The Toxic Truth About Tattoos: Scarring, Inflammation, MRIs, Cancer

Tattoos have been skyrocketing in popularity over the last two to three decades. Americans spend over $1.5 billion every year on tattoos, and it’s estimated that over 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo. They are becoming increasingly popular among young adults as well, with 36% of U.S. citizens between the ages of 18 and 25 having at least one tattoo, and 40% for those aged 26-40.

Although the popularity of tattoos has increased immensely, research into the health effects that it has on our body has not had an equivalent rise in popularity. This is quite concerning, especially considering how many people get tattoos without doing any prior research.

Tattoo Health Risks

Infection

The health risk that most people associate with tattoos is a risk of infection. Going to a tattoo parlor that uses unsterile tattooing utensils and needles can lead of many diseases such as HIV, staph infection (skin infection), and most notably hepatitis C.

According to the CDC: “A few major research studies have not shown Hepatitis C to be spread through licensed, commercial tattooing facilities. However, transmission of Hepatitis C (and other infectious diseases) is possible when poor infection-control practices are used during tattooing or piercing. Body art is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, and unregulated tattooing and piercing are known to occur in prisons and other informal or unregulated settings. Further research is needed to determine if these types of settings and exposures are responsible for Hepatitis C virus transmission.”

These diseases can also spread through contaminated tattoo ink, even if the tattoo artist has followed all of the sterilization procedures.  One study conducted by Dr. Robert Haley of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Dr. Paul Fischer of the Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas found that people with tattoos were nine times more likely to contract hepatitis C compared to those without tattoos.

Study participants consisted of 626 people, with 113 of them having at least one tattoo. Out of the 113 participants with tattoos, 52 of them had gotten their tattoos at commercial parlors. The study found that one-third of these 52 people who had gotten tattoos at parlors were infected with hepatitis C, compared to only 3.5% of participants without tattoos.

Metal Toxicity

Aside from the risk of being tattooed with infected tools or ink, the materials that make up the ink itself may have serious health effects on those who use them.

The colors that make up tattoo ink can come from a variety of different metals. For example, the red color may contain mercury, where as green ink may contain chromium, yellow ink has been found to contain cadmium and blue ink containing cobalt.

Different color pigments come from different material sources, and although there has been work done to improve the safety of injecting these materials under the skin, many tattoo inks still contain colorants that experts find worrisome. These include arsenic, lead, nickel, cobalt and chromium.

Arsenic is a known carcinogen, and is most deadly after long term exposure to it (which is generally the case with tattoos). The first symptoms of long term exposure to arsenic can usually be found in the skin. These symptoms include changes in skin pigmentation, skin lesions and hard patches on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet.

These symptoms generally occur after being exposed to arsenic for at least five years and are considered to be a precursor to skin cancer.

Allergies

Aside from the general toxicity associated with tattooing yourself with metals, many people have also reported having an allergic reaction to them.

People may not notice an allergic reaction after their first tattoo, or their second or their third for that matter. This is because tattoo inks are made with a variety of different materials, and you may not be exposed to the one you are allergic to until after you’ve already gotten some.

Allergic reactions can cause swelling, itching and hives at the site of the tattoo. These reactions can be minor, however they can also become more serious and cause life-threatening allergic reactions. These reactions may only last a few days, or for however long you have the tattoo for. Some people are more prone to scarring, depending on their skin type. The risk is increased if the tattoo artist is not being mindful of your skin type and applies too much pressure, resulting in raised scar tissue where the ink is.

A 2002 study reviewed the effects of MRI’s on people with tattoos or permanent cosmetics. Of the 135 people involved in the study, 2 reported “slight tingling” or “burning” sensations during MR imaging. While the risk of irritation is clearly low, there is a chance that having a tattoo can interfere with necessary medical imaging.

Although many people cover their bodies in tattoos and live long, generally healthy lives, it is still important to understand all of the health risks you may be taking before undergoing any invasive procedure. This is especially important for a trend that is becoming so rapidly popular among young adults.

For more information on possibly harmful body art/ beauty treatments, click here.

The Hearty Soul

The Hearty Soul

The Hearty Soul is one of the world’s largest health information hubs. We connect regular people with cutting-edge research and the insights of medical professionals.
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