Nanoparticles in Tattoos May Cause Cancer

The Toxic Truth About Tattoos |

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gotten a tattoo and after reading this study I am glad I avoided them. If you’ve ever gotten a tattoo, or thought about it, chances are high that you weighed the artistic and social aspects of it far more than the health aspects.

In fact, you may not even be aware that there is a health aspect to receiving a tattoo – other than the inherent risks of infection, allergic reaction or disease transmission if equipment is not properly sterilized.

Research is increasingly showing, however, that there might be health risks involved, especially if your tattoo design contains large areas of black ink, as the ink itself may be toxic.

Can Tattoo Ink Lead to Cancer?

It has been said that “tattoo ink is remarkably nonreactive histologically, despite the frequent use of different pigments of unknown purity and identity by tattoo artists.” 1

However, University of Bradford researchers using an atomic force microscope (AFM) that allows them to examine skin with tattoos at the nano-level have found evidence that suggests otherwise. In a preliminary study (the first to use an AFM to examine tattoos), the researchers found that the tattoo process remodels collagen (your body’s main connective tissue). 2

Further, nanoparticles from tattoo ink were found to exist in both the collagenous network of the skin as well as around blood vessels. This suggests that the ink particles are leaving the surface of your skin and traveling elsewhere in your body, where they could potentially enter organs and other tissues.

This is problematic because tattoo inks are largely unregulated and known to contain cancer-causing compounds. The researchers believe the issue could become a significant public health concern given the rise in tattooing in the last decade, noting:

“We need to do more work, but there is no question that these substances can be toxic. It takes a long time for the multi-step nature of cancer to show its face and I don’t think we should wait to see if there is anything wrong with these ingredients.”

Nanoparticles in Tattoo Ink May be Carcinogenic

Nanoparticles are ultramicroscopic in size, making them able to readily penetrate your skin and travel to underlying blood vessels and your bloodstream. Evidence suggests that some nanoparticles may induce toxic effects in your brain and cause nerve damage, and some may also be carcinogenic.

In 2011, a study in The British Journal of Dermatology revealed that nanoparticles are indeed found in tattoo inks, 3 with black pigments containing the smallest particles (white pigments had the largest particles and colored pigments were in between).

With the exception of the white pigments, the researchers noted that “the vast majority of the tested tattoo inks contained significant amounts” of nanoparticles. “The black pigments were almost pure NPs [nanoparticles], i.e. particles with at least one dimension <100 nm,” they said.

Black-Ink Tattoos May be the Riskiest

The black ink is the color most often linked to potential adverse health effects, although all tattoo inks have toxic potential, including:

  • Potentially carcinogenic 4
  • May cause inflammation and DNA damage 5
  • May contain carcinogenic Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) like benzo(a)pyrene (a Class 1 carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer)

Since black ink may contain a significant amount of nanoparticles, it is likely that such toxins could find easy entrance into your bloodstream, perhaps worsening their effects. Writing in Experimental Dermatology, researchers highlighted the dangerous potential of tattoo inks (particularly black) even beyond nanoparticles: 6

“Black tattoo inks are usually based on soot, are not regulated and may contain hazardous polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Part of PAHs possibly stay lifelong in skin, absorb UV radiation and generate singlet oxygen, which may affect skin integrity.

… Tattooing with black inks entails an injection of substantial amounts of phenol and PAHs into skin. Most of these PAHs are carcinogenic and may additionally generate deleterious singlet oxygen inside the dermis when skin is exposed to UVA (e.g. solar radiation).”

While so far incidences of skin cancer appearing on tattooed skin has been deemed coincidental, 7 it is largely unknown whether the inks may be contributing to cancers, or other health problems, elsewhere in the body. It’s known, for instance, that some tattoo pigment may migrate from your skin into your body’s lymph nodes. 8 According to Dr. Samuel Epstein, a well-respected professional in cancer prevention:

“… the evidence which we’ve accumulated so far, is largely restricted to the fact that they [nanoparticles] get into your bloodstream and reach organs throughout your body. And as far as the brain is concerned, we have actual evidence of entry into the brain and producing toxic effects — lesions, small lesions, toxic effects in the brain.”

