Ask TreeHugger: Are Tattoo Inks Toxic?

Question: I've been wanting to get myself a tattoo for a few weeks, but I've heard that tattoo inks can be toxic. Where/How can I find a tattoo artist who uses "safe" inks?

Response: The safety of tattoo inks or pigments have recently been the subject of some attention, possibly the result of a lawsuit brought by the American Environmental Safety Institute (AESI) against Huck Spaulding Enterprises, Inc., Superior Tattoo Equipment Co., and other tattoo ink sellers in the U.S. As a result of this lawsuit, the companies must place a warning for their California customers on their tattoo ink labels, catalogs and Internet sites that reads "inks contain many heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and others" and that the ingredients have been linked to cancer and birth defects. These adverse effects have been shown for exposures that occur over long time periods to these and other heavy metals, although not explicitly from these metals in tattoos. Although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the authority to regulate tattoo pigments, tattoo pigments have not yet been approved by FDA for injection into the skin, as is done when a tattoo is made. Heavy metals are used to give tattoo pigments their permanent color. The specific ingredients that are used in the pigments differ by color and by brand, but may include not only lead and arsenic, but also antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt, and nickel -- metals that have also been linked to bad outcomes in people. The amount of these metals in a tattoo may be substantial. For example, AESI states that the ink used for an index card sized (3" by 5") tattoo contains 1.23 micrograms of lead, which is more than double the amount permitted per day under California's Proposition 65.

Certain tattoo colors may present greater health risks than others. For example, green and blue pigments produced from copper salts (Copper Pthalocyanine) are thought to be safe, as they are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in contact lenses, surgical implants, and infant furniture paint. Similarly, black pigments made from carbon black or india ink, white pigments made from zinc or titanium white, purple pigments made from dioxazine/carbazole, and brown pigments made from iron oxides are thought to be have minimal (if any) health risks. Of the colors, red pigments, especially those that contain cadmium, iron oxides or mercury (cinnabar), are generally the most worrisome. Mercury in tattoo pigments, for example, has caused allergic reactions and scarring in people and has sensitized people to mercury from other sources, such as fish or dental fillings.

In light of these and other concerns, it makes sense to think twice about getting a tattoo. At a minimum, you should find out the ingredients of any tattoo pigments that will make up your new tattoo. This information may be hard to find, since the ingredients of tattoo pigments are considered to be proprietary and thus are usually not listed or otherwise revealed. Some tattoo artists, however, do mix their own tattoo pigments, in which case they should be able to tell you the ingredients. I would suggest going to only those artists that can give you this information.

Previous Ask Treehugger columns can be found here.

Helen Suh MacIntosh is a professor in environmental health at Harvard University and studies how pollution behaves in the environment and how it affects people's health. Please keep in mind that her answers are just her interpretation of available information and should not be taken as the only viewpoint or solution to a problem. Use this column at your own risk. Having said this, please feel free to post any of your environmental health questions to Helen@TreeHugger.com (please use a descriptive email subject line and mention if you want to remain anonymous or not).

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