coincidental,7 it is largely unknown whether the inks may be contributing to cancers, or other health problems, elsewhere in the body. It’s known, for instance, that some tattoo pigment may migrate from your skin into your body’s lymph nodes.8 According to Dr. Samuel Epstein, a well-respected professional in cancer prevention:
“… the evidence which we’ve accumulated so far, is largely restricted to the fact that they [nanoparticles] get into your bloodstream and reach organs throughout your body. And as far as the brain is concerned, we have actual evidence of entry into the brain and producing toxic effects -- lesions, small lesions, toxic effects in the brain.”
Tattoo Inks are Not Regulated in the US, Most are Industrial-Grade Products
Inks and ink colorings (pigments) used for tattoos are technically subject to regulation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as cosmetics and color additives. However, the Agency states that because of other public health priorities and a “previous lack of evidence of safety concerns,” they have not traditionally regulated such products.9 As such, many dyes used in tattooing are actually produced for industrial uses such as car paint or printers’ ink, for instance.
To date there have been no systemic studies to look at the safety of injecting such inks into the body, although the National Center for Toxicological Research is conducting research to determine:
The Friends of the Earth – a global network of grassroots groups – is among those now calling for proper regulation of tattoo inks amidst the new findings that they may contribute to cancer.10 In the meantime, it may be wise to “think before you ink,” as the FDA recommends, at least until further research is completed (and remember that permanent makeup is also a form of tattoo
- The chemical composition of tattoo inks and how they break down in your body
- The short-term and long-term safety of tattoo inks and pigments
- How your body responds to the interaction of light with the inks