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How safe are tattoo inks?

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By Petteri Talasniemi

Petteri Talasniemi is a toxicologist in the Chemicals Department at the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency (Tukes). He works on various enforcement tasks within chemical products market surveillance.

Tukes enforces the safety and compliance of chemicals with various legal requirements, for example REACH, CLP, POP, RoHS, Biocides, Plant protection products, Cosmetics Regulations. Before joining in market surveillance tasks in Tukes, he has acted as a member of the ECHA`s Member State Committee (MSC) and as an advisor in the Risk Assessment Committee (RAC). 


The popularity of tattooing is increasing. It has been estimated that 16 % of European citizens will have a tattoo by 2021, which involves over 80 million Europeans. The number would probably be much higher if we took into account various cosmetic tattoos such as microblading and permanent make-up.

In autumn 2019 the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency (Tukes) conducted an enforcement project where we examined the safety of tattoo and permanent make-up inks. We had a total of 20 inks – six for make-up and 14 for tattoos – tested for chemical composition. The inks were bought from several Finnish companies, an online store based within the EU and another online store based outside the EU.

Eight of the 20 tested inks contained too high levels of chemicals that may cause skin sensitisation, cancer or be toxic for reproduction: various aromatic amines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), or heavy metals. Tests detected 4-methyl-m-phenylenediamine, benzo[a]pyrene, cadmium, lead and nickel, for example. The substance concentrations exceeded the maximum concentration limits for inks set in the Council of Europe’s recommendation on tattoo and permanent make-up to protect human health. Tukes required the companies to withdraw unsafe tattoo inks from sale.


Know the risks
It is not well known by the public, that many of the substances used in tattoo inks were not originally intended for use in injecting into the skin and their safety has not been studied to a great extent for such a purpose. We know that only some of the substances stay in the location of the tattoo and a large share of them find their way to various other parts of the body. Some of the substances may decompose locally in the skin into unknown substances. Exposure to substances may last for a lifetime.

The level of exposure to chemicals depends on several factors, among which the concentration of the substances in the ink, quantity of inks injected and the number and size of the tattoos. As research data is not sufficient, it is often not possible to set a safe exposure level for hazardous substances in tattoo ink.
The most common tattoo complications are local inflammation, allergic reactions and bacterial infections. Sensitising and irritant substances contained in tattoo inks may cause allergic and other local skin reactions. As an example, nickel is one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis. There is not enough research data available related to the connection between tattoo inks and potential long-term effects such as cancer, which means that there is no certainty about the connection.

Hazardous substances such as lead undoubtedly present a risk to human health, but at the moment we do not know exactly how high the long-term health risk is. Based on safety concerns, new legislation on tattoo and permanent make-up inks is currently being prepared in the EU.
Based on our experience, the chemical compositions of tattoo inks not only vary between different ink brands, but can also vary between batches from the same brand, from the same manufacturer.  To ensure the safety of the ink, the chemical composition and microbiological purity need to be well controlled. During the enforcement project a company informed us that one of the tested permanent make-up inks may be a counterfeit product of the original brand.

The appearance and labelling of the bottle did not raise any alarm for us. This ink contained the highest levels of hazardous PAHs and lead in the tested inks. A fake product always involves a health risk. The ingredients can be anything or it can also be microbiologically contaminated. Counterfeit tattoo inks are a serious problem in the tattooing business.

All duty holders in the supply chain, including tattoo artists in tattooing studios, are responsible for ensuring that the inks used are safe and in accordance with legal requirements. This requires a lot of knowledge and cooperation in the supply chain. It is good to realise that the inks, as well as most other products in the EU market, are not subject to a pre-approval process by the authorities. Testing done by the EU authorities is often spot check type of testing. Consumers must also bear their own responsibility when choosing a suitable tattooist and be aware of the safety risks associated with tattooing.

Consider the following tips before you have a tattoo:

• Check with the tattooist whether the tattoo or permanent make-up tattoo inks to be used have been tested and whether they are safe. You may also check from the EU Safety Gate what inks have been tested and found hazardous by EU authorities.

• Check the measures with which hygiene is ensured during tattooing. Tattooing requires a high standard of hygiene. Unsterile tattoo inks, poor hygiene when handling inks or performing a tattooing operation (e.g. contaminated machine or needle) may expose you to bacterial or fungal infection, or to viral infections through contamination with blood.

• Check whether the tattoo artist has the necessary knowledge and competence to make tattoos. Tattooing performed by a private individual at home may present a risk.

• If your tattoos cause health issues or there are any symptoms that appear unusual, you should contact a health care professional.

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