Tattoo ink may contain cancer-causing chemicals, experts warn

Scientists at the State University of New York investigated 56 inks used in tattoos.  They discovered they contained chemicals that could cause cancer (file photo)

Tattoo ink may contain toxic chemicals that cause cancer, according to a new study.

Scientists at the State University of New York (SUNY) found that almost half of a sample of 56 tattoo inks they investigated had azo compounds, which degenerate under ultraviolet light, emitted in sunlight, into chemicals that cause cancer

Many also contained particles less than 100 nanometers (nm) in size, which they said could enter a cell’s nucleus and trigger cancerous mutations.

Researchers say the tattoo industry is largely unregulated in the United States, despite the fact that as many as three in ten Americans have one. In Europe blue and green pigments have now been banned due to concerns that they could cause cancer.

Someone who gets a tattoo is already at risk of getting a bacterial infection because the skin is broken, or getting a blood-borne disease like hepatitis B and C if the equipment isn’t cleaned properly. Over time, recipients may also develop nodules or granulomas around the tattoo or scar tissue.

Scientists at the State University of New York investigated 56 inks used in tattoos. They discovered they contained chemicals that could cause cancer (file photo)

Dr. John Swierk, the chemist who led the study, warned that the tattoos contained chemicals that could cause cancer.

Dr. John Swierk, the chemist who led the study, warned that the tattoos contained chemicals that could cause cancer.

What are the health risks of getting a tattoo?

A tattoo is a permanent mark on the skin made with pigments inserted through punctures.

The process causes a small amount of bleeding and pain in most recipients. But health bodies are also warning people to be aware of the risks.

What are the risks of getting a tattoo?

  • Allergic reaction: Tattoo inks contain chemicals that can trigger an allergic reaction, such as a rash.
  • Skin infection: Bacteria can get under the skin while piercing for a tattoo, causing an infection.
  • Nodules or granulomas: In some cases, bumps may form on or around a tattoo on the body.
  • Blood borne diseases: If the machine used to tattoo someone is not cleaned properly, it can spread diseases like hepatitis B and C.
  • Complications from magnetic resonance imaging: Tattoos can cause swelling or burning in rare cases when someone gets this type of scan. Pigments can also interfere with image quality. MRIs can be used to diagnose diseases of the brain, spine and abdomen such as cancer.

Source: Mayo Clinic

About two in five Americans already have a tattoo, and the numbers continue to rise as body art gains social acceptance.

Little is known about what is actually in the inks used, researchers say, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not closely monitoring the industry.

SUNY researchers investigated several popular tattoo inks and presented their findings Wednesday at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago, Illinois.

A tattoo consists of two parts. The main piece is the pigment, which can be a molecular compound, such as blue pigment, or a solid compound, such as titanium dioxide.

They also contain carrier fluids, usually alcohol-based, that bring the pigment into position between two layers of skin.

In the study, scientists tested 56 inks and found that several had substances that were not listed on the label.

In one case, ethanol, which can help thin the blood, was detected in the tattoo ink. It was not clear if this posed any health risks.

About 23 pigments (typically blue and green) were also found to contain azo compounds, which can become “carcinogenic” if exposed to too much sunlight or too much bacteria.

Dr John Swierk, the chemist who led the study, told ‘We don’t necessarily know what the pigments break down into, so that’s the real concern.

“You may have pigments that are safe by themselves, but that photodegrade into something of concern.”

For the second part of the study, the scientists also investigated the particle size in 16 inks used in tattoos.

This showed that half, including black pigments, had particles below 100nm, which were “worrying” because they could “cross the cell membrane and potentially cause damage”.

In a press conference today, Swierk said: “When you get to that size regime, you start to have concerns about nanoparticles penetrating cells, getting into the nucleus of cells and doing damage and causing problems like cancer that way.”

He added: “Big companies make pigments for everything from paint to textiles. These same pigments are used in tattoo inks.’

Scientists aim to create the first comprehensive database of ingredients in different tattoo inks in the United States.

They have yet to investigate the impact of tattoo removal, which is usually done by laser.

Specific concern was raised about two pigments: blue 15:3 and green 7, which could cause cancer in 2020 amid warnings from some scientists. The European Union, which includes 27 European countries but not the UK, banned its use in tattoos in January.

But some authorities, including those in Germany, warned that the ban was “too far”, saying more evidence was needed that they were potentially toxic. Tests by German regulators found both to have a “low level” of toxicity.

These colors remain in use in the United States, and there is no sign that authorities are moving to ban them.

US health authorities warn that getting a tattoo already carries many other health risks because the skin is pierced, which opens up a risk of bacterial infection or blood transmission.

They also say that in rare cases, the tattoo can cause problems with an MRI, making it harder for doctors to diagnose conditions like cancer.

There can also be problems with tattoo removal, as lasers can cause pain, blisters and crusting.

Swierck added: “We have the same concerns [of cancer risks] about laser tattoo removal, as we do not understand how the laser is transforming the pigments.’

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