Does Tattoo Ink Cause Cancer?

A new study released in August 2022 found that some ingredients in tattoo ink can be considered harmful. Their results show that tattoo ink - under the right circumstances - can be considered carcinogenic. 

Is Tattoo Ink Dangerous?

The recent UK ink ban has caused the United States and Canada to take a closer look at what ingredients go into tattoo ink - and whether they are actually safe for people to have in their skin.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no ink made particularly for tattooing. While there are popular “tattoo ink” distributors that offer tattoo artists sterile products to prevent infection (Solid Ink, Intenze Ink, and Eternal Ink, to name a few), the actual pigments that go into these inks are the same ones that go into many paints and textiles. 

Many of these pigments are known to contain heavy metals and other materials that you wouldn’t necessarily want to put into your body. However, the trace amounts of these materials found in the ink have not been proven to cause cancer (or any other illness). 

According to the study’s lead scientist, John Swierk, Ph.D., the biggest concerns we should have when it comes to tattoo ink causing cancer are actually the laser removal process and ink particle size

Lasering Certain Inks can Produce Carcinogens

Even though tattoo inks contain trace amounts of dangerous materials, they aren’t a real threat - provided they remain in their original, stable form. The true problem is when those ink particles begin to break down, which can be caused by the presence of certain bacteria or the laser removal process.

When ink containing azo pigments (these are the same pigments targeted by the UK ink ban) break down via bacteria or UV light, they release a nitrogen-based compound that may cause cancer. 

The Most Dangerous Ink Colors

Azo pigments are found in nearly every color of tattoo ink. Black and red ink normally do not contain azo pigments. Please note that this does not mean black and red ink is free of harmful material. One study found that 83% of black inks tested contained Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known to be carcinogens.

Small Ink Particle Size Could Cause Cancer

Swierk’s team also studied the size of tattoo ink particles. Normally, tattoo ink particles are large. This is important because the body’s natural defense systems cannot break down those large particles effectively, which allows the tattoo to stay in place with minimal fading. 

However, if a tattoo ink particle is too small, it can make its way through the cell membrane and damage the cell. This type of damaged cell - under the right conditions - could cause cancer. 

Ink Particles Can Collect in the Lymph Nodes

The body sees tattoo ink particles as a “foreign invader” that needs to be destroyed. Even though it’s very difficult for the body to break down such large particles, it will try to do so by flushing out the material using the body’s natural “drainage” system, the lymphatic system.

The body does not have an effective way of getting ink particles out of the lymph nodes, which means small deposits of ink could collect in these areas. This could expose other tissues in the body to potentially cancer-causing material.

Tattoo Ink and Skin Cancer

In addition to recent studies, there has been a longer-standing concern over whether tattoos cause skin cancer

Though we’ve seen that tattoo ink does contain potential carcinogens (as many food, makeup, and household cleaning products do), there is no conclusive evidence that simply having tattoos causes skin cancer. However, there is a risk for skin cancer if someone tattoos over a mole without the approval of their doctor. 

Dermatologists use mole growth as an indicator for a risk of skin cancer. If they can no longer see that mole, prevention becomes more difficult.

The Tattoo Ink Ban and New Safety Measures

As mentioned previously, the UK has recently put a ban on many ink colors containing azo pigments, giving artists a year-long grace period to find replacements. It is expected that the U.S. will follow suit with similar bans in the near future. 

This crackdown on ink ingredients has led many tattoo ink distributors to reformulate their ink using safer materials and to be more transparent in their labeling. (In the August 2022 study, Swierk’s team found ethanol in a tattoo ink, but ethanol was not listed on the label.)

This increase in safety, however, has led to an increase in prices, as many of the safer materials are more expensive to produce.

What Does This Mean for Tattoo Artists?

The findings of Swierk’s team are still in the process of being peer reviewed, and no action has been taken by the FDA at the time of writing. Tattoo artists in the U.S. and Canada are still able to use tattoo inks that they see fit. However, with this new information, it is likely that both artists and clients might want to re-evaluate which inks are used during the tattooing process. 

The findings of Swierk’s study are to be added to as a resource for artists (and their clients) to review ink ingredients

While more scientific studies on tattoo ink (and subsequent improvements in the tattoo industry) will make tattooing a more medically-safe art form, safer - and more expensive - ink could lead to a rise in costs for tattoo artists, who often function as individual businesses. Because of this, tattoo artists can expect safer, easy-to-read ink that clients can trust - but they can also expect to raise their prices in the coming years to compensate for the increased costs.

Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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