How printer ink was found in tattoos!

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On January 31, 2017

999inks discuss how printer ink was found in tattoos! The tattoo industry is big business. According to one study, the industry is growing at about 9% per year and will be worth a whopping $1.1 billion by 2020. In the US, approximately one in every three adults has at least one tattoo on their body, and many have two or more.

Much of this growth is down to the increasing affordability and availability of inks and tools online. It’s cheaper to get inked than ever before. However, despite the popularity of tattoos, the industry is relatively unregulated in the States – particularly when it comes to the quality and composition of inks. This might surprise some readers, given the fact that this is a substance that is literally being injected under the skin! However, the reason for this isn’t that the FDA doesn’t care: they have the right to screen tattoo inks “as cosmetic products” before they enter the market, but, due to “competing public-health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety problems specifically associated with these pigments”, it’s just not at the top of their list.

But according to this article in Bloomberg, the ink used in tattoos is pretty much always of questionable content. Arisa Ortiz is a dermatologist and assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego. In 2011, she co-authored an article that cited reports by researchers in Spain, Germany and the US which all found that randomly tested tattoo ink contained dangerous substances such as mercury and charcoal. According to Ortiz, “even the most reputable places can’t guarantee the safety of ink”.

When the FDA does receive complaints (which it has done more and more over the last decade), it investigates. The most recent findings are worth bearing in mind if you’re considering getting a tattoo, with the FDA reporting that “many pigments used in tattoo inks are industrial-grade colours suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint”. But what does that actually mean? What does printer ink have in it that makes it unsafe to inject under the skin? Let’s take a closer look…

Over 90% of inks in existence today are printing inks – this includes ink for magazines, books, newspapers and all the digital printing we do at home and work. The colour in printer ink comes from pigments, rather than the dyes most commonly used in writing inks. Dyes are soluble (which means they can be diluted by water), whereas pigments are insoluble (so they can’t). As well as the pigments (which can be organic or non-organic), the other main ingredient in ink is solvent – which ‘holds’ everything together – and then there’s a combination of other additives such as waxes, lubricants, surfactants, and drying agents.

Obviously, the colour of the ink dictates what pigments are used. This varies and – thanks to developments in commercial printing and advances in ink production – is changing a lot at the moment. However, the vast majority of printer inks that you buy online or in a shop will have the same set of pigments. For example, organic pigments (which are made up of salts and other compounds) include yellow lake, peacock blue, phthalocyanine green and diarylide orange. Inorganic pigments are less common but include chrome green, Prussian blue, cadmium yellow, and molybdate orange (a mix of lead chromate, molybdate, and sulfate). Black ink is made using carbon, and white pigments vary but often include a compound called titanium dioxide.

One of the problems with using printer ink in tattoos is that we just don’t know how the ingredients break down once under the skin. Even if someone has a new tattoo and doesn’t break out in hives immediately, the ongoing degradation of the ink will release different chemicals over time into their bloodstream. Because of the lack of independent long term study in this area, we don’t know what the cumulative effect of this will be. For example, the FDA’s National Centre for Toxicological Research has been looking at how the “chemicals metabolise in the body”, with further findings that “some yellows break down when exposed to sunlight or certain enzymes, though it hasn’t been determined whether this is toxic”.

Looking ahead, more and more research is being done, but – because of the scale of the industry and the trend towards DIY tattoos – it doesn’t look like we’ll get to a situation where printing ink is removed from all ink used in tattooing any time soon. If you’re thinking of getting inked, the safest route is to check with your tattoo artist about the inks they use and, if possible, read reviews from previous customers to see if anyone has had negative reactions.

Last modified: March 6, 2017

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