id LAB: The Se­cret Chem­istry of Tat­toos

iD magazine - - Contents -

Why get­ting inked is a dec­la­ra­tion of war against the body

About a quar­ter of Amer­i­cans have at least one tattoo. But what does that re­ally mean for the skin? Fact is: The first pin­prick ini­ti­ates a bi­o­log­i­cal process that will keep the body busy for a life­time— and which even doc­tors still don’t com­pletely un­der­stand…

Through­out the room a highly dis­tinc­tive buzzing prevails. Mul­ti­ple 0.3- mm nee­dles are barely pierc­ing Robert C.’s skin—50 times ev­ery sec­ond. They are ar­ranged to form a small but high-strength brush with “hairs” made of high-qual­ity stain­less steel. Ink is held in be­tween nee­dle points. Pulse by pulse the tattoo ma­chine “ham­mers” the liq­uid roughly 2 mm deep into the skin. About an hour and ap­prox­i­mately 150,000 strokes later the tattoo artist’s work is done, but for Robert’s body the work has only just be­gun. And it will con­tinue un­til the end of his life…

Ev­ery square cen­time­ter of the tat­tooed por­tion of Robert’s body has been in­jected with about 1 mg of ink. So a tattoo span­ning about as much sur­face as the cover of a pa­per­back book weighs 0.2 grams, but de­pend­ing on the tech­nique used and skill of the tattoo artist, it can weigh up to nine times as much. The im­mune sys­tem’s first re­ac­tion is large-scale in­flam­ma­tion vis­i­ble as red­ness of the skin around the in­jec­tion sites. It has sud­denly found for­eign sub­stances and wants to get rid of them—as soon as pos­si­ble.


The re­moval of the pig­ments’ wa­ter­sol­u­ble car­rier sub­stance poses no prob­lem: The der­mis, the layer of skin that is the ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion for the thou­sands of ink in­jec­tions, con­tains blood and lymph ves­sels. More dif­fi­cult to deal with are the col­ors them­selves: They con­sist of a very fine pow­der that is vir­tu­ally in­sol­u­ble in wa­ter. The im­mune cells known as macrophages can wrap around and carry away the small­est par­ti­cles, which leads to the image fad­ing over time. “Within 42 days, around 30% of the tattoo pig­ments have al­ready mi­grated to other parts of the body,” ex­plains Peter Laux of Ger­many’s Fed­eral In­sti­tute for Risk As­sess­ment, a gov­ern­ment agency that has in­ves­ti­gated the pos­si­ble health con­se­quences of tattoo ink. But to where in the body could such ma­te­ri­als mi­grate? At less than one ten-thou­sandth of a mil­lime­ter thick, the tini­est of their con­stituents are nanopar­ti­cles. Michael Landthaler, the for­mer head of der­ma­tol­ogy at Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal Re­gens­burg, is con­vinced: “They end up through­out the body—for ex­am­ple, in the liver, brain, and kid­neys.” So what should merely dec­o­rate the skin may well be­gin a sec­ond life within the skull. Pathol­o­gists at the dis­sec­tion ta­ble ob­serve ev­i­dence of the mo­bil­ity of pig­ments: The lymph nodes in the vicin­ity of a tattoo tend to change their color in ac­cor­dance with the dom­i­nant hue, so th­ese or­di­nar­ily white fil­ter sta­tions of the body may end up tinted red, green, or black.

What most peo­ple don’t re­al­ize: Although pig­ments used in tat­toos, which in­clude col­orants used for the ap­pli­ca­tion of per­ma­nent makeup, are con­sid­ered color ad­di­tives by the FDA and so re­quire pre-mar­ket ap­proval un­der the Fed­eral Food, Drug, and Cos­metic Act, the agency ad­mits it hasn’t ex­er­cised reg­u­la­tory au­thor­ity over the color ad­di­tives used in tattoo inks. If a prob­lem is brought to the FDA’S at­ten­tion it will in­ves­ti­gate, but gen­er­ally tat­too­ing is reg­u­lated by lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions.

More than 50 hues and pig­ments are in use, and the list is grow­ing.