Tattoo Inks are Not Regulated in the US, Most are Industrial-Grade Products

Inks and ink colorings (pigments) used for tattoos are technically subject to regulation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as cosmetics and color additives. However, the Agency states that because of other public health priorities and a “previous lack of evidence of safety concerns,” they have not traditionally regulated such products. 9 As such, many dyes used in tattooing are actually produced for industrial uses such as car paint or printers’ ink, for instance.

The Toxic Truth About Tattoos | healthylivinghowto.comTo date there have been no systemic studies to look at the safety of injecting such inks into the body, although the National Center for Toxicological Research is conducting research to determine:

  • The chemical composition of tattoo inks and how they break down in your body
  • The short-term and long-term safety of tattoo inks and pigments
  • How your body responds to the interaction of light with the inks

The Friends of the Earth – a global network of grassroots groups – is among those now calling for proper regulation of tattoo inks amidst the new findings that they may contribute to cancer. 10 In the meantime, it may be wise to “think before you ink,” as the FDA recommends, at least until further research is completed (and remember that permanent makeup is also a form of tattoo).

Are All Nanoparticles Dangerous?

Nanotechnology refers to the study and design of systems at the scale of the atom, or the nanoscale. At the most basic level, the manufacturing is actually the rearranging of individual molecules and atoms into complex “molecular machines.” One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, which is a measure so small it’s absolutely useless as a reference point. To get some idea of just how small these particles are, consider that a human blood cell is 8,000 nanometers, and a human hair is 80,000 nanometers wide.

On one level, nanoparticles are an incredible advancement of technology. For instance, in the supplement industry, nanotechnology can shrink the size of vitamin molecules down to microscopic nanodroplets that are much easier for your body to absorb.  On the other hand, nanoparticles are so small that that they can easily be inhaled or absorbed through your skin, so great care needs to be taken as to what types of particles are being produced on the nano-scale. As written by Sayer Ji, founder of 11

“One of the unintended, adverse consequences of nanotechnology in general is that by making a substance substantially smaller in size than would occur naturally, or though pre-nanotech production processes, the substance may exhibit significantly higher toxicity when in nanoparticle form.

Contrary to older toxicological risk models, less is more: by reducing a particle’s size the technology has now made that substance capable of evading the body’s natural defenses more easily, i.e. passing through pores in the skin or mucous membranes, evading immune and detoxification mechanisms that evolved millions of years before the nanotech era.”

I’m typically a major advocate of technology, but I have mixed feelings about the use of nanotechnology, particularly when it comes to exposing your body to these complex molecules for non-essential purposes like tattoos.  If harnessed properly, however, nanotechnology has the potential to make major strides in conventional medicine and other areas related to your health. Stay tuned for more information as new advances in nanotechnology are made… by the way, this is an area that extends far beyond tattoo ink or even cosmetics. Already, nanotechnology is being harnessed for seemingly endless applications.

This article was brought to you by Dr. Mercola. Founder of the world’s #1 natural health site.

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  1. Kat says

    Back in the early 1970’s I was the strange kid in the family that would stay up late on weekend nights when everyone else had gone to bed and rearrange our LR or clean out the kitchen cabinets. I was always moving things around in our house in the wee hours of the night – ha. When I became a teenager a few years later I wanted a tattoo and I told my step-dad in rebellion that I was going to get one. He told me, “Sure, go ahead and get one, but it will be like hanging a picture on the wall that you can NEVER move”. That comment ruined it for me! Now in my mid 50’s I’ve still never gotten one because I’m still rearranging, updating, etc. With the added health questions raised here, I’m still glad I never got one.

    • says

      I wish that analogy would have worked with my 19 year old son. I think he has three. I explained the risks and then let him make his own decision. After all he is an adult – he reminds me regularly.

