Study: Tattoo ink could emit cancer-causing chemicals after light exposure

‘Every time we looked at one of the inks, we found something that gave me pause’

Tattoos have become so popular in recent years that even the Georgia Department of Public Safety changed its policy prohibiting state troopers from having them. But a new study suggests body art might be bad for your health.

According to researchers from State University of New York, “the inks used for tattoos are unregulated in the U.S., resulting in products whose components are largely a mystery.”

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“The idea for this project initially came about because I was interested in what happens when laser light is used to remove tattoos,” John Swierk, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator, said in a release published in Science Daily. “But then I realized that very little is actually known about the composition of tattoo inks, so we started analyzing popular brands.”

When Swierk and his team asked body artists how much they knew about the inks they used, the artists could name their favorite brand but knew very little about the ingredients in the ink.

“Surprisingly, no dye shop makes pigment specific for tattoo ink,” Swierk explained. “Big companies manufacture pigments for everything, such as paint and textiles. These same pigments are used in tattoo inks.”

Swierk also pointed out that although tattoo artists have to be licensed, there is no federal or local agency regulating the contents of the inks they use. Of the 56 kinds of ink used in the United States, the scientists found, nearly half contained azo compounds, which can become carcinogenic.

“Every time we looked at one of the inks, we found something that gave me pause,” Swierk said. “For example, 23 of 56 different inks analyzed to date suggest an azo-containing dye is present.” Azo pigments are usually safe, but exposure to bacteria or ultraviolet light can break them down and turn them into a potentially cancer causing compound, according to the Joint Research Centre.

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In addition to azo compounds, the researchers found particles so small — less than 100 nm — they could pass through cell walls. “That’s a concerning size range,” Swierk said. “Particles of this size can get through the cell membrane and potentially cause harm.”

Swierk said his team’s findings will be added to their website “What’s in My Ink?” after they are peer reviewed.

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