Although a tattoo may look interesting, researchers have found that the chemicals in tattoo inks contain certain chemicals, especially when not labeled correctly.
Researchers have warned that unregulated tattoo ink may contain unknown ingredients and possible carcinogens.
Binghamton University scientists analyzed nearly 100 different tattoo inks and found that manufacturers’ ingredient labels are generally inaccurate.
They also discovered that many of the inks used contain tiny nanoparticles that can be harmful to human cells.
The researchers presented their discovery at the American Chemical Society meeting in Chicago this week.
Lead researcher John Swierk, a Binghamton chemist, said the project began when his group was intrigued by the prospect of tattoos as a medical diagnostic tool.
His interest shifted to laser tattoo removal, focusing on how laser light could fade tattoos.
“We realized we didn’t understand a lot about the interaction between light and tattoos,” said Swierk.
“My group studies how light can drive chemical reactions, so it was a natural fit.”
Their discovery provided insight into the chemical composition of tattoo inks, which has yet to be thoroughly researched.
Not much is known about tattoo inks in the United States, as manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients.
According to Swierk, in rare cases there is no real control over the accuracy of the disclosures.
Although the tattoo ink is injected into the skin, the ink is not considered a medical device.
Tattoos are regulated as cosmetics in the United States.
Cosmetic products and ingredients do not need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration before they are released to the public.
“Surprisingly, no dye shop makes pigment specific for tattoo ink,” said Swierk.
“Big companies manufacture pigments for everything, such as paint and textiles. These same pigments are used in tattoo inks.”
Pigment and particle studies
John Swierk and his team used a variety of techniques to determine the particle size and molecular composition of tattoo pigments using highly specialized machines capable of analyzing inks at the molecular level.
“The more surprising thing we found is just how much inaccuracy there is,” said Swierk.
“I won’t say that it’s inaccurate for every single manufacturer… but certainly, we’ve looked at a pretty significant subset, and we’re finding a recurring issue of incorrect labeling.”
The team studied the two carrier solutions, which Swierk says are the liquid part that carries the pigment, which is usually a mixture of alcohol, water, and pigments.
They found alcohols not listed on the label in 20 of 24 carrier solutions examined. The team also looked at particle size.
“Usually the rule of thumb is that particles with a particle size of around 100 nanometers or less start to become a concern from the human health standpoint,” explained Swierk.
“Because they can penetrate into cell nuclei.”
So far, the team has analyzed the particle size of 16 inks and found that half have an average particle size of 100 nanometers or significantly less.
Regarding the risks of tattooing with certain inks, Doctor Abdelmalek, dermatologist and ABC News correspondent, said:
“Having a tattoo with ink does carry some risks – the risks aren’t very common, but they are there.”
Abdelmalek said the body sometimes reacts to tattoo ink as if it were a foreign substance, leading to granulomatous reactions, which she describes as almost an allergy under the skin.
“You have this complex interaction, and this manifests with bumps on the skin or raised area on the skin,” said Abdelmalek.
“It’s a little bit like detective work because you have a person who comes in with a multicolored tattoo, but you might be noticing that only the red ink is reacting.”
Allergic reactions to tattooing include symptoms such as itching, infiltrated papules, nodules, or localized spots to tattoo ink.
“If you are a type of person who has had allergic reactions to other things in the past, you really want to think about knowing what kind of dyes are going into your skin,” said Abdemalek.
According to Abdemalek, red colors cause the most problems with allergic reactions.
People with pre-existing skin conditions like psoriasis may experience flare-ups or flare-ups after getting a tattoo.