Is Your Tattoo Ink Safe?

woman back tattoo

It seems like each week, some celebrity (last week it was Rihanna) takes to social media to flaunt their new ink. While getting tat, tat, tatted up has become more accepted worldwide as a form of art or expression, health experts are investigating the long-term health effects of tattooing yourself. “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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In fact, their findings (or lack thereof) may have you rethink that cute ankle tat. For starters, from 1988 to 2003, the FDA received only five complaints about skin reactions from tattoo ink. However, since 2004, it has received hundreds more– reporting reactions including itching, scarring or inflammation, even years after tattooing occurred.

The cause? While state and local authorities oversee the practice of tattooing, and ink pigments used in tattoos, “because of other public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety concerns,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “has not traditionally regulated tattoo inks or the pigments used in them,” research shows.

“Our hope is to get a better understanding of the body’s response to tattoos and their impact on human health, and to identify products at greatest risk,” says Linda Katz, M.D., M.P.H., Director of FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The FDA went on to acknowledge that “[m]any pigments used in tattoo inks are industrial-grade colors suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint.” A previous study also found that some pigments contain traces of heavy metals like mercury, lead, cobalt, nickel and even arsenic.