And although there are some color ad­di­tives that have been ap­proved for use in cos­met­ics, none of them has been ap­proved for in­jec­tion into the skin. In fact, there is a host of pig­ments that are used in tattoo inks that are not ac­tu­ally ap­proved for con­tact with skin at all, some of which would be more ap­pro­pri­ate in print­ers’ ink or paint for ve­hi­cles. In the­ory, any­one can mix and sell ink—as long as the in­gre­di­ents are listed on the la­bel and no banned sub­stances are used.

A prob­lem with re­gard to test­ing: Since color ad­di­tives are tested for safety in cos­met­ics that are ap­plied to the skin, many of the sub­stances can be ap­proved for such a use— since there’s a pro­tec­tive epi­der­mal bar­rier be­tween them and the in­side of the body. But no one knows what hap­pens when they en­ter the body. “No in­sti­tu­tion has sys­tem­at­i­cally tested the dan­ger­ous­ness of th­ese pig­ments,” re­veals Andreas Luch from the Fed­eral In­sti­tute for Risk As­sess­ment. In the end, tat­toos are a mat­ter of choice. In other words, the fact that inks are not pro­hib­ited doesn’t mean that they’re harm­less sub­stances. Per­haps harm­less inks do ex­ist, but we don’t know ex­actly which ones they are. “The risk lies en­tirely with the con­sumer. It’s like a hu­man ex­per­i­ment,” says Luch.


The num­ber of peo­ple tak­ing part in this ex­per­i­ment is steadily grow­ing: In the U.S. alone, nearly one in three peo­ple un­der age 30 has a tattoo. Tattoo fans see the many prom­i­nent ath­letes and mu­si­cians with tat­toos as proof of the harm­less­ness of the body art. And to date, not a sin­gle case of can­cer has been defini­tively at­trib­uted to tat­toos. “How­ever this comes as no sur­prise: Large health sur­veys have not taken into ac­count whether or not a per­son is tat­tooed,” says med­i­cal re­searcher Peter Laux. “How­ever polls show that about 9% of tat­tooed peo­ple have per­ma­nent health prob­lems—the real fig­ure is likely higher be­cause some peo­ple may be re­luc­tant to ad­mit it.”

The most com­mon com­plaint is al­ler­gies, which some­times do not de­velop un­til months or even years later. An al­lergy may de­velop to any of the clas­sic pig­ment com­pounds: chromium ( green), mer­cury ( red), cad­mium (yel­low), and cobalt ( blue). Although mod­ern ink man­u­fac­tur­ers try to avoid the heavy met­als, th­ese re­main on the mar­ket: Brown color pig­ments are of­ten con­tam­i­nated with nickel—a heavy metal that is con­sid­ered to be the most com­mon cause of con­tact al­ler­gies. But most al­ler­gies are now to red, a color with yet an­other weak­ness—sun­light. “UV rays cleave cer­tain pig­ments,” says Laux. The fad­ing of the image and a slight tin­gling sensation of the skin are among the more harm­less con­se­quences, while most se­ri­ous is the for­ma­tion of cell- dam­ag­ing and even car­cino­genic sub­stances. Ac­cord­ing to sur­veys, about one in five tat­tooed peo­ple ex­hibits health prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with sun­light, which can only be curbed by us­ing a strong sunscreen. But some­times even that does not help: Boils and per­sis­tent in­flam­ma­tion can oc­cur, which in ex­treme cases may re­quire sur­gi­cal re­moval of af­fected skin.

The ma­jor al­ler­gic po­ten­tial is not par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing, since af­ter all the pig­ments do not come from the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal labs or cos­met­ics pro­duc­ers, but rather from in­dus­try. For ex­am­ple, black is de­rived from burned chem­i­cals—so, in prin­ci­ple, the same car­bon black that’s used to dye tires. Col­ored pig­ments have been de­vel­oped for many pur­poses: ve­hi­cle paint, fur­ni­ture, tex­tiles, and ink car­tridges—but th­ese aren’t ap­proved for use in the body. Get­ting “marked for life” isn’t a de­ci­sion to take lightly…


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