Tattoos, Cancer & You
Do tattoos cause cancer? Tattoos have become increasingly popular in the United States in recent years, but along with that comes a rise in problems such as allergic reactions and infections, an expert says.
More than one-third of Americans aged 18 to 25 report getting a tattoo, according to the Pew Research Center. But if you’re thinking about getting “inked,” there are some things to consider before you head to the tattoo parlor.
“Since tattoos are not regulated in any way, there are many unknowns that could pose potential problems for consumers in terms of the inks and tools used,” Dr. Michi Shinohara, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Washington in Seattle, said in an American Academy of Dermatology news release.
“It is especially important for consumers to be aware of the potential risks, report any problem that develops to the tattoo artist and see a board-certified dermatologist for proper diagnosis and treatment,” Shinohara added.
Tattooing inks have changed a great deal over the years and many modern tattoo inks contain organic azo dyes with plastic-based pigments that are also used industrially in printing, textiles and car paint. Many unknowns exist about how these new tattoo inks interact with the skin and within the body.
Allergic reaction to the tattoo pigments is one of the most common problems associated with tattooing. Infections also can pose a serious threat to health. Along with localized bacterial infections, there have been reports of people being infected with syphilis and hepatitis B and C due to non-sterile tattooing practices, Shinohara said.
Skin cancer is another potential risk associated with tattoos because they can make it hard to detect cancer-related changes in moles. If you get a tattoo, make sure it’s not placed over an existing mole.
A tattoo can also cause a reaction that creates a bump that resembles a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Because it is hard to distinguish from skin cancer, the bump could lead to potentially unnecessary and expensive skin cancer treatment, including surgery, Shinohara said.
Advice for people who want to get a tattoo:
- Go to a professional tattoo parlor and to a tattoo artist who is licensed according to state requirements. Insist on seeing tattoo equipment in sterile packaging.
- Tell the tattoo artist if you have a reaction. If a problem lasts more than one to two weeks, see a dermatologist.
- People with a chronic skin condition such as psoriasis, eczema or a tendency toward keloid scarring should check with a dermatologist before getting a tattoo.
- Do not get a tattoo over a mole. Doing so will make it more difficult to diagnose a problem if the mole changes in the future.
The New Hair Dye Danger
According to dermatologists, a surprisingly high number of hair dyes have various types of potential allergens, many of which can cause rashes on your scalp, neck and chest.
During a recent presentation at the 24th Annual Meeting of the American Contact Dermatitis Society , research from 100 hair dyes was presented. The results? 89% of the products were found to have phenylenediamine (PPD), which can cause a condition called allergic contact dermatitis.
“There’s no real reason your body should identify PPD as a pathogen, but sometimes, it does. So it activates an immune response that results in a rash,” says Dathan Hamann, a researcher at the University of Arizona who presented the study.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end with PPD: the researchers also found that hair dyes have, on average, up to six different dye compounds that can potentially pose a health risk.
Based on this study, experts recommend that:
- If your current hair dye doesn’t cause a reaction, you should be safe to keep using it (though you may still want to do a patch test before application).
- If you aren’t currently using hair dye, conduct a patch test before application.
- If you notice a reaction, be sure to consult with your doctor and/or a dermatologist.
Also, you may want to consider having a REAL patch test done, especially if you’ve previously had a reaction, or if you’ve never used hair color before.
“It’s not just putting a spot of dye on your skin per the product’s instructions,” Hamann explains. “It’s when your dermatologist applies different compounds to the skin to identify the root of the problem.”