Warning: Two new studies show that getting a tattoo can be hazardous to your health


While infections, allergic reactions and possible ink toxicity are known problems that arise from tattoo procedures, we’ve recently learned even more reasons not to consider a tattoo. These come from two new studies – one by researchers in Sweden and the other conducted at Binghamton University.

Swedish researchers have discovered that getting tattooed can increase the chance of lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. The research team, led by Christel Nielsen of Lund University, released their findings on May 21, 2024, in eClinicalMedicine, a clinical journal published by Britain’s The Lancet.

The study included 11,905 people. A sample of people from age 20 to 60 diagnosed with malignant lymphoma between 2007 and 2017 was taken from the Swedish National Cancer Register. They were matched with a control group of the same age and sex who didn’t have lymphoma. Participants answered a questionnaire about whether or not they had a tattoo.

A 21 percent increased risk of developing lymphoma

“After taking into account other relevant factors, such as smoking and age, we found that the risk of developing lymphoma was 21 percent higher among those who were tattooed. It is important to remember that lymphoma is a rare disease and that our results apply at the group level. The results now need to be verified and investigated further in other studies, and such research is ongoing,” says Nielsen.

Although researchers had thought that size would make a difference – the larger the tattoo the higher the chance of cancer – it didn’t. In fact, the highest risk seemed to be in individuals who had tattoos smaller in size than the palm of one hand.

“We do not yet know why this was the case. One can only speculate that a tattoo, regardless of size, triggers a low-grade inflammation in the body, which in turn can trigger cancer. The picture is thus more complex than we initially thought,” she says.

“We already know that when tattoo ink is injected into the skin, the body interprets this as something foreign that should not be there, and the immune system is activated. A large part of the ink is transported away from the skin to the lymph nodes, where it is deposited.”

Researchers also found that the risk of lymphoma was highest in those who had gotten their tattoo less than two years previously.

Tattoo ink can contain dangerous additives

A second unrelated study, “What’s in My Ink: An Analysis of Commercial Tattoo Ink on the US Market,” was conducted by the lab of John Swierk, assistant professor of chemistry at Binghamton University, State University of New York. And the findings were published in Analytical Chemistry on Feb. 22, 2024.

The researchers analyzed 54 different tattoo inks from nine manufacturers and discovered that 45 of them contained unlisted additives and/or different pigments than those printed on the label. More than half of these included polyethylene glycol, a drug used to treat constipation that can cause adverse side effects among users. Other unlisted additives include an antibiotic used for urinary tract infections. Overall, the study indicates the dangers of improper tattoo ink labeling and is a warning to tattoo artists and those who are considering being inked.

“We’re hoping the manufacturers take this as an opportunity to reevaluate their processes, and that artists and clients take this as an opportunity to push for better labeling and manufacturing,” Swierk said.

U.S. now regulates tattoo ink

Unlike Europe, where the European Chemical Agency oversees tattoo ink and has issued stricter regulations, until recently it was not regulated in the U.S. at all. This changed, however, when The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 (MoCRA) was signed into law on Dec. 29, 2022. Now the FDA is able to regulate tattoo ink for the first time. And that includes overseeing accurate labeling processes.

“The FDA is still figuring out what that is going to look like, and we think this study will influence the discussions around MoCRA,” Swierk said. “This is also the first study to explicitly look at inks sold in the United States and is probably the most comprehensive, because it looks at the pigments, which nominally stay in the skin, and the carrier package, which is what the pigment is suspended in.

This study and the one done in Sweden may provide more reasons to reconsider getting tattooed.

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

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