About 40 percent of Grafixx customers ask about ink before getting a tattoo,said tattoo artist Eric Rhea,and their inquiries usually concern allergic reactions.
“Some people can be allergic to colored ink,and 90 percent of the time it's white or red ink,” Rhea said. The 29-year-old said ink allergies are not common,and he has seen only five among the hundreds of tattoos he's applied in four years.
But allergies should not be consumers' biggest worry. Research shows that common types of tattoo ink contain metals,including lead and mercury. At least one pigment used in a yellow ink contains a carcinogen. Further research is needed,however,to affirm the effects these materials could have on the body when injected into the skin,scientists say.
Ronald Petruso,a biochemistry lecturer at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown,Pa.,is testing the chemical composition of 17 inks from five manufacturers that are accessible to tattoo artists. He found a carcinogenic compound in Magik-Flo brand's “Golden Yellow #16.”
“I don't know what kind of changes it will undergo after it's injected into the dermis,how it's going to be broken down,” Petruso said. “The chemistry of this material is kind of interesting,so I'm not sure how the body's going to handle it,even if it's in a low concentration.”
The manufacturers of Magik-Flo could not be reached for comment.
“We found quite a few different metals that are present. It just depends on the manufacturer and the color,” Ingram said. “The black,not all of them,but quite a few of them have lead,which we found surprising.”
Ingram and her students also found nickel,chromium,copper and very low levels of mercury. Possible health effects of these substances in the skin remain vague.
Rosanne Soloway,a clinical toxicologist for the National Capital Poison Center,said she could not find any research or reports of poisoning caused by tattoos.
“I am not finding any research which shows me that it's had toxic effects,” Soloway said. “It could never be a good idea to inject heavy metals into your skin,under your skin or into your body.”
Westley Wood,president of Unimax Supply Co. in New York,a manufacturer of tattoo supplies,said there “have never been any real problems” with tattoo ink.
“They paint it like it's the Wild West out here,” he said. “Like we're injecting impure substances in people and have no idea what we're doing.”
Westley had Unimax inks analyzed for their chemical makeup after being sued in 2004 by the American Environmental Safety Institute,the same group of California lawyers that sued Hershey Chocolate Co. for toxic metals in its candy in 2002. No victims testified against Unimax,and the case was settled out of court.
Westley said there are heavy metals in Unimax inks,but the amounts are very small. He said the problem is that no one can agree on how to measure the toxicity of tattoo ink.
“Do you judge toxicity based on a person's weight? Do you consider it one application over the course of a lifetime,or does it accumulate every day for the rest of your life?” he said.
The Food and Drug Administration,which oversees the use of color additives in cosmetics,food and drugs,has not traditionally regulated the manufacture of tattoo inks and pigments. The FDA has never approved a color additive for skin injection.
Tattoo industry regulation is the responsibility of local and state governments. Without enforcement by local authorities,even a licensed artist is free to inject whatever he or she deems appropriate into the skin. Most states have some laws in place,but the majority concern cleanliness,licensure or regulating services to minors.
A 2006 study by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 24 percent of Americans ages 18 to 50 have a tattoo. The increased appeal of tattoos and research like Petruso's and Ingram's have prompted the FDA to pursue its own research to determine whether regulation is necessary.
Paul Howard,FDA research chemist,began conducting studies on tattoo ink pigment in 2003. His research will provide data for regulatory scientists worldwide.
Howard's projects include developing a method to test ink toxicity in mice and determining what happens when the pigments are exposed to sunlight,whether the body metabolizes the pigments,whether the inks cause a biological change in the skin or other organs and what happens when the ink is removed by a laser.
“When you have a tattoo and it fades,what happened to it? Where did it go? When you have it laser removed,what happens to it? Where does it go?” Howard said. “We're conducting a systematic investigation into the movement of the pigments in the body.”
Many of Howard's questions remain unanswered,and he could not comment on the results of ongoing research. So far,Howard has found a method for reproducing the human tattooing process on mice that will aid future studies.
“We're developing animal models that are good surrogates for the human,so that you don't have to wait for things to happen in people – we can predict it in mice,” he said.
Westley said he doesn't think the FDA will regulate inks because there has been “no harm” from tattoo ink.
Federal regulation of ink content could make removal easier,Ingram said,because laser treatments break up the ink molecules and the body absorbs them.
“Sometimes people have to go in for multiple treatments,and I think that's partly why,” she said,”because you make assumptions as to what's there and then you have to play around with it at that point.”
James Morel,chief executive officer of Dr. Tattoff,a California cosmetic group whose doctors have performed more than 12,000 laser tattoo removals at three locations since 2004,said metals in the ink can make laser removal impossible.
“If you shine a laser into the metallics,there's a chance that it can bounce off of that,like any reflective surface,which creates a lot of skin damage by dispersing the laser in places where it's not really supposed to be focusing,” he said. “So generally,we won't treat a tattoo that's done with metallic ink.”
Morel said the few patients who visit Dr. Tattoff with complaints about the inks have suffered allergic reactions from its metal and plastic content.
“Even though we do see a lot of patients,we don't see too many with those kind of reactions,” he said. “For the most part,these things are safe,even though they're not regulated.”
Knowing what is in tattoo ink,however,could better prepare people for adverse reactions. For example,Ingram said,those who are allergic to nickel could avoid ink that contained it,and people who go for an MRI would be aware that a tattoo containing metal will heat up and burn the skin.