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Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?

Tattoo Ink Research continued...

NCTR researchers are exploring several possibilities:

  • The body cells may digest and destroy the ink, just as they rid the body of bacteria and other foreign matter as a defense against infection. NCTR studies show that a common pigment used in yellow tattoo inks, Pigment Yellow 74, may be broken down by enzymes, or metabolized. "Just like the body metabolizes and excretes other substances, the body may metabolize small amounts of the tattoo pigment to make it more water soluble, and out it goes," says Howard.
  • Sunlight may cause the ink to break down so it is less visible. NCTR researchers have found that Pigment Yellow 74 decomposes in sunlight, breaking down into components that are colorless. The pigment components may still be there, says Howard, and we don't know if these are potentially toxic.
  • The skin cells containing the ink may be killed by sunlight or laser light and ink breakdown products may disperse through the body.

Research has also shown that some pigment migrates from the tattoo site to the body's lymph nodes, says Howard. Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system, a collection of fluid-carrying vessels in the body that filter out disease-causing organisms. Whether the migration of tattoo ink has health consequences or not is still unknown. NCTR is doing further research to answer this and other questions about the safety of tattoo inks.

Tattoo Tips for Consumers

Ink:

  • FDA has not approved any tattoo pigments for injection into the skin. This applies to all tattoo pigments, including those used for ultravioloet (UV) and glow-in-the dark tattoos. Many pigments used in tattoo inks are industrial-grade colors suitable for printers' ink or automobile paint.
  • The use of henna in temporary tattoos has not been approved by FDA. Henna is approved only for use as a hair dye.

Permanence:

  • Consider tattoos permanent. Removal is time-consuming, costly, and doesn't always work. The most common method of tattoo removal is by laser treatment, which delivers short flashes of light at very high intensities to the skin to break down the tattoo ink. FDA allows several types of lasers to be marketed for tattoo removal. Some color inks are harder to remove than others. Many repeat visits every several weeks may be required to remove a tattoo, and it may never be entirely gone.
  • Do not buy or order online do-it-yourself tattoo removal products. These acid-based products are not FDA-approved and can cause bad skin reactions.
  • Consult your health care provider-not a tattoo parlor-if you want a tattoo removed. The American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery can help you find a doctor experienced in tattoo removal.

 

Don't Avoid an MRI:

If you need to have an MRI done, don't avoid it. Inform the radiologist or technician that you have a tattoo so appropriate precautions can be taken.

For more information about topics for your health, visit the FDA Consumer Information Center (www.fda.gov/consumer). 

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