Tattoo Skin Dangers
Although they have a rich history around the world dating back thousands of years, in America tattoos were long considered rebellious and shocking. But even in the U.S., tattoos have recently gone much more mainstream. Now even buttoned downed businessmen and the soccer moms down the block may sport some body ink, along with 45 million other Americans who have at least one tattoo.1 They are also considerably safer than they once were, as there are laws strictly regulating the use of tattoo needles to prevent infections and the transmission of diseases. But unfortunately, "safer" doesn't necessarily mean that tattoos are completely safe and healthy. In fact, new research suggests that they may cause severe or long-term harmful effects to the skin.
The study, which was conducted at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, found that adverse reactions may occur in 10 percent of those people who get tattoos and they don't always resolve right away.2 The subjects were 300 people with tattoos who were randomly selected as they walked through Manhattan's Central Park.
Once it was established that a potential participant did in fact have a tattoo, the scientists questioned them as to whether they had experienced any issues around the site. Thirty-one of the subjects, or slightly more than 10 percent of the individuals polled, reported some sort of problem with their tattoo. In some cases, the reaction was short-term and consisted of itching, redness, swelling, or an infection in the area of the tattoo. Surprisingly, though, of those who said they had a complication, more than half--a full 60 percent--reported that their problem was chronic.
The subjects who had endured a persistent problem after getting tattooed often reported experiencing a recurrent itching or inflammation at the site for several years, but many never sought medical treatment. And the reactions tended to be highly color-specific, with 54 percent arising from the use of red ink and 25 percent arising from black ink.
Now obviously, the findings of this research can only be considered preliminary at best. All of the evidence collected was anecdotal, based on the recall of the subjects. There may not have been any lingering skin problems still present around the tattoo, so the researchers simply took the participants' word for what they had gone through and its duration. And even if there was a visible reaction at the tattoo site, the investigators were not performing any sort of examination. Therefore, we can't rely too heavily on these outcomes.
On the other hand, these results might very well be replicated if a larger, more strictly evidence-based study was carried out. After all, the inks used for tattoos are not nearly as closely regulated in the United States as the way in which those tattoos are applied. That said, a 2013 study at Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark discovered that certain black inks generate a significant amount of damaging free radicals and red inks may contain mercury.3 Just like many other sources of irritation, the components of these inks might affect some people but not others. It also may not induce a reaction at the time of the first tattoo, but as the body is exposed to more of the problem substance in the ink upon getting subsequent tattoos, a reaction may occur.
Ultimately, getting a tattoo is a matter of personal choice and many people who have set their sights on getting one may not worry about the risk. Nevertheless, it should be factored into your decision if you have particularly sensitive skin, any sort of medical condition like diabetes that might interfere with the healing of skin abrasions, or have existing allergies or sensitivities that might make you more likely to experience a problem.
Oh, and I almost forgot. If you're thinking of getting an Apple watch and are expecting it to monitor your heartrate, you might want to think twice about getting a wrist tattoo. The ink, pattern, and saturation of some tattoos can block light from the sensor on the Apple watch, making it difficult to get reliable readings.4
- 1. "Tattoo Statistics." Statistic Brain. 27 April 2015. Accessed 3 June 2015. http://www.statisticbrain.com/tattoo-statistics/
- 2. Ghose, Tia. "Tattoos can cause serious adverse reactions, study finds." Fox News. 28 May 2015. Accessed 3 June 2015. http://www.foxnews.com/health/2015/05/28/tattoos-can-cause-serious-adverse-reactions-study-finds/
- 3. Hogsberg, T.; et al. "Black tattoo inks induce reactive oxygen species production correlating with aggregation of pigment nanoparticles and product brand but not with the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon content." Experimental Dermatology. July 2013. Accessed 4 June 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23800057
- 4. "Your heart rate. What it means, and where on Apple Watch you'll find it." Apple. (Accessed 4 June 2015.) https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204666