Professional tattoo artist makes a tattoo on a young girl's hand.

2021 Update: The Life Extension Foundation just published an article on the potential dangers of tattoos titled “Hidden Dangers Of Tattoos“, mirroring much of what I wrote below in 2019, and adds some additional information people should aware of, such a potentially increased risk of cancers, and other miladies best avoided:

“The numbers of people getting tattoos have markedly increased starting more than 20 years ago.Roughly 38% of people ages 18-29 now have at least one tattoo. Most are unaware of the risks, from infection to exposure to heavy metals, to being unable to detect an early skin cancer.
The inks used in tattoos contain pigments that are often derived from heavy metals.There is concern that these toxins could raise the risk of cancer, DNA damage, inflammation, oxidative stress, and weakening immune function.
Tattoos remain popular, but they are not without consequential health risks”

The popular fad of covering yourself in ink may have serious repercussions people may not consider before doing it. Various colors contain heavy metals; Mercury, lead, antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt nickel and arsenic, to name just a few.

Ironic to me, the high % of trainers and online vegan health gurus covered in ink telling people to avoid diet sodas and gluten and such…As always, the dose makes the poison, so a few small tattoos unlikely to be a major issue, covering large areas of your body in ink, may be another matter.

Tattoos on a woman's arm

The safest color, as it applies to heavy metals, is black apparently. More data is needed to establish exactly what risks, if any exist in terms of heavy metals leaching slowly from the tattoo into general circulation and many variables exist. My recs: If you have a lot of tattoos, I’d recommend having blood levels of heavy metals tested periodically.

Although some will make a big deal out of the potential for infections (e.g, hepatitis B or C, tuberculosis, mycobacterium, syphilis, malaria, HIV or even leprosy) that’s over stated. If done at a reputable place that uses best practices to reduce risk of infections, pretty much a non issue. However, those who don’t follow the precautions may be putting themselves at serious risk. For example:

“…A 31-year-old man died after he went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and his tattoo became infected with flesh-eating bacteria that live in ocean water, according to a new report. The man had recently gotten a tattoo on his right calf. Despite the common advice to avoid swimming for a few weeks after getting a new tattoo, the man went for a swim in the ocean just five days after he received the tattoo, according to the report, published May 27 in the journal BMJ Case Reports.” writes LiveScience.

The recommend precautions followed by reputable tattoo shops take and those who have gotten tattoos exist for reason…

Remember, pigments used in tattoos are not regulated and some chems found in tattoo ink also be found on the EPA’s carcinogen list as well as a report via the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre:

“...the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, also identified heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and nickel, preservatives, organic compounds, bacteria, and other potentially harmful substances in the inks.

It calls for a thorough review of tattoo inks in use throughout the European Union, and it highlights the need for strict regulation of the inks, which are also used for permanent makeup.

After the report was released, the organization asked the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to look further into tattoo ink safety.

‘Tattoo inks and permanent make up (PMU) may contain hazardous substances — for example, substances that cause cancer, genetic mutations, toxic effects on reproduction, allergies or other adverse effects on health,’ an ECHA statement reads.”

The FDA has come to similar conclusions. End of the day, there’s very little research looking at the systemic effects of tattoos on the human body and minimal regulations on the inks used, so at least do some research before jumping on the bandwagon and caveat emptor. Furthermore, a recent study finds some inks accumulate in the lymph nodes. While the risks of the inks and other potentially toxic chemicals discovered in the lymph nodes is unclear at this time, it’s something people should be aware of and consider before covering large areas of their body in tattoos, especially if they have any pre existing medical conditions. There’s also a weak correlation to cancers.

Tattoos And Cancer

While the association is far from conclusive, the fact that there’s no research gives me pause, and it’s starting to get some attention and worth paying attention to. Via a recent article in Time Magazine:

There’s not enough evidence to make any claims about tattoos causing cancer, but doctors have noted a small number of melanoma skin cancers that appear in tattoos. One 2018 research review found 30 such cases, though it could not prove whether the tattoos actually caused cancer or just happened to overlap with the diseased area. A 2015 case study also detailed the story of a man who was diagnosed with melanoma only in areas of his chest tattoo that were done in red ink. That pattern suggested that his tattoo artist may have struck existing cancer with the red ink needle, then spread it to other parts of his skin while completing the design.

A small 2017 study also found that titanium dioxide particles from tattoo ink can spread to and accumulate in the lymph nodes. While the study did not make any conclusions about how this accumulation could affect health in the long-term, the research sparked concerns that tattoo ink could be associated with cancer, since titanium dioxide has been classified as a possible carcinogen. Experts have said that ink in the lymph nodes could also make it more difficult to accurately diagnose disease, since it can mimic the look of metastatic cancer spreading through the lymph nodes.”

Picture of Rich Piana
Picture of the late Rich Piana

Bottom Line: The above info would not prevent me from getting a small – medium tattoo (though I have none) but would give me serious pause from doing what I see out there today… Finally, tattoo removal is a huge industry, so millions of people come to regret getting the tats, so give serious thought to it before proceeding. Here’s some good info and guidelines: The Statistics Surrounding Tattoo Regret and How to Avoid It

  1. Ken Barnes 3 years ago

    plus many of them are just ugly anyway, i not initially, certainly after a few years of fading

    • Author
      Will Brink 3 years ago

      Some are ugly, some are impressive art, but that’s subjective really. I’m just trying to make people aware there’s potential risks people should be aware of and consider before getting extensive tats on their body.

  2. Daniel Przyojski 3 years ago

    Great article. Personally as a past competitive bodybuilder and all around health guy I always thought that tattoo’s distracted the eye from seeing the physique in pure form.
    Kind of like painting advertisements on the side of your Corvette. Also, health wise, it’s better to be safe than sorry, I say. Dan.

  3. david d 3 years ago

    Thank you Will for this article. It is obvious that humans are the most willfully stupid entities on this planet. The late George Carlin would back me on that. Why would anyone want to have a foreign substance of unknown chemical composition injected into their bodies that create long term or even short term health risks? These aren’t potential health risks because science knows as fact that heavy metals don’t go well with organic tissue along with other foreign substances present in these inks. People who are health conscious, intelligent, environmentally aware, and desire advanced knowledge and wisdom aren’t fad oriented. We have a long way to go as entities on this planet.

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