Think before you ink.

A new study suggests almost half of all tattoo inks used in the United States could contain cancer-causing chemicals.

Researchers from State University of New York at Binghamton analyzed 56 popular inks often used by American tattoo artists, uncovering that 23 of them have potentially hazardous azo-compounds.

While azo-compounds are not a cause for concern while chemically intact, bacteria or ultraviolet light can degrade them into another compound that is carcinogenic.

“Very little is actually known about the composition of tattoo inks, so we started analyzing popular brands,” the study’s lead author John Swierk said in a statement after Wednesday’s fall meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

“Surprisingly, no dye shop makes pigment specific for tattoo ink,” Swierk further stated. “Big companies manufacture pigments for everything, such as paint and textiles. These same pigments are used in tattoo inks.”

The news is sure to alarm the more than 100 million Americans who have at least one tattoo.

According to a 2019 Statistica study, 35% of people across the country sport body art, up from 21% in 2012.

Despite their popularity, tattoos are regulated as a cosmetic product in the US, meaning that, in most cases, ingredients do not have to be approved by the FDA prior to use.

In contrast, the European Union instituted a ban on two commonly used green and blue inks in January of this year, after regulators claimed that they contained hazardous chemicals.

Tattoo inks contain two parts — a pigment and a carrier solution.

The pigment could be a molecular compound such as a blue pigment, or a solid compound such as titanium dioxide. The carrier solution, on the other hand, transports the pigment to the middle layer of skin.


The team was specifically interested in analyzing the chemical components of the pigments, and used a variety of techniques —including electron microscopy — to do so.

In addition to uncovering azo-compounds in 23 of the pigments, they also confirmed the presence of other ingredients weren’t always listed on the labels.

In one case, ethanol was not listed, but a chemical analysis confirmed its presence.

Swierk and his team now hope to increase transparency around the ingredients and components in tattoo inks.

Once the research is peer reviewed, they plan to add the results to their website What’s in My Ink?, so that those who are thinking of getting a tattoo can have all the information.

“With these data, we want consumers and artists to make informed decisions and understand how accurate the provided information is,” Swierk declared.


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