Scratching the Surface of Tattoo Ink
How safe are tattoo inks?

March 20, 2005

People get tattoos for many reasons. Some people like the look of a tattoo while others use tattoos to camouflage skin conditions. Tattoos are even used to permanently apply makeup. Although many people have tattoos, few people study the science of tattoos and tattoo inks. However, two tattooed undergraduate students at Northern Arizona University recently made some interesting discoveries about tattoo ink.

The students, Leslie Wagner and Haley Finley-Jones, found that the US Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the use of tattoo ink. Furthermore, they learned that no one really knows what is in tattoo ink and that some people get burns around their tattoos when they have a magnetic resonance imaging scan. With the help of Dr. Jani Ingram of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the students analyzed the content of 17 different tattoo inks. Their results were presented at the American Chemical Society meeting in March, 2005.

Wagner, Finley-Jones and Ingram discovered that inks of different colors contain different chemicals. Moreover, different companies made their inks with different materials. Some of the inks had high levels of lead; blue inks contained especially high levels of copper.

The researchers are not sure of the health consequences of their results. Millions of people have tattoos and rarely have problems. Could the metal content of the inks cause burns after an MRI? Although MRI-related burns are very rare, they could be caused when magnetic fields heat the tattoo ink. It is also possible that lead and copper in ink causes neurological problems. Accurate knowledge of the ingredients of tattoo ink may answer these questions and also help in the removal of unwanted tattoos.

References and Links:

  1. Finley-Jones, H., Wagner, L.D. and Ingram, J.C., In the flesh: Chemical characterization of tattoo inks, ACS Abstracts, 2005.
  2. Marris, E., Is tattoo ink safe?, Nature, published online March 14, 2005.
  3. Bernstein, M., Chemicals in tattoo inks need closer scrutiny, American Chemical Society News Service, press release, March 14, 2005.
  4. Lead - Neuroscience for Kids

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