Are Tattoos Toxic?

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Our cultural definition of what is bad for your body has shifted over time, helping us become more educated about what we want to put in our bodies and what we want to avoid. As a result, the ingredients in tattoo ink have evolved and become safer than ever. Still, some people worry about tattoos’ toxic components and what effects they may have on their health. So, let’s talk about whether or not tattoos are toxic and how to get ink safely.

What’s in Tattoo Ink?

First, the bad news. Sometimes, there are some scary-sounding chemicals and heavy metals in tattoo ink. Chemical and Engineering News reported that some of the colorants are repurposed plastics, car paint, or textile dye. One study found cadmium, mercury, and copper in the lymph nodes of tattooed cadavers. Those don’t exactly sound appealing.

Further, some chemical compounds in tattoo ink are carcinogens. This chart is a handy visual aid to see the ingredients that cause concern. Formaldehyde, benzo[a]pyrene, and benzisothiazolinone all pose different kinds of health risks and are still allowable ingredients in tattoos.

Why Does Tattoo Toxicity Matter?

The thing about tattoo ink is that it doesn’t simply stay put. It wants to sightsee, travel around, and move to other parts of your body. Circumstantial medical evidence has shown that some of the ink can even get trapped in your lymph nodes, and the lymph tissue may become as colorful as your piece.

The FDA lists the most common risks associated with getting a tattoo as: getting an infection, allergic reactions, dermatological issues, and swelling or burning during an MRI.

Is Tattoo Ink Regulated?

The FDA doesn’t regulate tattoo ink because it’s not an external pigment cosmetic. This means that the makers of the dye don’t have to disclose the ingredients. The FDA only gets involved if a known issue is discovered, and then they will investigate to find out what the culprit is. But proactively, not a ton of research is conducted on tattoo ink ingredients. And currently, in the US, there’s no consistent oversight of what’s going into your ink.

Okay, But: Are Tattoos Toxic?

So, there’s not a single definition for toxic that is clear-cut and applies in every situation. Toxins are everywhere—in the air we breathe, the food we eat—and it’s virtually impossible to avoid them all. What’s more important than wondering “are tattoos toxic” is assessing your personal risk tolerance. Most people who get tattoos suffer no ill health effects. If you have severe allergies, a compromised immune system, or other considerations, you may want to talk to a doctor before deciding to get a tattoo.

How To Get a Non-Toxic Tattoo

Without a regulatory agency to do the heavy lifting, it’s essential to do your own research. There’s no cause for panic as long as you educate yourself about what’s going into your skin. And, better yet, there is a growing number of people concerned about tattoo ingredients, making it a lot easier to find non-toxic dyes. Check out this list of ingredients to look for when choosing the color of your tattoo in order to avoid toxic ingredients. Ask about dyes that are labeled as organic, non-toxic, or vegan. Find an artist you trust, and you’ll have the best—and safest!—experience possible.


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