    • Jessi says

      Once when I was about 18, I was about ready to walk out the door with my friend to get my labret pierced. Thank goodness, my mom reminded me of my vanity before I left, and told me that it would probably leave a scar if I ever decided to quit wearing it. That was enough to make me change my mind.
      However, I do have two small tattoos. 😉 Neither of them I regret, they’re small and nice and inconspicuous. I am glad that I decided against getting really large, detailed tattoos. I don’t judge those that have them, because I’ve seen some really neat ones and I have lots of great people in my life that have them. But, they’re not for me. I’m glad my mom said that to me that day.

  2. Sarah says

    I’m skeptical about the lack of solid details in this article. What inks did they study specifically? They do vary in quality…… And what proof did they have of nanoparticles in the bloodstream besides saying they “may enter it”? Also, what was the depth of the tattoos in the skin that was studied? A good tattooist uses high quality, medical grade tattoo inks, safe cross-contamination prevention and sterility methods, and inserts the tattoo where it can essentially “float” between the epidermis and the dermis. Based on any of the factual information given in the article (which wasn’t all that much) The likelihood that tattoos pose a viable risk as a cause for cancer is extremely questionable, and while I agree that more research should be done, I seriously doubt that this article, which is clearly biased and written to incite fear, is going to help anyone.

    • says

      Agreed. I think it would be great if there was some kind of organization in the US (or worldwide) to regulate ink and make sure it’s as safe as possible, but a couple of studies does not mean there is any risk. This article is purely sensationalism.

    • Brenda says

      So? If you read the paper , listen to the news, watch TV, have conversations with other adults every day “they” come up with something else that causes cancer! Remember milk then bacon?

  3. lisa says

    It’s a shame to read an article actually expecting really numbers but is full of “may”s and “possibly”s. There are millions of things we put in and on our body that because of lack of research, I could say the same thing about. Do I think it should be researched and actually studied – yes but I’m not going to fall victim to “studies”, if you can even call it that, that have no real scientific data to back it up. If that was the case, I’d live in a plastic bubble, although that could possibly maybe cause cancer too.

    • charles says

      you are correct I think people should be more worried about the stuff you breath from heavy factories and cars and that’s stuff u cant see

      • Sandy says

        We should be “more worried about the stuff we breathe…”? For everything out there that folks have proven WOULD cause cancer, someone had to raise an eyebrow first speculating this fact.
        And second, the above studies are saying the toxins can possibly get into your blood stream!! That’s just as bad, if not worse than “breathing” in a toxic chemical.

        Just saying, my friend.

        • Anna says

          Well, when you breathe in air the oxygen goes into your bloodstream and travels to your cells via your red blood cells. Compromised oxygen can and does cause cancer. The awful, awful air quality in China has already caused one eight-year old girl to get lung cancer.

    • says

      I actually have three. Got my first one at 18, then another in college at 21 and another at 22. If my math is correct that was 21 years ago. They have desperately faded and need to be refreshed but don’t feel the health risks are worth it for me. By the way, this article was written by Dr. Mercola, not me. 😉

      • Melissa says

        Facts are facts and theories are theories and until an article can be produced where a thorough investigation of said theories can be scientifically tested, observed and tested again, this “public service announcement” is just a “rustle the masses” article and nothing else. You may get cancer if you do a lot of things throughout your life and there are percentage possibilities of each risk. I need to see legit numbers and science controlled research first to even spark a remote interest in further personal study. Information is presented to us daily and the wise way would be to take many sources mixed with experience to base even a personal hypothesis. “Understanding is the one-dimensional comprehension of the intellect. It leads to knowledge. Realization is the three-dimensional – simultaneous comprehension of head, heart, and instinct. It comes only from direct experience.” The Peaceful Warrior

  4. Melissa says

    And lastly I am a Tattoo artist who enjoys giving the art as well as receiving the art. There is no legit reason for me to question my practice. procedure, or passion.

  5. Jen says

    In the beginning of the article it states “…the researchers found that the tattoo process remodels collagen (your body’s main connective tissue)…” Collagen is not our body’s main connective tissue, this statement is misleading. It is a defining feature in connective tissue, adding to the structure of it. It makes up a good portion of our extracellular matrix. This article does not clearly explain how the collagen is “remodeled” so that possible carcinogenic matter could enter the bloodstream.

    background on collagen:

    I feel this article is biased, It’s title is a scare tactic, and based on very early research that is not complete enough for myself to have any worries.

