tattooThe popularity of tattoos has increased tremendously in the past decades. It is estimated that roughly 1 in 5 American adults has at least one tattoo. That statistics climbs to more than 1 in 3 for adults under the age of 35. Unfortunately, few individuals consider the possible health implications and risks of getting a tattoo, and fewer still realize the even greater dangers that result when attempting to remove a tattoo. While the spiritual, cultural, and economic factors are often considered before getting a tattoo, let’s begin a dialogue about the health factors.

The majority of tattoo parlors across the developed world utilize manufactured inks. These inks, while regulated, are not required in most cases to disclose their ingredients and may consider their ink formulas to be proprietary recipes and guarded as trade secrets. What is known, however, is that manufactured inks typically utilize certain ingredients for their low economic cost and resistance to degradation, namely heavy metals.

While it is true that not all manufactured ink contain heavy metals, these inks are typically the exception rather than the norm. In fact, most consumer protection agencies permit trace amounts of heavy metals in manufactured inks to the same degree that they permit them in cosmetics like make-up and lipstick. Since a regulation is only as effective as it is enforced, it has been found that many manufactured tattoo inks greatly exceed these permitted limits.

The New Zealand EPA conducted an industry survey in 2011 of manufactured tattoo inks from the largest manufacturers in the world. They tested 118 different colors from 18 different brands for 13 toxic elements:

  • chemicalsArsenic (As)
  • Barium (Ba)
  • Cadmium (Cd)
  • Cobalt (Co)
  • Chromium (Cr) (VI)
  • Copper (Cu) soluble
  • Mercury (Hg)
  • Nickel (Ni)
  • Lead (Pb)
  • Selenium (Se)
  • Antimony (Sb)
  • Tin (Sn)
  • Zinc (Zn)

  • While chromium, selenium, copper, and zinc are essential nutrients in some forms, too much of these substances can actually have negative health consequences on the body, not too mention that they can also be damaging to the environment. Chromium for example, in hexavalent form is actually a carcinogen. There is also such a thing as copper toxicity where excessive copper levels in the body can cause excessive levels of free radicals that can damage DNA, as well as harm the liver and kidneys.

    Red-colored inks typically contain mercury and cadmium, though many samples were also found to contain antimony, barium, and lead. There were a total of 30 non-compliant metals in this color shade.

    Yellow-colored inks commonly contain lead, cadmium and zinc, though some samples also had barium and arsenic. Among the 11 color-variants of yellow analyzed, there were 25 non-compliant metals. Six exceeded cadmium and three exceeded the zinc permitted levels.

    Orange-colored inks commonly contain cadmium, though lead and barium were detected as well. There were nine color-variants of orange samples tested and 16 non-compliant metals were recorded. Eight exceeded the cadmium guideline value.

    Green-colored inks are loaded with heavy metals. Green typically contains lead, chromium and copper, with many samples also containing cadmium, barium, and arsenic. Twenty five color-variants of green were analyzed with 67 non-compliant metals recorded. There were four lead and nine copper that exceeded the Guidelines.

    Blue-colored inks commonly contain cobalt and copper. Of the 15 color-variants of blue analyzed, there were 56 non-compliant metals. Nine samples exceeded the guideline for soluble copper. The EPA guidelines permit 25mg/kg of soluble copper in tattoo inks. One non-compliant soluble copper contained 32,900mg/kg.

    White inks are another heavy metal rich shade, commonly containing lead, zinc and barium, and occasionally containing antimony, cadmium and arsenic. There were 16 white samples analyzed with 43 non-compliant metals. Five exceeded the lead guideline while seven exceeded the zinc guideline.

    Conversely, the color shade that had the least heavy metals by a large margin was brown. Of all the brown shades tested, only two had non-compliant metals. Though this survey was not representative of every manufactured tattoo ink product in the world, it appears that the least toxic color shade, by far, is brown.

    With the exception of brown, it is evident that the majority of tattoos using manufactured tattoo inks contain significant amounts of toxic heavy metals. For someone who is adamant about getting a tattoo, this poses a problem. There are, however, some options.

    inkNot all tattoo inks contain heavy metals. Some artists and individuals choose to make their own inks out of vegetable, plant, and non-toxic pigments and mix them with carrier agent to allow the pigment to disperse in the skin. Common carrier agents are ethyl alcohol, glycerin, and other types of alcohols. While these substances have a degree of toxicity, they serve a beneficial purpose in that they often keep the puncture wounds from the needles sterile during the actual injections and help keep the color pigments in the skin and prevent them from being absorbed and degraded.

    While some might argue that the heavy metals in the ink are not a risk or the body because they are trapped in the skin, this is not entirely true. As with all parts of the body, there is the natural degeneration and recycling of the organic material in the body and these processes will always remove some material from the tattoo and distribute it either in the body or route it through excretion. This is evident by the fact that tattoos routinely fade, blur, droop, and age with time.

    The second issue is that a significant number of people end up regretting one or more tattoos and consider tattoo removal. While tattoos are already inherently toxic to the body, the current removal technologies only exacerbate the problem from a toxicological perspective. Heavy metals that were suspended in the skin, slowly leaching, are now broken apart and dispersed into the blood stream through laser or other means. These pigments are now dumped into circulation in the bodies tissues and often produce symptoms of heavy metal toxicity:

  • Metallic taste in mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Memory and concentration difficulties
  • Muscle twitches and tremors
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mood and behavioral disorders
  • Liver, kidney, and gastrointestinal stresses and complications
  • And a long long long list of other symptoms as well as increased risk of disease and cancer

  • If you have your heart set on getting a tattoo, here are some recommendations:

    Find someone who makes tattoo inks and verify that they use only natural pigments and ask about and research the carrier chemical they use. Get educated and make an informed decision. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or intend to have children as these toxic metals are known to cause reproductive harm and harm to the fetus.

    If you cannot obtain natural made inks, stick to shades of brown only. While there may be shades of brown with high levels of heavy metals, so far it appears to be the least of all the colors.

    Whatever tattoo you get, keep it for life and do not remove it. Removal is worse than getting the tattoo in the first place. Make sure you can live with this tattoo forever. If you positively, absolutely must have the tattoo removed, you must do a concurrent chelation program while the tattoo is being removed in order to prevent your body from absorbing the heavy metals being released en mass into your organs and tissues.

    Tattoos are supposed to be works of art and marks of individuality and self-expression. There is no reason to sacrifice your health to achieve these when safe alternatives exist. Go out and express yourself, and strive to become the strongest version of yourself.yay