Tattooing is a widespread art and tradition practiced all around the world, with its earliest practice dating back around 3400-3100 BC. For an age old industry packed with culture and heritage, not a lot about it is actually known. 

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), tattoo inks are not regulated due to the fact that there are other public health priorities and a lack of evidence behind hypothesized safety problems associated with tattoo inks. This leads to the issue of unregulated tattoo inks in different countries. The General Product Safety Directive (GPSD) in the EU lacks strict regulations on tattoo inks as they are mostly imported from the US, while permanent make up inks are generally manufactured in Europe.

Minimalist tattoos

‘Tattoos cause skin cancer’ – Myth or Fact?

It’s kind of both. First of all, there is no scientific research that shows the correlation between tattoos and skin cancer, so no, tattoos do not cause skin cancer. However, there is evidence that shows some tattoo ink have been found to contain carcinogenic chemicals. 

According to a survey conducted by Swiss regulators, 7% of 229 of tattoo inks are found to contain formaldehyde – a carcinogen recognized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. 24% of tattoo inks are found to contain benzisothiazolinone, and methylisothiazolinone in 8%. These preservative chemicals can cause skin irritation, itchy rash and even chemical burns.

Research conducted by Joint Research Centre also found that tattoo inks, particularly black inks, contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The results show most of the PAHs are carcinogens and toxic to the cells in the dermis.

PAHs are a class of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline. We are exposed to it in our daily lives when breathing in air contaminated with motor vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke or eating grilled or charred foods. In addition, workers who have been exposed to large amounts of PAHs from skin contact have been found to develop blood and liver abnormalities.

Colored inks are as bad as black inks – perhaps even worse?

A survey analyzed 226 tattoo inks, and results showed that tattoo ink contains up to 15 heavy metals including titanium, iron, chromium, copper, zirconium, manganese, bromine. A report by Bioelements and Health Unit Italian Ministry for Health Roma categorized the heavy metals into different colorants and their health effects were reported to vary from mild irritations to harming of the brain.

The irreversible damages

Upon lacking regulations on tattoo inks, the FDA pinpoints a common problem with getting a tattoo – dissatisfaction. Even with advanced medical technology, tattoo removal laser treatment is not a holy grail procedure that just ‘erases’ mistakes.  It is painful, time consuming and costly. The FDA even stated that ‘complete removal without scarring may be impossible.’ 

According to Health Harvard Publishing, the best number for ‘clearing’ is only 75%, the tattoos instead of disappearing, could turn darker. Overall, there are many factors with this treatment.  Permanent makeup in the eye and lip is extremely hard to remove. It is harder for dark-skinned patients as the treatment could leave white spots. Wavelength of the lasers used has to be limited e.t.c

Tattoo hazards includes

  • Allergic reactions 
  • Skin infections
  • Granuloma – inflammation that forms around tattoo ink, these nodules are formed because the body detects foreign materials – the tattoo ink
  • Keloid formation – raised areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue, keloids occur more as a result of tattoo removal.
  • Bloodborne diseases – improper use of equipment can contract various bloodborne diseases e.g. hepatitis B, hepatitis C
  • MRI complications – during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exams, tattoos can interfere with the quality of images or cause swelling or burning

It gets deeper

As mentioned above, tattoos do not only harm the skin. Harming of the skin is a red flag to begin with – Damaging of the biggest defense organ of the body means the body on the inside is not fully protected and is vulnerable. If the ink particles do not stay put, it gets transported directly inside the body through the bloodstream and the lymphatic system.  Making the whole body endangered overall.

Colored tattoos

Advice: If you’re looking to getting a tattoo

  • Avoid cheap and uncertified tattoo parlors and tattoo inks
  • Do a lot of research and go to a reputable shop. Consult the artist if you have any questions or concerns

Fun fact:

  • The oldest tattoo was discovered in 1991 on an alpine mummy called Ötzi, who was believed to live around 3400-3100 BC. His ‘tattoo’ is not naturally inked by a needle, but through a painful process of rubbing charcoal onto fine cuts in the skin.
  • Pigments found in tattoo inks can be repurposed into textiles, plastics, or products in the automotive industry
  • In 2007, the top 2 tattoo ink manufacturers started to include warning labels on their products as a result of a lawsuit by the American Environmental Safety Institute. The ink was shown to contain heavy metals.


 “Tattoos & Permanent Makeup: Fact Sheet | FDA.” 24 Aug. 2020, Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.

 “Safety of tattoos and permanent make-up: Final report | EU ….” 26 Jul. 2019, Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.

 “Safety of tattoos and permanent make-up State of play and ….” Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.

 “Tattoo inks contain polycyclic aromatic … – PubMed.” Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.

 “Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) Fact Sheet – EPA.” Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.

 “A Survey of Metals Found in Tattoo Inks – Scientific Research ….” Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.

 “Heavy Metals in Tattoo Inks – Präsentation vom 6. Juni … – BfR.” Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.

“Tattoos: Understand risks and precautions – Mayo Clinic.” Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.

“Tattoos: Leaving their mark – Harvard Health Publishing I Harvard Medical School” Accessed 13 Nov. 2020