Could Your Tattoo Really be a Cancer Risk?

A new study suggests that so-called nanoparticles from inks used in tattoos could increase the risk of certain cancers. Why is this, and what are the health implications for those who already have tattoos?

The new research found evidence that toxic nanoparticles from tattoo ink can infiltrate the bloodstream and accumulate in regions of the body like the spleen and kidneys. This could potentially reduce function in those organs and could over time increase the risk of cancers.

Desmond Tobin, director of Bradford University’s center for skin sciences, is quoted as saying he was “gobsmacked” to find that there is no regulation “whatsoever” of ink dye production in the EU, and that “We need to do more work, but there is no question that these substances can be toxic. Some inks are sold with little or no accompanying product data, and their composition may remain uncertain even at the point of use.”

He is quoted as adding that none of the research we have is yet conclusive because, “It takes a long time for the multiple-step nature of cancer to show its face,” but that he doesn’t think waiting the couple of decades it would take to get a true sense of the risk is appropriate given that there are steps we can take now — such as eliminating known harmful chemicals in tattoo ink — that could cut the risk whatever the risk rate turns out to be.

This research appears to be built on previous studies, such as a study from 2011, that found cause for further investigations into nanoparticle infiltration.

A separate study by a team headed by Jorgen Serup, professor of dermatology at Copenhagen’s university hospital, found that 13 out of 21 commonly used European inks have carcinogenic chemicals in them like mercury and cobalt.

It was once believed that it took quite high concentrations of these chemicals to damage the body, but more recent research has found that even in small quantities, these chemicals can be dangerous.

Major tattoo ink manufacturers have reportedly acknowledged that up to 5% of tattoo inks may contain carcinogens, but say they are working to reduce that figure to zero.

The American FDA, which does in fact regulate tattoo ink, has previously warned of other dangers surrounding tattoo ink.

Contaminated inks have caused serious infections, most recently across four states in late 2011 and early 2012. Among the most concerning contamination threats was M. chelonae, which is capable of causing lung disease, infection in the joints, wider organ infection and eye problems. The FDA has also warned that, despite tattoo artists taking every precaution and following good practice, inks can be shipped to them containing bacteria, mold and fungi and that they would be unlikely to see any signs of contamination.

The FDA is currently assessing the risks of carcinogens in tattoo ink, work that will remain ongoing for quite some time.

What Does This Mean if You Have a Tattoo or are Thinking of Getting One?

This research should not be treated as saying someone with a tattoo is definitely at a higher risk of getting cancer, it is simply more of an early warning about a possible link so that steps can be taken to reduce risk factors. Also, and despite the above, it is worth noting that broadly speaking, tattoos and the process of tattooing are both noted for having a strong safety profile.

As researcher Jorgen Serup has said, it’s not about warning people away from getting tattoos either. Instead, this is about making sure the consumer is aware of the risks and is capable of making an informed decision.

Next Page: Find out why getting a tattoo can be a risky business and how you can take steps to help your inking be problem free.

What are the Known Risks of Getting a Tattoo?

There are a number of health issues that can arise from getting a tattoo. These should be treated as potential side-effects/problems that are on the whole uncommon but are possibilities to take into account ahead of deciding to get inked.

The risks listed by the FDA include:

Infection – We are all aware that unhygienic needles can pass on infections like hepatitis and HIV, so ensuring the artist is following proper sterilization methods is important (more on that below).

Allergies – Some people are unfortunately allergic to the ink pigments present in both temporary and permanent tattoos, especially if they are allergic to other things like hair dye. An allergy can manifest as a rash or inflammation and must be treated in a timely manner to guard against further complications. Allergic reactions can vary though. For a more complete overview, please click here.

Granulomas - Tattoo ink is a foreign substance to the body and in some circumstances the body will react to tattoos by creating granulomas, which feel like small knots or bumps, around and under the tattoo site.

MRA Concerns – On rare occasions, those with tattoos undergoing an MRA may experience swelling or a burning sensation in the area of the body on which they have their tattoo. This, again, is uncommon and does not last long. Informing medical staff that you have a tattoo so that precautions can be taken will solve this.

What Can I Do to Make Sure My Tattoo Won’t Cause Me Health Issues?

While currently there is no safety guarantee in the EU to ensure that tattoo ink is properly quality controlled, those seeking a tattoo should feel confident in asking the artist what kind of inks they use and what is in them: if the artist has a good knowledge of the inks, this may be enough to reassure.

If further reassurances are needed, you can request the use of specific inks, though obviously they would have to be ordered in and this is at the artist’s discretion — many may notl feel comfortable working with inks they have not previously used. reports there are some inks that are specifically made to be free of solvents and all PET plastics as well as other impurities, and names John Montgomery’s Alla Prima Ink as a particular choice that is also suitable for vegans too. Those seeking a tattoo might therefore wish to research the inks on offer at a particular tattoo parlor.

There are also a few simple steps that you can take to minimize your chance of infection from other variables.

While there are no formal training procedures for tattoo artists, there are good practices that can reassure you the artist is a professional.

For instance, the artist should be willing to show examples of their work, allowing you to gauge their expertise and the results of their efforts.

They should also use what is known as a steam autoclave sterilizer that will ensure the needles they are using are sterile. Current advice is that you should always ask to see the autoclave, which the artist should be happy to show you. If they are not, or they do not have an autoclave, this should raise concerns. Also, check the condition of the autoclave. Does it look like it is functioning properly?

To find out more questions you should ask and safety tips for when you get your tattoo, please click here.

Image credits: Thinkstock.

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sandra j.
sandra j.2 years ago

In the begining of the article,it sounds serious..then at the end it says Tattooing has a strong safety profile....filing it under "More Data Required"

Allan Yorkowitz
.2 years ago

A long article with inconclusive evidence.

Adelaide Maisy
Adelaide Maisy2 years ago

That's scary! However, I am sure there needs to be more research about it as people have been getting tattoos for centuries. To me, the hygiene factor plays the most important role in post ink skin issues. When you ensure that you are going to the right place, it should be a problem. I got mine (a beautiful lily designed by a great artist on inked from a local parlor that was reputed, well known, and had the most updated equipment.

Russell L.
Russell L.2 years ago

Just wait till all the young people with tat covered bodies get old. All that wonderful permanent "art" will be green and gross. My grand father had one and it looked like shit! Never could understand why you would want a permanent picture on your body? But to each his own. We need more cancer to thin out our growing population.

Carol P.
Carol P.2 years ago

Despite loving seeing them on other people, I'm still not planning to ever get one, and this just confirms that my decision is a good one.

lee e.
lee e.2 years ago

well isn't that a kick in the hind-parts -- looks like that'll do in the next generation - if the oil and global warming doesn't beat it to it! Seems reasonable to me - tattoos aren't very normal - never understood the desire for the art!

JL A.2 years ago

Oh my--once again it is what we don't know that can hurt us

Barbara D.
Past Member 2 years ago

My tats and I have lived a very long, healthy life together.

Nancy Labadens
Past Member 2 years ago

right...not surprised. again, still wondering what is not cancer causing.

Peggy A.
Peggy A.2 years ago

Thank you for sharing!