Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?

Let’s face it, tattoos have gone from subculture to pop culture. Over 40% of Americans aged 18-25 have at least one tattoo. It is hard-pressed to step outside and find someone without ink; making the tattoo industry the sixth fastest-growing retail business in America.

With news closer to home, Singapore hosted its first tattoo show in 2009 and it was touted as the largest tattoo convention ever organized in South East Asia. Since then, tattoo parlours began sprouting islandwide.

This trend has made non-inkers, like me, a rare breed. No longer do we sport a barely-there butterfly tattoo on an ankle or a rebellious arm barb wire tat like Pamela Anderson’s. Today, leg tats and arm sleeves are the norm. In fact, no part of the body is spared. Tattoos across the one’s front chest, neck, spine and even scalp, seem to be popular spots. We only have to look at celebrities like Travis Barker, David Beckham, Sinead O’Connor, Justin Bieber, John Mayer, Rihanna, Angelina Jolie and even America’s sweetheart, Scarlett Johansson.



While tattoos are alluring, sexy and a bold statement of identity, it begs the question: are tattoos safe?

Assuming needles and tattoo equipment are properly sterilized and pose no chance of spreading hepatitis B or C, tuberculosis, mycobacterium, syphilis, malaria, HIV or even leprosy, one major concern is the inks used.

Certain tattoo inks may be plant-based or otherwise considered safe and non-toxic. But there are no long-term studies to show tattoo inks are safe. In fact, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), a world leader in standards implementation, has not approved any tattoo pigments to be injected into skin. Even the use of plant-based henna is approved for hair dyes, not tattoos.

Research chemist Paul Howard, Ph.D., runs a laboratory within FDA’s Arkansas-based National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) where his team investigates the long-term effects of tattoo ink. When the skin is punctured and introduced to tattoo pigmented ink, there are several ways the body will react.

Body cells do naturally ingest and destroy the ink over time. Sunlight can also aid in pigment breakdown and decomposition. Some pigments like yellow tattoo ink are easier for the body to breakdown and fade a lot quicker than other pigments. Pigments also have the ability to migrate from the tattoo site to the body’s lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system, that carries fluid, nutrients and waste material between body tissues and bloodstream. Although there are no long-term studies to show long-term evidence of health risks, this potential cannot be ignore.

We also know that the stronger the tattoo pigments, the more heavy metals it contains. This is to give tattoo its “permanence” in skin. It is no secret that most standard tattoo inks are derived from heavy metal components such as mercury, lead, antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt nickel and arsenic. They may also contain toxic plastics and formaldehyde. These ingredients have proven to cause adverse skin reactions in some people and are well-known carcinogenics; with direct links to cancer and birth defects.

But if you must get a tattoo, there is some good news. While FDA does not regulate tattoo pigments and most ink manufacturers consider their ingredients listing proprietary information and will not release the information you need; thankfully, there are some brands who are transparent with their formulations and make an effort to produce safe and non-toxic inks. According to, these better ink brands include national tattoo supply, eternal tattoo supply, skin candy, dynamic color and kuro sumi.

It is no longer a question of “should I get a tattoo” or “what part of me shall I ink” because it is probably going to happen anyway. Rather, the question to ask is “what materials are being used”.

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