Over 145 million Americans currently sport tattoos, and this hugely historical practice has been gaining popularity rapidly since the turn of the century. But have government regulations been keeping up with this increased interest, or are some damaging chemical compounds managing to make their way into our skin?
The Swierk Group, a team of researchers at Binghamton University, set out to study the effect light had in the process of tattoo removal. Presenting their findings to the American Chemical Society (ACS), the principal investigator John Swierk, PhD, states that after looking into laser light removal, “I realized that very little is actually known about the composition of tattoo inks, so we started analyzing popular brands.”
As researchers spoke to tattoo artists, they learned there wasn’t much awareness of the chemical compositions of popular ink brands within the industry. As the team investigated further, they found that dye shops weren’t making pigments specifically for tattooing. “Big companies manufacture pigments for everything, such as paint and textiles. These same pigments are used in tattoo inks,” Swierk tells the ACS. He adds that currently, no federal or local agencies regulate the content of tattoo inks in the US.
Using techniques such as Raman spectroscopy and electron microscopy, the team analyzed 56 different popular ink brands and confirmed the presence of ingredients that weren’t listed on the labels. “Every time we looked at one of the inks, we found something that gave me pause,” Swierk says.
“23 of 56 different inks analyzed to date suggest an azo-containing dye is present.” Swierk tells ACS. He goes on to explain that bacteria or ultraviolet light can degrade azo pigments into a nitrogen-based compound that, according to the Joint Research Centre, is a potential carcinogen.
Another factor concerning researchers was the size of some of the particles they found. Of the 16 inks analyzed using electron microscopy, half contained particles smaller than 100 nanometres in diameter. Particles of this size are small enough to get through a cell membrane, potentially causing damage.
The European Union (EU) tightened restrictions on the sale of tattoo inks earlier this year, by banning green and blue pigments. The ban came after the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) found the pigments in both blue and green inks to cause “cancer or genetic mutations”.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, monitor the safety of these inks in relation to the adverse effects they cause after use, or after a specific safety concern is identified (like the contamination of a product).
In response to this, The Swierk Group created the website whatsinmyink.com as a database for both artists and tattoo fans to check the ingredients of the inks they use. Complete with statuses and analysis results for each of the inks used in the study, this active list could potentially provide the industry with the tools it needs to help safely regulate the market itself.