Cancer alert over toxic tattoo inks

The Sunday Times 22 September 2013

SCIENTISTS are calling for more research into tattoos amid fears that the toxic inks can permeate into people’s bodies and may increase the risk of cancer.

With an estimated one in five adults now bearing tattoos, British scientists have found evidence that nanoparticles from the ink can get into major organs of the body.

Tattoo ink manufacturers acknowledge that 5% of tattoo studios use inks containing carcinogenic compounds, though they are campaigning to reduce it to zero.

Tattoo studios are subject to laws on hygiene and infection, but critics are concerned at the lack of regulation on the type of inks used, checks on them and potential long-term consequences.

“I was frankly gobsmacked when I discovered there is no regulation whatsoever of these dyes,” said Desmond Tobin, director of Bradford University’s centre for skin sciences. “We need to do more work, but there is no question that these substances can be toxic.”

With Colin Grant, a medical engineer at the university specialising in the use of atomic microscopes, Tobin has shown that collagen, the body’s connective tissue, is permanently damaged by the dyes, and that nanoparticles of tattoo pigment are transferred away from the skin and into the body.

Tobin believes that toxins in the dyes may be entering the bloodstream and accumulating in the spleen or the kidneys, both organs responsible for filtering impurities from the blood.

“It takes a long time for the multiple-step nature of cancer to show its face. I don’t think we should wait 20 years to see if there is anything wrong with these ingredients.”

Many specialist doctors, including Jorgen Serup, professor of dermatology at Copenhagen’s university hospital, are calling for information about tattoos to be recorded on national cancer- patient registries. His government-funded study found cancer-causing chemicals in 13 out of 21 commonly used European tattoo inks.

“Millions of Europeans are now being tattooed with chemical substances of unknown origin,” said Serup, who has organised the first international conference on tattoo and ink pigment damage, which is taking place in Copenhagen in November. “Until now, no one has really looked at the risks, and we need to get proper research going in this field.

“People should be given written information about the inks that are used on them. It may be that, like cigarette smoking, they still choose to take the risk, but they need to be informed.”


Two months ago Public Health England produced a tattooists’ “toolkit”, warning that mercury, chromate and cobalt had been found in inks.

The document acknowledged there was no way of knowing the composition of tattoo inks or whether they were contaminated, but did not propose that anything should be done about it.

A spokesman for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which has clamped down on tanning centres because of the cancer risk from ultraviolet light, said: “Tattoo parlours are outside our remit. Such businesses are currently only regulated locally for hygiene and infection risk.”

Louis Molloy, a Manchester tattooist who has worked on both David and Victoria Beckham, maintains that inks from reputable suppliers are safe, and blamed the problem on the import of pigments from China. “I do acknowledge this is a problem and we do need regulation.”

The Tattoo Ink Manufacturers of Europe group says on its website: “Up to 5% of tattoo studios use inks containing carcinogenic aromatic amines. We want to reduce [the presence of these] to zero.”

The group is campaigning for regulation and legislation to do this, saying EU member states should force producers of tattoo inks to conduct full risk evaluations on their products and to make the results public.

Marcus Henderson, president of the recently created Tattooing and Piercing Industry Union, said: “Ninety per cent of tattooists are blissfully unaware of these problems, and that is what our organisation was set up to address. We need ink manufacturers to be legally responsible for testing what’s in their products so they are safe.”