by Jeremy Michaels
Tattoos have become widely popular among all age groups as a form of personal artistic expression, but are they safe?
Many people believe that tattoo ink is made from vegetable dye but the truth is that most tattoo pigments are made up of metals, salts and sometimes plastics that is dissolved in a solvent liquid carrier solution that the pigment is suspended in to help move the ink through the needle to the skin.
The carriers (considered safe) can be made from:
- Ethyl alcohol (ethanol). Nervous system very sensitive to low levels of exposure; kids – lowered IQ, learning and behavioral problems; adults – memory loss, inebriation, liver disease, cancer.
- Witch hazel.
- Propylene glycol.
They limit infection and prevent contamination.
Carriers may also be made of non-desirable sources:
- Denatured alcohols. Highly toxic and may be fatal if inhaled, ingested or absorbed through skin.
- Methyl alcohol. Repeated contact can cause skin cracking and dryness, possible liver damage, headaches, dizziness and even death.
- Methanol. Can effect the nervous system, but is water soluble so washes out fairly quickly.
- Isopropyl alcohol. The CDC suggests preventing skin contact. Can cause irritation to skin, eyes, nose, throat, dizziness, headache and dry cracking skin.
- Ethylene glycol (antifreeze). Not intended for internal or topical use on humans. Can cause acute toxicity by dermal exposure. Also can cause lesions and reproductive issues – it has not yet been classified for cancer risk.
- Formaldehyde. Some individuals may experience adverse effects such as watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing; wheezing, nausea, and skin irritation. Possible carcinogen. Alcohol increases the absorption through the skin, which results in more chemicals getting in your blood stream.
In the United States, tattoo ink is subject to enforcement though the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same classification as cosmetics and color additives. But… the FDA has never approved any color or pigment for injection into the skin. It has been pointed out by the FDA and medical professionals that the inks are industrial strength colors suitable for printer ink or automotive paint and not for injection into the human body.
In California, Proposition 65 requires that tattoo artists warn customers that the tattoo ink may contain heavy metals known to cause cancer, birth defects, endocrine disrupters and other reproductive issues. Most other states remain unregulated and potential clients uninformed by the shops and artists.
Ingredients are not required to be listed on inks at all by law and are most often listed simply as proprietary blends. They can contain literally any chemical, including those known to be mutagenic (capable of causing mutations) and carcinogenic (capable of causing cancer). Tattoo artists and tattoo clients, the general public, do not often have any way of knowing for sure what exactly is in the ink.
Any time you inject anything in to your skin you risk infection.
The shop might be spotless, the artist may do everything right, you can still get an infection from contaminated ink.
Tattoo machines puncture the skin 3000 times a minute with each poke leaving a hole 1/64th to 1/16th of an inch in diameter. Tattoo guns work much like a sewing machine piercing the skin over and over again depositing ink to achieve the desired design and effects. The wounds do scab over rather quickly but can still get infected during or after the healing process.
The following are some of the heavy metals in tattoo ink and why some of these metals can be dangerous:
- Mercury. A neurotoxin, meaning it has detrimental effects on the nervous system. It can damage the brain and lead to physical and emotional disorders.
- Lead. Interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many of the body’s organs and tissues, including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, nervous and reproductive systems. In severe cases, lead poisoning symptoms can include seizures, coma and death. Other symptoms commonly associated with lead exposure include abdominal pain, confusion, headache, anemia and irritability.
- Beryllium. Listed as a Class A EPA-carcinogen. Exposure can cause chronic beryllium disease, an often-fatal lung disease.
- Cadmium. A heavy metal that poses severe risks to human health, including kidney, bone, and pulmonary damage.
- Arsenic. A known carcinogen, and new studies have also found that exposure to higher levels of arsenic leads to genetic damage.
- Antimony. Exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, skin and lungs. As the exposure continues, more serious problems may occur, such as lung diseases, heart problems, diarrhea, severe vomiting and stomach ulcers.
- Iron oxide. Also known as “rust”. Minimal if any health risks.
- Cobalt. In small amounts cobalt can be beneficial to the body. In larger amounts however, it can be dangerous causing nausea, vision issues, heart problems and thyroid damage.
- Nickel. Small quantities are safe. An uptake of too large quantities of nickel has the following consequences: Higher chances of development of lung cancer, nose cancer, larynx cancer and prostate cancer, Sickness and dizziness after exposure to nickel gas, Birth defects, asthma and chronic bronchitis, allergic reactions such as skin rashes, mainly from jewelry, and even heart disorders.
- Aluminum. Has been linked directly to Alzheimer’s disease and cancer as well as heavy metal toxicity and sickness.
Although most tattoo ink manufacturers consider their ingredient list proprietary information, some brands do release this information and make an effort to produce only nontoxic inks. Some of the tattoo ink manufacturers with the best policies regarding nontoxic inks, according to How-To-Tattoo.com, include National Tattoo Supply, Eternal, Skin Candy, Dynamic and Kuro Sumi, all of which make significant efforts to ensure safe, as non-toxic as possible tattoo inks.
It is an unsolved topic of debate between medical professionals as well as tattoo artists as to if the metals contained in the inks dissipate over time or keep leaching from the tattoo into the rest of the body over the course of the person’s life. The safety and levels are difficult to study given other environmental exposures as to what is a direct result of tattooing.
If you do have or decide to do a tattoo, consider doing an internal cleanse as well as incorporating eating very healthy greens such as spirulina, chlorella, wheatgrass, chlorophyll, parsley and cilantro to detoxify the heavy metals in your body system.