Fast #Skin Facts 9. Tattoo Ink -Do you know what’s under your skin?

Home/Fast Skin Facts/Fast #Skin Facts 9. Tattoo Ink -Do you know what’s under your skin?

Lances tattooWe live in interesting times when it comes to health, our perception of beauty and the expression of our individuality.

At one end of the scale we have people who are  going all out to avoid any “nasties” that might be in their personal care products. They are willing to pay that little bit extra for organic ingredients that promise to reduce the risk of harmful chemical exposure.

At the other end of the scale, we have an increasing number of people who are willingly injecting chemicals and somewhat unknown substances into their skin, in the name of art and individuality.

Of course everyone has a right to do what is right and individuality is a precious thing. But none the less, I feel that a good decision is one that considers the short and long term outcomes. So before you rush out and join the tattoo trend, here are a few things that you might want to consider.

  • The popularity of tattoos has had a sharp rise over the last 20 years and in 2014, the growth rate of the industry was estimated at 4.7 percent per year.
  • It is estimated that around 1 in 7 Australians between the age of 16 to 64 years, have one or more tattoos.
  • Whilst a huge amount of effort has been put into ensuring the sterility of tattoo equipment and the cleanliness of tattoo parlors in order to avoid hepatitis and infections, there is little regulation about the tattoo ink itself. In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulates drugs, therapeutic supplements and topical products plus anything that touches a mucous membrane (such as toothpaste), but because tattoo ink is not therapeutic it does not come under the watchful eyes of the TGA.

What Ink, What Metals?

Because ink manufacturers produce “proprietary blends” they are not required to reveal their ingredients. Similarly some tattoo artists will produce their own mixtures. Determining exactly what is in tattoo pigment can therefore be difficult.

Researchers have found that normally;

  • yellow tattoo pigment contains cadmium sulphide and some lead;
  • green tattoo pigment contains chromium;
  • blue tattoo pigment contains cobalt;
  • red tattoo pigments (red cinnabar) contains mercury sulphide and iron oxide;
  • black tattoo pigment can contain nickel (but also polyaromatic hydrocarbons).

Effects of Heavy Metals Found in Tattoo Pigment

  • The cadmium found in yellow tattoos can cause persistent localized, non-immunological skin reactions to UVA radiation (sunlight) resulting in the development of weals on the skin;
  • Chromium is known to produce both delayed and immediate (IgE mediated) eczema type, skin reactions. This can result in late onset urticaria  i.e. a rash which produces red weals on the skin and can be intensely itchy. Green pigment has also been linked to sarcoidal granulomas (a mass of granulation tissue due to the presence of a foreign substance) and a delayed granuloma hypersensitivity;
  • The mercury sulphide found in red cinnabar pigment is a common cause of cutaneous allergic and photo (sun related) allergic reactions. These are usually delayed i.e. the reaction is not immediate and can take some time to develop. Red pigment can also contain iron oxide which is also linked to granuloma dermatitis;
  • Nickel is the most allergenic of all heavy metals and can systemically sensitize a person to skin problems such as eczema and dermatitis. It is normally found in small amounts only however;
  • Red is the most likely colour to cause a skin reaction.

When you inject pigment into the skin you are introducing a foreign body. As with any foreign body, the immune system is activated and works to protect the body against it. The result of long term exposure to such a foreign body is unknown.

There are also concerns around naphthalene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The PAH levels in tattoo ink in Australia, have been found to be well above European Guidelines, especially in black tattoo ink. The National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology has found that PAH has the potential to cause DNA damage whilst naphthalene is a possible carcinogenic. Black tattoo ink can also contain phthylate – a product which has been found to disrupt endocrine function particularly impacting upon testosterone levels.

There is no proven link between the development of skin cancers and tattoos.

Healthy Skin Treatments

As a natural health practitioner I am of course a bit pedantic about what goes into my body. I tend to live by the saying “garbage in = garbage out”.

No matter who you are or what you do, I believe that most of us want to live a healthy life and not invite ill health into our life sooner than we have to. So before you go and do anything to the body that becomes a permanent part of you, I encourage you to do your research. Being informed allows you to make the decision that is right for you.

If you have problems with eczema, dermatitis or any other skin condition, Healthy Skin Clinic may be able to help, with testing of heavy metals and other treatment methods.

Contact Vivienne on 8941 2793


Environ Health Perspect. 2005 Sep; 113(9): A590.  PMCID: PMC1280436

Guy, R Metals and the Skin: Topical effects and systemic absorption. 1999. Merkel Dekker, New York

Chemical Substances in Tattoo Ink Survey of chemical substances in consumer products (Kortlægning af kemiske stoffer i forbrugerprodukter) no. 116, 2012

About the Author:

The founder of Healthy Skin Clinic is Nurse, Naturopath and Formulation Chemist, Vivienne Savill. Vivienne is passionate about helping people to optimize their health and promoting radiant, healthy skin, using natural treatments.
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