Tattoo ink can be more toxic than you think

About two weeks ago, I saw a line of people waiting to get $13 tattoos from Revolver Tattoo, a tattoo parlor fairly close to the College Avenue campus. Most of the people in line were probably attracted by the low cost, not thinking much about the impact the tattoo may have on their health. Figuring that the tattoo parlor has a license to operate, most would conclude that it must be safe. What many of these people may not know is that many inks regularly used today contain heavy metals that may include, among others: lead, arsenic and mercury. Many of the pigments used in tattoo inks are industrial-grade colors suitable for printer ink or automobile paint, none of which have been approved for injection by the FDA. Unless this tattoo parlor uses specific inks that do not contain dangerous compounds (there are some), they will be injecting heavy metals and pigments (which customers may have an allergic reaction to) into their skin. All of these metals are associated with a slew of health problems, ranging from allergic reactions to more serious complications.

Tattoos are generally considered as permanent marks that people may regret in the future. The only practical option for removing a tattoo involves having high-powered lasers break up the pigments. These lasers do not remove the ink, but rather dissolve it into the individual's skin, allowing the byproducts to enter their bloodstream.

Acknowledging that tattoos are an important form of self-expression for some individuals, it is important to confirm that the tattooing process is safe. As of now, New Jersey does not regulate tattoo inks or enforce any policy concerning ingredients in the inks. My home state, California, took a step in the right direction back in 2005, when a judge ruled that several major ink manufacturers had to label their products and explain that they may contain harmful chemicals. This kind of legislation would push tattoo parlors to use safer inks and allow for people to make a more informed decision about what they put inside of their bodies.

If you are considering getting a tattoo, you might want to do your homework and request that the tattoo parlor use nontoxic inks that you specify. You could also write to your state legislator and request that they pay better attention to the tattooing process, perhaps requiring greater communication with consumers with warnings (like, “Tattoo ink may be harmful to your health”) and replacing toxic inks with nontoxic ones. 

Hannah Poisner is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in genetics. Julie M. Fagan, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. 

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