The safety of tattoo ink is under scrutiny after recalls from White & Blue Lion, A Thousand Virgins, and do-it-yourself tattoo kits sold online. There have also been outbreaks of infections and disfiguring reactions.
In one report, a man developed a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma in the red areas of his tattoo. The artist used non-toxic organic “Dark Red” ink by Ethereal Ink.
Even so, tattoos are more popular than ever. Around 30% of people said they had at least one tattoo, according to a 2015 Harris Poll. As the popularity of tattoos has grown, so has the number of injuries.
The FDA received 363 adverse event reports involving tattoos from 2004 to 2016. The agency is seeing a growing number of people developing infections from bacteria or mold in tattoo ink, as well as adverse reactions to toxic ingredients in the ink.
Tattoo infections can be caused by non-sterile equipment or unsafe practices, such as artists using non-sterile water to dilute pigments. But even in the cleanest tattoo parlors, infections can occur when the ink itself is contaminated before the artist opens the bottle. There is no easy way to tell if the ink is contaminated, even if it is marked “sterile.”
The symptoms of an infected tattoo may include a rash, redness, bumps, fever, or serious complications:
More aggressive infections may cause high fever, shaking, chills, and sweats. Treating such infections might require a variety of antibiotics—possibly for months—or even hospitalization and/or surgery.”
If the skin rash is caused by an allergic reaction, the rash may persist because the ink is in the skin permanently. Some people develop “granulomas,” or hard bumps of scar tissue around foreign material.
Another problem is toxic ingredients in the ink. There are no FDA-approved pigments for injection into the skin. Some manufacturers use pigments that are also found in car paint and printer toner, or chemicals like p-phenylenediamene (PPD) that are found in hair dye.
The ink may also contain metal. People with tattoos can suffer burning or swelling when they undergo Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
There are also risks with tattoo removal. No one knows the short-term or long-term consequences of using lasers to break down pigments, but some tattoo removal laser treatments leave permanent scarring. Furthermore, complete removal without scarring may be impossible.