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What Tattoo Ink Does To The Inside Of Your Body

Newsweek logo Newsweek 9/13/2017 Lizette Borreli

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(video by Wochit News) Nanoparticles in tattoo ink travel through the body and may pose health issues.

There are many factors to think about when deciding to get a tattoo. When choosing a tattoo artist and parlor, safety and cleanliness rank top priority to prevent infections from dirty needles. A recent study published in Scientific Reports suggests tattoo aficionados should also take a closer look at the ink. 

Tattoo ink is made up of various organic and inorganic pigments, which can be tainted with toxic element impurities. Researchers from Germany and France wanted to know whether, and how, this material affects the body. To answer this question, they examined skin and lymph tissue of four tattooed and two non-tattooed human corpses. They found ink in both the skin and lymph nodes of two of the four tattooed patients. Those bodies also had elevated levels of aluminum, chromium, iron, nickel, and copper. All four of the inked individuals had higher levels of titanium in the skin and nodes.

Using a high-tech x-ray light, the researchers found lymph nodes tinted with the color of the tattoo. They also found nanoparticles of toxic elements from tattoo pigment. The average size of these particles was 180 nanometers (to put this in perspective, a human hair is around 75,000 nanometers wide).

Finding lymph nodes colored with the tattoo ink was not surprising. Lymph nodes, located in the head and neck region, armpits, and groin area, help clean the site where the tattoo needle entered. But finding pigment in nano form was unexpected. This size "implies that they may not have the same behavior as the particles at a micro level," Bernhard Hesse, co-lead author of the study and a visiting scientist at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France, said in the statement. "And that is the problem: we don’t know how nanoparticles react." And because the samples were from dead bodies that had been tattooed not immediately before death, the researchers inferred that the nanoparticles had lingered in the lymph nodes for a while.

As for the elevated levels of titanium found in all the inked-up bodies, that likely came from titanium dioxide, the second-most common ingredient in tattoo inks. This white pigment is used to create certain shades when mixed with colorants. The compound is also used in food additives, sunscreens, and paints, all of which could theoretically contribute to the elevated body levels. But as the researchers note, prior work has shown that respiratory exposure to titanium dioxide leaves the element only in the lung and hilar lymph nodes. In these bodies, the nanoparticles were not confined to those specific regions, suggesting the effects of tattoos are more than skin deep.

There's also a concern that the black pigment in tattoo ink may contain nanoparticles that are carcinogenic. A study in the British Journal of Dermatology found some nanoparticles may cause toxic effects in the brain and nerve damage. This finding suggests ink particles are capable of leaving the surface of the skin and traveling throughout the body, possibly entering organs and other tissues.

There's still a lot to be learned about how these pigments interact with the body, but clearly there's good reason to think before you ink.

Gallery: If you're thinking of getting a tattoo, you need to know about these scary side effects (Reader's Digest) Heavy metals: Before anyone signs up for a tattoo, <a href='http://www.rd.com/health/beauty/getting-a-tattoo-questions/1/'>they should ask themselves these questions first</a>. And then consider the fact that many colors of tattoo ink contain heavy metals, according to a report in <a href='https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tattoo-ink-mercury-and-other-toxins/'>Scientific American</a>, including lead, mercury, arsenic, beryllium, and chromium. Red dyes have been found to contain cadmium and iron oxide. While these metals give dyes their permanence, they are also linked to cancer, birth defects, allergic reactions, and other scary side effects. Tattooed patients undergoing MRIs <a href='http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/some-tattoo-inks-can-burn-you-during-mri-180949995/'>have suffered first-degree burns</a> as the metals in their tattoo ink heated up.The <a href='https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm048919.htm'>U.S. Food and Drug Administration</a> does not regulate tattoo ink, and no pigments have been approved for injection into the skin for cosmetic purposes. Published research has reported that some inks contain pigments used in printer toner or in car paint. If You’re Thinking of Getting a Tattoo, You Need to Know About These Scary Side Effects

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