Tattoos are popular. But are they safe? Tattoos used to be considered dangerous and risky because of social taboos. Now the danger of getting a tattoo could be less about offending your boss or grandma and more about possible health risks, like cancer and reproductive harm. Are tattoos bad enough to avoid completely?
Urologist Ryan Smith, MD, can’t provide a hard and fast answer. That’s because there’s just not enough research to determine the impact of tattooing and the ink on the human body over time.
Smith does try to raise awareness about the potential of tattoo health hazards. “Consumers deserve to know the risks and what the ink contains,” he says.
What’s in the Ink?
What bad stuff does tattoo ink have in it?
Considering that some tattoo inks have the same hardcore ingredients used in printing and car paint, the answer is unsurprising: chemicals that cause cancer.
Tattoo pigment can contain heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic. Also in the mix: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and aromatic amines. All of these hazardous substances carry the possible risk of:
- Genetic mutations
- Reproductive toxicity
- Skin conditions
- Other harmful effects
Getting a Tattoo? Some Things to Consider
Make an informed decision. Here’s a few questions you should ask yourself before getting a tattoo.
Smith notes that tattoo ink can travel to the lymph nodes.
“As a reproductive urologist, I focus on men’s reproductive health and hormone replacement. Some of these ink constituents carry known risks to reproductive health,” he explains.
He cites the actions taken by the European Union, which has found enough of these harmful chemicals, about 4,000 in total, to validate restricting or banning them entirely. 190 tattoo inks were banned or removed from the European market, many of these were imported from the U.S. which lacks regulation on ink constituents.
To Smith, holding off on allowing inks that have known toxins makes sense. This doesn’t mean he wants the U.S. to restrict tattooing. “The lack of regulation on the cosmetic industry in the United States puts public health at risk. I think we have a responsibility to the public to follow the E.U.’s lead and make tattoos a little safer.”
“I appreciate the artistry as well as the important role that tattoos can play in empowerment and self-expression,” Smith explains. “They play an important role in our culture.”
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Are Tattoos Bad if You’re Using Better Ink?
While some tout the safety of vegan and organic tattoo inks, Smith returns to the main problem with any tattoo ink: the lack of testing and regulation.
He notes the “lack of safety studies involving these compounds and their permanent deposition in human tissues. The case remains that there are no known safe tattoo inks.”
Still, Smith hopes that medical science can find an answer. “Tattoos should be able to remain, as they have been for centuries, an important part of our culture. I think ink technology and safety can evolve as our understanding grows.”