If You're Considering a Tattoo, Read This

Sometimes the inks are tainted with substances you don't want under your skin.

Man getting a tattoo on his neck.

Tattoos may deposit more than color underneath the skin. Like car paint pigments. And lead.

These are just a couple of the substances that scientists have discovered taint some tattoo inks, raising safety concerns over the widely popular but loosely regulated industry. "Consumers should be aware of the fact that we really don't know what's being injected," warns Linda Katz, director of the Office of Cosmetics and Colors at the Food and Drug Administration. At the moment, the FDA doesn't regulate the inks and pigments used by tattoo artists, even though it's within the agency's authority to do so, and no inks or pigments have been approved for injection. While state and local authorities do oversee the practice, their rules vary, and they're mainly concerned with ensuring sanitation, experts say.

But reports of itching, swelling, rashes, bumps, and other skin reactions have caught FDA scientists' attention. "I'm scarred now," says David Surman, 49, who still suffers the consequences of his $2,000 tattoos two years later; roses on vines that snake up his arms became blisters that itch, bleed, and sting to this day. "I played the guinea pig, more or less." Agency studies are underway to determine whether tattoo inks pose any hidden health risks.

Meantime, Delaware Valley College chemistry Prof. Ronald Petruso has found what he says are potentially carcinogenic substances manufactured solely for car paint in a yellow-orange pigment he tested. And traces of lead turned up in ink samples analyzed by a Northern Arizona University colleague, Jani Ingram. "It just boggles my mind that the federal government has never set regulations for anything like this," Petruso says. Experts believe these materials are being mixed into ink because they endure. "Look at your car—the color is there for 20 years," says Wolfgang Bäumler, assistant professor of experimental dermatology at the University of Regensburg in Germany. His own study of some 40 inks revealed that most contained potentially hazardous chemicals.

Bäumler and Petruso both note that it's still unknown whether the tainting chemicals actually have health consequences. "We have no clinical evidence that these substances in the long run are either safe or not," Bäumlersays. "It could turn out there's nothing to worry about, but to make this statement at the end of the day, we have to follow up with research." Also worrisome: Animal research has shown that pigment in ink doesn't stay put where it's injected but rather roams to the lymph nodes.

Such concerns have prompted the FDA to investigate. Research is aimed at analyzing the chemical makeup of the inks and how they break down in the body; pinpointing what might be causing certain peoples' reactions; finding out where ink goes when it fades following exposure to sunlight or lasers used in removal; and ultimately determining the short- and long-term safety of the pigments used to color inks, according to an agency report out in December dubbed Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe? Regulations could follow, depending on the findings, Katz says.

Some experts remain skeptical that the inks can be harmful. "My gut feeling is that we're probably not waiting for the other shoe to fall," says Hilary Baldwin, an associate professor of dermatology at the State University of New York and an American Academy of Dermatology member. Even if these chemicals are questionable, she says, the amount injected is probably small enough to render harm a nonissue—though allergic reactions to pigments are fairly common. Her message: "If you're going to get a tattoo, be cognizant of all the risks," Baldwin says. But "I don't think they're going to kill you."