Holistic Health Thrive

Toxic Tattoos – What’s Hiding in Your Tat?

tattoo artist doing a tattoo
Written by Guggie Daly

You know to use vegan, toxin free makeup on your skin. You watch what you eat and choose wholesome, cleaner foods. But, with the rising popularity of tattoos, do you know to avoid certain inks due to their toxicity?

The tattoo industry has had to battle a lot of negativity. From disease to cultural stereotypes, it’s only recently that tattooing became a mainstream practice. Popularity exploded, and recent statistics now show close to 40% of young U.S. citizens have at least one tattoo.

That’s a lot of ink. And a lot of toxins and heavy metals.

With all the concerns over the years about inking, you’d think the industry was tightly regulated. It has no FDA oversight, other than limited instances where the FDA reviews multiple reports of safety issues. Most regulations are on a state or county level and focus on preventing disease transmission. Because of the way inks are categorized, artists are not required to disclose the ingredients in their proprietary mixes.

If this sounds like any other obscured, outdated industry, you’re right.

Studies looking at all the ingredients and their safety are still lagging due to the obscurity of this industry and the lack of popularity until recently. Some of there search confirms that tattoo inks migrate into lymph nodes. Allergic re- actions, skin conditions, immune conditions, and phyto-sensitivity are con- firmed results of tattooing. The question here is: what about long term risks such as cancer and autoimmune diseases? Fortunately, consumers have some recent data to review. Unfortunately, the data isn’t promising.

Many inks on the market contain a variety of toxic chemicals, heavily   processed animal products, and heavy metals. Black inks might contain charcoal byproducts or powdered  animal bones and gelatin. Most coloured inks contain chemicals and heavy metals to get the desired look. These toxins are known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and can damage the brain and  nervous systems.

For example, one such ingredient, benzo(a)pyrene, is a confirmed carcinogenic substance that causes cancer in animal studies. It’s derived from coal tar, and its metabolites are considered extremely mutagenic. It’s already listed as a Group 1 Carcinogenic by theInternational Agency for Research on Cancer. Did your artist inform you of this before you signed consent for your tattoo?

Some people are slow to believe the concern about chemicals and metals in ink, pointing out that the ink is essentially trapped in a layer of skin. This might have been a reasonable objection to older inks. Today’s inks, however, often contain nano-particles. Similar to the cosmetics industry, the tattoo industry is switching to nano-particle technology. That means these substances are more easily absorbed by the body, entering the lymph system and eventually various soft organs involved in excretion. In a matter of days, in other words, the toxic substances trapped under the skin could migrate through the entire body, entering soft tissues such as the brain.

Although toxic ink is a valid concern, informed consent is important not only to give consumers the ability to avoid toxins, but also to give them the ability to choose their risks. For example, some of the heavy metals found in tattoo inks are industrial grade and used in automobile manufacturing or printer ink. They represent a high and continued risk in the body. Other chemicals such as the endocrine disruptors known as pthalates are still a risk but might only be an initial exposure that is then excreted easily from the body.

Yet another example is Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, abbreviated to ABS plastic. It’s a thermoplastic material that has no melting point. This substance is found in the popular ink brands Millenium and Intenze. ABS plastic is a great example of the issue in the tattoo industry. The substance has very little data available on how it harms humans. It’s listed as a hazardous material, especially if inhaled, but carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic outcomes are unstudied. Lack of evidence is not lack of harm! Due to the way the product is handled in the body, and its reaction to things such as phenolic compounds, it’s reasonable to speculate this is a harmful toxin that should be kept out of our bodies at all costs. The MSDS data sheets agree as well, providing careful details on proper eyewear, skin protection, and hazmat disposal.

The thing is, without education and informed consent, you don’t have the ability to make these risk assessments before agreeing to inject these sub- stances into your body. And if you don’t know about these ingredients, then you also won’t know to look for artists who specifically try to create healthier  inks.

Thankfully, vegan, environmentally friendly, petrochemical-free, and non- toxic inks are quickly coming to the forefront as more consumers become educated on the risks. With a little digging around, you can now find artists who use natural ingredients. One such ink, Kuro Sumi ink, incorporates organ- ic and vegan materials, and relies on a formula passed down from ancient Japan. Other artists who are passionate about their work are known for creating such clean ink that it’s certified food grade.

The parting message here is that if you are an environmentally conscious, health conscious parent trying to live naturally, with a little research, tattoos can be a part of that lifestyle. Many  of the common inks on the market are heavily contaminated with a variety of carcinogenic and mutagenic ingredi- ents, but dedicated artists are rising to the challenge, providing healthier al- ternatives to continue sharing their art, sans toxins and heavy metals.

Before you get your next tattoo, research your local artists. Read more about this growing issue here. Then interview artists and ask them where they get their inks, the brand names, if they make their own and what ingredients they use. Don’t feel rude; artists who are passionate about their work are happy to share the effort they’ve put in to secure quality, safe inks. If you feel un- comfortable with an artist’s answers or attitudes, look for someone else. If you can’t currently find a non toxic pigmented ink, consider getting a monochrome tattoo only, or only doing the outline for now until you can find a better artist. At the very least, keep researching until you feel comfortable and informed about what you are agreeing to put into your body, the same as any other topic out there.

About the author

Guggie Daly