Tattoo Health Risks

I love tattoos and I have several, but you need to think and ask questions before you go under the needle. Ask your tattoo artist some questions and make sure you are going to a reputable shop.

tattoo artist

Before you get that dolphin tattooed on your ankle or “Mom” on your bicep, be warned: The ink used in tattoos may be harmful — even years later.

A new report has raised questions about the safety of tattoo inks used in Europe, most of which are imported from the United States. The inks have been found to contain hazardous chemicals, including carcinogens.

The report, from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, also identified heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and nickel, preservatives, organic compounds, bacteria, and other potentially harmful substances in the inks.

It calls for a thorough review of tattoo inks in use throughout the European Union, and it highlights the need for strict regulation of the inks, which are also used for permanent makeup.

After the report was released, the organization asked the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to look further into tattoo ink safety.

“Tattoo inks and permanent make up (PMU) may contain hazardous substances — for example, substances that cause cancer, genetic mutations, toxic effects on reproduction, allergies or other adverse effects on health,” an ECHA statement reads.

The concerns accompany a rapid rise in the number of people getting tattoos. Nearly 1 in 3 U.S. adults have a tattoo, according to a Harris Poll. Four years ago, only 1 in 5 adults were inked. Two tattoo industry trade groups, the National Tattoo Association and the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, did not respond to requests for comment.

In this country, the FDA has also raised concerns about tattoo ink.

Last August, the FDA announced a voluntary recall of A Thousand Virgins inks, which were found to be contaminated with bacteria. The year before that, another company, White and Blue Lion, recalled its inks and other tattoo equipment because of contamination that could have caused sepsis, a potentially deadly complication of infections. Other recalls have happened in previous years, both here and in Europe.

Other concerns the FDA raises on its website include:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Itchiness and inflammation when exposed to summer sunlight
  • Granulomas, or small knots or bumps that form around areas where the body senses foreign material, such as the pigments in tattoo ink
  • The spread of tattoo ink to the body’s lymphatic system. It’s unknown whether this has health consequences.