Although it’s not completely recent news that tattoos may come with their fair share of health complications, we figured it may be helpful to answer some of your top questions about tattoo toxicity. We’ll also be going over some myths and facts about tattoo ink chemicals, as well overall physical issues you should keep in mind when getting a new tattoo.
As always, we’re super interested in making sure that people are as educated as possible about tattoos before taking the jump. The more you know, the better your experience will be! Remember, this isn’t about spreading paranoia...we simply want all clients to be able to make strong, well-prepared choices about their body art.
Top Questions About Tattoo Toxicity
Do tattoos cause health problems?
Tattoos can cause health problems for those with sensitive skin or highly sensitive immune systems. However, keep in mind that this is a small percentage of the population. If you have any fears or questions, find an artist who can do a small test on your skin to make sure you won’t have any health problems.
Is tattoo ink toxic to the body?
Yes, tattoo ink can be toxic to the body. It is very important that you find an artist who is aware of these risks and uses top quality ink. You can always ask the artist what kind of ink they use. If you are more comfortable, you can also find an artist that is willing to use ink that you bring in yourself.
Does a tattoo poison your blood?
If the tattoo machine and needles used to create your tattoo are not cleaned properly, bloodborne pathogens can be transferred into your body. This is a very large part of why it’s important to find professional, clean, and reputable artists to do your tattoo.
What's so bad about tattoos?
There are many reasons why people think tattoos are bad: gang affiliation, risk of disease via unclean equipment, difficulty in the job market, etc. However, it’s worth noting that many of the reasons people think tattoos are bad are based purely on social stigma and miseducation. It’s always best to do your own research to figure out whether tattoos are the right choice for you.
Do tattoos weaken your immune system?
There have been studies that say yes, tattoos weaken your immune system due to the release of cortisol. However, this is a short term reaction and not one that should
Do tattoos shorten your lifespan?
No study has yet to prove that tattoos shorten your lifespan due to biology. However, some studies have hypothesized the link between tattoos and risk taking behavior. This means people that take greater risks, such as getting tattooed, sky-diving, etc., may die sooner. There have also been links between negative tattoos, i.e. gang related tattoos, and unnatural deaths. Which is not a surprise, and doesn’t really have anything to do with tattoos directly.
Does tattoo ink enter your bloodstream?
Yes, tattoo ink can enter your bloodstream. This is one of the reasons why it is important to choose an artist who uses sanitized equipment and safe inks.
Is tattoo ink cancerous?
Tattoo ink is not cancerous and there are no known cases of cancer that are directly correlated with tattoos. However, tattoo ink is known to have ingredients that are carcinogens, so it is best to use tattoo inks that do not include those materials.
Has anyone died from a tattoo?
There are a very few cases of death from complications after getting tattooed. However, these cases were mostly in part due to the client not heading artist advice for aftercare, or from severe allergies. It is always best to go to a professional tattoo parlour, follow your artists aftercare advice, and do a small tattoo test if you are worried about allergy sensitivity.
Tattoo Ink Toxicity
The main reasons for tattoo toxicity stems from the inks that are used to create the permanent design in the first place. Tattoo inks aren’t really regulated by the FDA because they aren’t ingested as food. And, even crazier, because tattoo inks are “proprietary”, which basically means a secret formula, they are not required to list their ingredients.
Although tattoos have been hit hard by critics for safety issues during application, any reputable, professional tattooer knows how important tattoo shop cleanliness is. In fact, most countries have licenses that artists study and test for to ensure studio safety for clients. However, what most critics should actually be focusing on are the inks used when creating the tattoo. These materials can cause issues during, and after, the tattooing process.
Safe Tattoo Inks
If you’re looking for safe tattoo inks, your best bet is to research their ingredient list. In most cases, the chemicals that are the toxin culprits are those in the heavy metal family. Hues of blue or green can include cobalt as well as phthalocyanine. Red, which has a reputation for causing skin issues, can include mercury sulfide, cadmium, and iron oxide. Inks can also include lead,
titanium dioxide, zinc, and copper.