  6. Erica says

    I agree with others about the lack of solid information to fill in the inevitable questions this article raises but does not answer.

    Perhaps more beneficial would be to provide information to inks that ARE regulated, pose less serious health risks, etc? Obviously people who enjoy being tattooed will go on being tattooed and those who were on the fence will be more likely swayed away. Unless this is just to create fear I really believe providing alternatives would be a better service for readers.


  7. Liliana Wilson says

    I love my tattoos and I will get more. I have a great deal more concern about the GMOs in our food chain and the way our meat sources are handled than I do tattoo inks. There were way too many “may”, “maybe”, “could” in this article for me to take it seriously. :)

  8. Toni says

    There is vegan ink which is healthy and safe, and tattooing has been around forever. I am more concerned with problems that have hard evidence behind them like GMO foods, pesticides and other bioengineered chemical conpounds the government calls food additives.

  9. S. Nimz says

    The article is way to vague IMO..and although I think Dr.Mercola puts out some interesting and informative topics, I also get tired of the alarmist nature of a lot of it.
    I am not NEAR as worried about the ink from my tattoos as I am about the fluoride and chlorine in my water, the GMOs in my food, the pesticides in the rest of it. Everything *may* cause cancer.
    Sometimes it seems the only super safe way to live is in a bubble (which would probably still emit some sort of toxin if it were going to be sturdy enough to live in) and drink ultra filtered water and one organic free range Brazil nut every day…at some point life has to be lived, you do your best to be healthy, but you don’t let it occupy the entirety of your life..that in and of itself is not healthy.
    Personally, the only harm I can see tattoos causing right now is to my bank account. They have been a healing way to reclaim a body that has been through hell.

  10. says

    This personally does not scare me. I am more concerned with eating properly and exercising and keeping things around the house and my environment as natural/non-toxic as possible than whether or not a tattoo may or may not be toxic to some possibly very small degree. I am all about natural, organic, health, whatever… yes… but I also cannot live in fear. Just do the best that I can… I love tattoos. I have a full sleeve, and a few others in different areas (chest, other arm). I feel like many people (not all) that would be alarmed by this article are the ones out there eating terribly and doing things that are much much more likely to cause cancer and what not. I don’t think we can do everything perfectly. I love body art and I do hope that ink quality and safety can be improved over the years, as it has from the beginning of time. Besides… too late now! I wouldn’t be deterred from getting tattoos in the future. I do love my body and my health, but I also like to live a little!

  11. Earl says

    The title of this article leads one to believe that definitive information is presented. While there may be potential health hazards but this article does not established that premise.

  12. says

    Not surprising that most of the people that responded had tattoos and are not the least bit afraid of any of the ‘possible’ or ‘maybe’ risks associated with them. I find tattoos just plain pathetic. Anyone and everyone these days has them, and i thought it was at one time meant to be considered something edgy. Nope, just about anyone can get inked these days and where i live in Austin, it is nauseatingly prevalent. Is it art? Does it define one? Does is make you all so special? Nope. Just belonging to the tattoo club, just the same as anything else that people have to do to feel they belong, to feel unique. Maybe one day people will wake up and realize that simply BEING is enough and we don’t have to clamor around making sure we are COOL by having our bodies inked with what i am sure will one day be considered a dangerous substance. One more thing that people do that seems ridiculously stupid to me.

    • C says

      No one cares if you think it’s ridiculously stupid, and calling people with tattoos plain and pathetic isn’t going to make any one change their mind about tattoos. It just makes you sound like a bully.


  1. […] I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gotten a tattoo and after reading this study I am glad I avoided them. If you’ve ever gotten a tattoo, or thought about it, chances are high that you weighed the artistic and social aspects of it far more than the health aspects. In fact, you may not even be aware that there is a health aspect to receiving a tattoo – other than the inherent risks of infection, allergic reaction or disease transmission if equipment is not properly sterilized. Research is increasingly showing, however, that there might be health risks involved, especially if your tattoo design contains large areas of black ink, … Click To Keep Reading […]

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