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While a tattoo may look cool, researchers have found that the chemicals in tattoo inks carry concerning chemicals, especially if they aren’t properly labeled.
Researchers emphasized that unregulated tattoo ink could contain unknown ingredients and possibly carcinogens.
Scientists at Binghamton University analyzed nearly 100 different tattoo inks and discovered that the manufacturers’ ingredient labels are usually inaccurate.
They also found that many of the inks used contain small particles at the nanoscale which could be harmful human cells.
The researchers presented their discovery over this week’s American Chemical Society meeting in Chicago.
Principal investigator John Swierk, a chemist at Binghamton, said the project began when his group were fascinated by the prospect of tattoos as a tool for medical diagnostics.
Their interest shifted to tattoo laser removal, focusing on how laser light could fade the tattoos.
“We realized we didn’t understand a lot about the interaction between light and tattoos,” said Swierk.
“My group studies how light can drive chemical reactions, so it was a natural fit.”
Their discovery led to learning more about the chemical composition of tattoo inks, something that hasn’t been thoroughly explored.
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Not much is known about tattoo inks in the United States because manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the ingredients.
According to Swierk, the rare times they are, there isn’t any real oversight of whether the disclosures are accurate.
While tattoo inks are injected into the skin, the ink isn’t considered medical products.
Tattoos are regulated as cosmetic products in the United states.
Cosmetic products and ingredients don’t have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration before going into the market for the public.
“Surprisingly, no dye shop makes pigment specific for tattoo ink,” said Swierk.
“Big companies manufacture pigments for everything, such as paint and textiles. These same pigments are used in tattoo inks.”
Pigment and particle studies
John Swierk and his team used various techniques to detect the particle size and molecular composition of tattoo pigments with highly specialized machines that can analyze the inks at a molecular level.
“The more surprising thing we found is just how much inaccuracy there is,” said Swierk.
“I won’t say that it’s inaccurate for every single manufacturer… but certainly, we’ve looked at a pretty significant subset, and we’re finding a recurring issue of incorrect labeling.”
The team studied both carrier solutions, something Swierk said is the liquid portion carrying the pigment typically made out of a mixture of alcohol and water and pigments.
They found alcohols that weren’t listened on the label in 20 out of the 24 carrier solutions they examined.
The team also studied particle size.
“Usually the rule of thumb is that particles with a particle size of around 100 nanometers or less start to become a concern from the human health standpoint,” explained Swierk.
“Because they can penetrate into cell nuclei.”
So far, the team has analyzed the particle size of 16 inks and found that half had an average particle size of 100 nanometers or significantly smaller.
Dr. Abdelmalek, a dermatologist and ABC News Correspondent talked about the risks of tattoos with certain inks, saying:
“Having a tattoo with ink does carry some risks – the risks aren’t very common, but they are there.”
Abdelmalek said the body sometimes reacts to tattoo ink as if it was a foreign substance, causing granulomatous reactions he describes as almost an allergy beneath the skin.
“You have this complex interaction, and this manifests with bumps on the skin or raised area on the skin,” said Abdelmalek.
“It’s a little bit like detective work because you have a person who comes in with a multicolored tattoo, but you might be noticing that only the red ink is reacting.”
Allergic tattoo reaction includes symptoms like itching, infiltrated papules, nodules, or plaques restricted within one color of a tattoo.
“If you are a type of person who has had allergic reactions to other things in the past, you really want to think about knowing what kind of dyes are going into your skin,” said Abdemalek.
According to Abdemalek, the red colors tend to cause the most problems with allergic reactions.
People with pre-existing skin conditions like psoriasis might have exacerbations or flares after getting a tattoo.
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