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Health Risks of Tattoo Ink

It’s estimated that one in four American adults has at least one tattoo. If you've ever gotten a tattoo, or thought about it, chances are that you weighed the artistic and social aspects of it far more than the health aspects. In fact, you may not even be aware that there are health aspects associated with getting a tattoo – other than the inherent risks of infection, allergic reaction or disease transmission if equipment is not properly sterilized. Research is increasingly showing, however, that there are likely health risks involved.


One major problem is the ink itself. Tattoo ink is not regulated by the government, and scientists have discovered nanoparticles in tattoo ink, with black pigments containing the smallest particles. Nanoparticles are ultramicroscopic in size, making them able to readily penetrate your skin and travel to underlying blood vessels and your bloodstream. Evidence suggests that some nanoparticles may induce toxic effects in your brain and cause nerve damage, and some may also be carcinogenic.

Research suggests the ink particles are leaving the surface of your skin and traveling elsewhere in your body, where they could potentially enter organs and other tissues. This is particularly worrisome because tattoo inks are known to contain cancer-causing compounds.

While red ink appears to be associated with chronic skin reactions, including allergic reactions, black ink is also implicated in health problems. This might be, in part, because of its high concentration of nanoparticles. Regardless of what color ink you choose, all tattoo inks have toxic potential.

No systematic studies have been performed on the safety of tattoo ink, and many of those used are industrial-grade colors suitable for printers' ink or automobile paint. The long-term health effects of injecting tattoo ink into the body remain unknown. So while self-expression is important, research suggests you may want to think before you ink.