While these particular compounds have been used in important fine art oil paint pigments for centuries, their effect on humans hasn't been widely studied. And although many tattoo inks tout safety, recently a French study found, “Dyes CI 74260, CI 73915, Isothiazolinones, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, aromatic amines ... Behind these incomprehensible names for ordinary people hide chemicals that present a proven risk for human beings, since they are for the most part carcinogenic, and of this fact framed by various regulations. However, in 75% of the products tested, we found rates of these undesirable substances above regulatory thresholds, sometimes to overwhelming levels.” Even some specific inks from well-respected companies such as Eternal and World Famous didn’t make the cut.
Our advice? Do your research and ask your artist. A professional tattooer will be able to let you know what ink they use and if they’ve ever experienced any issues. Chances are: probably not. But, just in case, we speak on some health issues that may arise from tattooing below.
Health Issues from Tattoos
Many people have experienced raised or bumpy tattoos, maybe they even itch here and there, especially after getting some direct sunlight. However, certain groups of people should be aware of how a tattoo may exacerbate their specific health issues.
Those who have sensitive skin, are known to have issues with keloids or granuloma inflammation, should be careful when getting tattooed. It’s always best to let your tattoo artist know of any issues you may have. Sometimes it simply comes down to not overworking the skin, as well as staying clear from harsh chemical agents that may have strong effects on the skin.
It’s also worth noting that those who have immunodeficiency diseases, Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, histamine intolerance, inflammatory disorders, Hemophilia, and similar, should be aware that getting tattooed may have certain effects as well. This is in large part not only due to the ink used, but also due to the chemical processes your body is going through when getting tattooed.
Studies have been done that show a release of cortisol when people get tattooed; this is a natural reaction from your body when undergoing stressful situations. What’s odd is that because cortisol is an immunosuppressant, this could have an effect on your body's defense system making it easier for you to catch colds and harder for you to fight them off.
But there’s also scientists who are looking into whether or not the nanoparticles released from your tattoo, often found in inks, could have an effect on the organs within your body, such as the liver. This is one of the main organs that processes ink, especially when getting tattoo removal. There are also studies being done to see what kind of effect tattoos have on the lymphatic system, especially wherein ink toxins, specifically carcinogens, can travel to this system and cause serious issues.
As you may realize, the skin is the body’s largest organ, and all parts of our body are intertwined in a complicated system meant to protect. Depending on your particular health issue, there are many reasons why tattooing could cause problems, but by doing research and working with your artist, you’ll know how to proceed in a way that’s most safe for you.
The Safety of Vegan Tattoos
Just because a tattoo ink is vegan doesn’t necessarily make it safer. These inks do not have animal byproducts and aren’t tested on animals, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t contain harmful toxins. As described above, even naturally occurring pigments such as cadmium and carbon carry heavy metals which are toxic to humans in large doses.
The same could be said of organic tattoo inks. Just because an ingredient is organic, doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t harmful. Think of it this way: many mushrooms grow wild in the forest...but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat all of them. Nor would you want them injected into your skin! If you want to know more about naturally occurring toxins, check out the WHO fact sheet. Hopefully this will help illustrate why not everything that is natural or organic should be ingested.
Tattoo by Antony Flemming #AntonyFlemming
How to Get a Safe Tattoo
So, with all that information above kept in mind, you have to weigh the risks for yourself. Ask some serious questions before you get tattooed like, "Do I have reason to believe I might be sensitive to tattoo ink?" or "Is my tattoo artist clean and professional?" Answering questions like these will help set you up for a great experience.
Your first step to getting a great tattoo, is finding a great artist. You want a tattooer that not only fits your personal style, and creates incredible tattoos, but one that is well-respected, clean, and professional. Once you find an artist you connect with, ask them the questions you need to ask to feel comfortable. If you're worried about ink, ask them. If you don't know how to take care of your new tattoo, ask them. They are the professionals, and they should be able to answer all those questions running wild in your head.
We also have a ton of great guides that will help your next tattoo adventure be a successful one. Whatever you need, we're here to help!