What Some Tattoo Artists Use to Color Tattoos Will Make You Rethink Getting One

August 30th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

More Americans are getting inked than ever before, but new research has raised questions about the long-term health effects of tattooing yourself. Specifically, researchers are investigating the safety of pigments in tattoo ink, which are largely unregulated.

tattoo ink

While the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to regulate pigments found in tattoo ink, it hasn't traditionally done so "because of other public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety concerns," the agency's website states. But in recent years, complaints about skin irritation and other tattoo-related complications have spiked, Bloomberg reports.

From 1988 to 2003, the FDA received only five complaints about skin reactions from tattoo ink. It has received hundreds more since 2004.

The FDA acknowledges that "[m]any pigments used in tattoo inks are industrial-grade colors suitable for printers' ink or automobile paint," and it's currently investigating the short-term and long-term safety of ink pigments. Previous studies have found that some of these pigments contain traces of mercury, lead, cobalt, nickel, and even arsenic.

There's also a risk of ink contamination, The Washington Post reports. In 2012, the FDA confirmed that an outbreak of skin infections — 22 cases across four states — was due to tattoo ink that was contaminated during the manufacturing process.

Dean tattooing Herman

Questions about the safety of tattooing have become all the more relevant as the tattoo industry continues to grow and more Americans get inked. A 2016 poll found that 29 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo — and the trend is particularly pronounced among Millennials, almost half of whom have tattoos.

"There have been no systematic studies of the safety of tattoo inks, so we are trying to ask—and answer—some fundamental questions," Dr. Paul Howard, a research chemist working on the FDA tattoo ink study, said in a statement on the agency's website. "We want to know what happens to the ink. Where does the pigment go?"

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