New NYU survey finds adverse physical reactions to tattoos

tattoo-376821_1280While most people who come to our website already have tattoos and want to get them taken off, we’ve just discovered one more reason why you may not want to get a tattoo in the first place.

And that’s long-term medical risks.

In a survey released last week which may be the first of its kind, researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center discovered that as many as 6 percent of New Yorkers who get tattooed suffer some form of tattoo-related rash, severe itching or swelling that lasted longer than four months and in certain cases for years.

The survey involved interviews with about 300 adults in New York’s Central Park in June 2013 and confirms what European researchers have also discovered in monitoring medical complications related to tattoos – that they can cause adverse dermatological reactions.

Survey respondents ranged in age from 18 to 69, with the majority having no more than five tattoos.

“We were rather alarmed at the high rate of reported chronic complications tied to getting a tattoo,” says Marie Leger, MD, PhD, senior study investigator and assistant professor in NYU Langone’s Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology, whose team’s latest findings appeared in the journal Contact Dermatitis online May 27.

Leger cites the lack of regulatory oversight as an underlying weakness in measuring the true scope of the complications tied to tattooing, noting that the chemical composition of colored inks used in the process is poorly understood and not standardized among dye manufacturers.

“It is not yet known if the reactions being observed are due to chemicals in the ink itself or to other chemicals, such as preservatives or brighteners, added to them, or to the chemicals’ breakdown over time,” says Leger. “The lack of a national database or reporting requirements also hinders reliable monitoring.”

“The skin is a highly immune-sensitive organ, and the long-term consequences of repeatedly testing the body’s immune system with injected dyes and colored inks are poorly understood. Some of the reactions appear to be an immune response, yet we do not know who is most likely to have an immune reaction to a tattoo.”

Most long-lasting complications occurred in skin regions injected with the two most common tattoo ink colors, red and black. Almost half (44 percent) of chronic reactions were to red ink, even though only slightly more than a third (36 percent) had tattoos with red ink. One-third of chronic cases involved black ink, while over 90 percent of tattoos encompass black coloring.

Leger has plans for a larger survey to determine which colored inks and possible dye components are most closely tied to adverse reactions. She says her investigation might also reveal other factors that might put people at greater risk of suffering chronic complications.

In the meantime since the details of how these adverse reactions are caused are still unclear, the best thing may be to forego tattoos altogether.

Think before you ink – and maybe you’ll decide it’s not worth it after all.


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