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While a tattoo may sound interesting, researchers have found that the chemicals in tattoo inks contain certain chemicals, especially if they are not labeled correctly.
The researchers pointed out that unregulated tattoo ink may contain unknown ingredients and possible carcinogens.
Scientists at Binghamton University analyzed nearly 100 different tattoo inks and found that manufacturers’ ingredient labels are generally inaccurate.
They also found that many of the inks used contain tiny nanoscale particles that can be harmful to human cells.
The researchers presented their discovery this week at the American Chemical Society meeting in Chicago.
Lead researcher John Swierk, a chemist from Binghamton, said the project began when his group became fascinated by the prospect of tattoos as a tool for medical diagnostics.
Their interest has 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 led to learning more about the chemical composition of tattoo inks, something that has not yet been thoroughly researched.
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Not much is known about tattoo inks in the United States, as manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients.
According to Swierk, on rare occasions, there is no real control over the accuracy of the disclosures.
Although tattoo inks are 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 being 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 both carrier solutions, which Swierk said is the liquid part that carries the pigment, which usually consists of a mixture of alcohol and water and pigments.
They found alcohols not listed on the label in 20 of the 24 carrier solutions they examined. The team also studied the 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 had an average particle size of 100 nanometers or significantly less.
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Dr. Abdelmalek, a dermatologist and ABC News correspondent, spoke about the risks of tattooing with certain inks, saying:
“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 the tattoo ink as if it were a foreign substance, causing granulomatous reactions that 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 patches localized to a tattoo color.
“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 exacerbations or flare-ups after getting a tattoo.
Tattoo ink is under-regulated, scientists say
Scientists explore chemistry of tattoo inks amid growing safety concerns