Does that mean tattoo inks are unsafe? No. A reputable tattoo professional will know which inks have a good safety track record and which ones have caused reactions. Basically, everyone who had a tattoo before you was a human test subject for the ink. This also implies you have a certain level of responsibility to report any reactions you may have to a tattoo. This not only protects your health, but helps ensure the safety of other people who will get tattoos.
Personally, I think tattoo inks should be subject to the same overview as drugs, but that hasn't happened, so I've collected information on the pigments used in inks, the chemicals used as carriers, and other safety issues associated with tattoo inks. About.com's Guide to Tattoos, Karen Hudson, has additional resources regarding tattoo safety. You can use these resources to formulate questions to ask your tattoo artist before getting a new tattoo and to help recognize potentially dangerous reactions.
I get e-mail from people who think their tattoo might have caused a reaction, but aren't sure. Here's an example:
Hello Dr. Helmenstine,
My name is Debbie Capes. I was rather surprised to find out that there are so many detrimental elements in tattoo ink. Is this present in the majority of tattoo inks or only those by certain suppliers? The reason this caught my interest is that I just got a large tattoo with blacks, reds, greens, and yellows in it and around 2-3 weeks later I noticed that I had Mees lines on my finger nails. Do you think this is even plausible? I am not worried about this, but if there are enough heavy metals in inks to cause this, there could be health effects in those with even bigger tattoos than mine. It would be interesting to take some hair samples from those with larger tattoos to look for these metals. If this is real, the FDA really needs to get on the ball.
Thanks for the article,
Thanks for writing, Debbie. At the present time, it's very difficult to tell whether or not a medical symptom is related to a tattoo because it's practically impossible to pinpoint a causative agent in a tattoo (that would require knowing what is in the inks). Hair samples can reveal whether a person has been exposed to a particular heavy metal, but it's hard to track down the source of the contamination. Professionally-formulated inks tend to be much safer than inks prepared by tattoo do-it-yourself types, especially those using pen ink or dirt as a pigment (please don't). Soot can be a very safe pigment (carbon black), but keep in mind the source of the soot is important. The residues from burning some plants contain toxic chemicals. Soot from animal sources is probably about as safe as pigment gets.
Make Tattoo Ink | MRI Reaction with Tattoo
Photo: Back tattoos have become increasingly popular with women. (Dennis Mojado)