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Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?

As the popularity of tattoos continues to grow, so does the concern about potential risks. Some risks, such as the spread of infections through the use of unsterilized needles, have long been known. But what isn't clear is the safety of tattoo inks.

Permanent tattoos are made by using needles to inject colored ink below the skin's surface. Permanent make-up is considered a permanent tattoo that mimics the results of cosmetic products such as an eyebrow pencil, lip liner, eyeliner, or blush.

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While state and local authorities oversee the practice of tattooing, ink and ink colorings (pigments) used in tattoos are subject to FDA regulation as cosmetics and color additives. However, because of other public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety concerns, FDA has not traditionally regulated tattoo inks or the pigments used in them.

FDA has received reports of bad reactions to tattoo inks right after tattooing or even years later. Some people report itchy or inflamed skin around their tattoos in the summer when they've been out in the sun. Recent reports associated with permanent make-up inks have prompted FDA to study tattoo ink safety.

"Our hope is to get a better understanding of the body's response to tattoos and their impact on human health, and to identify products at greatest risk," says Linda Katz, M.D., M.P.H., Director of FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

What are the Risks?

  • Infection - Dirty needles can pass infections, like hepatitis and HIV, from one person to another.
  • Allergies - Allergies to various ink pigments in both permanent and temporary tattoos have been reported and can cause problems.
  • Scarring - Unwanted scar tissue may form when getting or removing a tattoo.
  • Granulomas - These small knots or bumps may form around material that the body perceives as foreign, such as particles of tattoo pigment.
  •  MRI complications - People may have swelling or burning in the tattoo when they have magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This happens rarely and does not last long.

Tattoo Ink Research

In a laboratory within FDA's Arkansas-based National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), research chemist Paul Howard, Ph.D., and his team are investigating tattoo inks to find out

  • the chemical composition of the inks and how they break down (metabolize) in the body;
  • the short-term and long-term safety of pigments used in tattoo inks;
  • how the body responds to the interaction of light with the inks.

"There have been no systematic studies of the safety of tattoo inks," says Howard, "so we are trying to ask-and answer-some fundamental questions." For example, some tattoos fade over time or fade when they are exposed to sunlight. And laser light is used to remove tattoos. "We want to know what happens to the ink," says Howard. "Where does the pigment go?"