The Needle and the Damage is Done
Posted On Sep 02, 2016
Getting inked may be all the rage, but can tattoos be downright dangerous? New You gets under the skin of this indelible topic.
By Janette Daher
Hollywood celebrities, reality TV, and the music industry have made tattoos as mainstream and common as an accessory. Tattoos have become a cultural and social phenomenon, representing physical adornment, personal achievement, memories, or milestones. However, the growing number of people getting tattoos, the fact that many people have multiple tattoos, and the recent warnings by the FDA have us questioning the safety and lasting effects.
For the most part, the practice of tattooing is regulated by state and local authorities. These regulations cover licensing of facilities, artists, sanitation, and safety concerns. The inks used in tattooing are regulated by the FDA under the category of cosmetics and color additives, meaning they are not regulated in the same way a medication is scrutinized by the FDA. According to the FDA, they have not placed a serious focus on regulating tattoo inks and their pigment components due to other priorities and a previous lack of evidence regarding safety concerns. In 2015, however, there was a tattoo ink recall by the FDA of a brand of tattoo ink found to contain bacterial and mold contamination, which resulted in infection and hospitalization of those who received tattoos using this ink.
Since tattoo ink is unregulated, there is no standardization regarding its composition, meaning there could be ingredients that are harmful to your body. The National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), an arm of the FDA, is currently conducting research on tattoo inks to determine the safety of pigments used in tattoo inks. This coincides with notable articles published in the past few years questioning the safety of the pigments in tattoo ink. A review published earlier this summer in The Lancet suggests that many of the compounds used in tattoo inks are known toxins when introduced into the body, including the popular colorants titanium, barium, aluminum, mercury, and copper; as well as contaminants such as antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, and nickel. Additionally, University of Bradford researchers confirmed that tattoo ink causes changes to collagen molecules in the skin after injection.
Also, the tiny particles found in tattoo inks, called nanoparticles, are thought to be potentially dangerous. They can migrate to the lymph nodes over time and do not stay in the area in which they were injected, which is cause for concern. According to the British Journal of Dermatology, many black tattoo inks contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which is a carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. Red tattoo ink is also known to contain mercury, a known neurotoxin, which means it can be harmful to your brain and nerves. While much more research is needed, this could prove a more serious concern for those with multiple tattoos, or tattoos covering large areas of their body.
In addition to the emerging concerns about the ink itself, tattooing procedure is fraught with problems including infections, allergic reactions, scarring, and granulomas, which are bumps that your body forms around something it perceives as foreign.
So now what? Forty-five million Americans are currently sporting one or more tattoos. A large percentage of these inked individuals express regret as they become parents, enter new relationships, or are looking for promotions. Unfortunately, there is no tattoo eraser. The gold standard for tattoo removal involves the use of a special laser, known as a q-switch laser that targets the pigment in tattoos and shatters it, causing it to be taken up by cells in the body called macrophages. Multiple sessions are required to remove any tattoo but in general the more colors of ink the more sessions required for removal. Topical or local anesthesia is required for the procedure, which is still uncomfortable. The average cost per session is $500 to $1,000, depending on the size of the tattoo. Based on what we know about fractionating the ink into smaller particles, it seems that tattoo removal guarantees the migration of these pigment particles to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.
DERMAL DUE DILIGENCE
If you are still committed to sinking some ink, perform due diligence by researching the tattoo artist for proper licensure and any history of violations. Question your artist about the materials and methods used for applying the tattoo, including sterilization practices and type of ink used. Also post-tattoo care is critical to reduce the risks of side effects. This includes covering the tattoo with ointment and a bandage while it heals, regular cleansing of the wound, and being on the look-out for any signs of infection or allergic reaction. It takes about two to four weeks for the skin to heal completely following a tattoo application. The same post care and time frame applies when you are removing a tattoo, as well.
Tattoos are a part of mass culture and fashion and are definitely not going away any time soon. Since the jury is still out on the effects of tattooing on the body, you might want to rethink adding that tattoo sleeve to your arm until more information becomes available. Tattoos may seem attractive, fun, or beautiful in the short term, but nothing is more important than your health.