What happens under the skin doesn’t stay under the skin: Tattoos lesser known health risks

Published October 13 2015, Tattoodo

What happens inside the human body after leaving the tattoo parlour


Tattoos as ancient medicine
Ötzi the ice man: In last month’s article I mentioned that he has a grand total of 61 tattoos on his approximately 5315 year old body, yet I neglected to reveal what they were meant for.

Ötzi’s tattoos include a black cross on the inside of his left knee, six straight lines on his lower back, and parallel lines on his ankles, leg, and wrists. When scientists x-rayed his body, they discovered joint disease under each tattoo, suggesting the tattoos were meant to relieve pain. 

While it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of this suggested ancient healing practise, the idea to use tattoos for medicinal purposes isn’t actually that far fetched. The substances used by tribes in the Amazon for tattooing are known to alleviate skin infections, as toxins contained within the tattoo pigments kill harmful bacteria. 

Inspiration for the future?
If tribes in remote parts of the world can effectively use tattoos against ailments, a notion our own ancestors seemed to have shared, then it seems possible that future research could not only lead to tattoos improved safety, but also to an entirely new strand of tattoos used to alleviate illness.

A potential trouble-maker
Currently, however, tattoos could be doing quite the opposite. While tattoo’s renaissance over the past few decades has lead to an unprecedented development in health and safety regulations, with high end tattoo parlours following strict regulations when it comes to cleanliness and hygiene, there are culprits hiding in the midst of a three letter word: I.N.K.
It is most notably components in tattoo inks we need to be paying more attention to when concerning ourselves with our health.

What happens under the skin, doesn’t stay under the skinTo better evaluate the possible health risks of tattoos, it is useful to understand the processes a tattoo ignites in a human body.
Ever wonder why a tattoo fades over time? It’s not just due to sun-rays:

As soon as ink pigments are punctured into the dermis of the skin, the skin registers ‘foreign bodies’ and retaliates by trying to get rid of them. The fluid part of the ink is immediately carried away by the bloodstream and lymphatic vessels, while the bigger pigments are attacked by white blood cells, the Makrophages, that try to ‘digest’ or break down the pigments.

Experiments on animals suggest that about 1/3rd of the ink pigments are broken down initially. By the end of an average human life-span it is estimated that about 80% of the original tattoo pigments are carried off by the body.

Via the bloodstream the pigments can spread throughout the entire body, including organs, while the lymphatic system transports pigments to the lymph nodes where they are stored for life. Depending on the colour of the ink, lymph nodes end up changing colour i.e. to green, red, or black, as extracted lymph nodes from tattooed corpses have shown.

It’s not a ‘one-fits-all-and-everything’ kinda product
The problem? Until now colours used for commercial tattoo inks aren’t made to be inside the human body, but are produced by the chemical industry for other purposes such as car finish or the foundation for printer ink.

While 50 of the most commonly used tattoo inks world wide all adhere to EU regulations, it has to be considered that these regulations apply to cosmetic products designed to be ON the skin, not UNDER. Some of the substances in the cosmetic industry are only approved because they are solely applied superficially and not absorbed by the skin. Tattoos on the other hand inadvertently make sure they find their way into the body.
So although tattoo ink is classified as a cosmetic product, it should fall under a different category as well as regulations. 

Scientists are most concerned about inks contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon that is known to be highly carcinogenic (cancer-causing). In a test of 65 commonly used inks worldwide, only one quarter was free from the compound. 

The most comprehensive study into the chemical properties of tattoo inks has been supplied by the Danish in ‘Chemical Substances in Tattoo Ink’.

However, until now there have been no systematic studies conducted into the safety of tattoo inks, and long-term risks remain largely unexplored and unknown. 

It stands to reason that more research needs to be conducted into the matter and healthier alternatives for tattoo ink need to be developed. For now, paying attention to choosing the most non-toxic inks available is probably your safest bet!


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